Pheasants in the Old Country
American sportsmen have a special fondness for shooting in Ireland and Scotland. But for many, driven pheasants are unfamiliar territory and Chris Batha helps them make the most of their visits.
Every season I host several shooting days in the UK for both British and American clients. As Winston Churchill said: “We are two nations divided by a common language” and nowhere is this more apparent than in the differences in a line of Guns from different sides of the pond. The fundamental difference is in the origin of the shooting traditions of the two countries. American sportsmen historically hunted for the table. Since the earliest days of America, there has been access to public land and the game has been plentiful. Today there are still thousands of acres open to the public and all that is needed to hunt those lands is a state hunting licence and a good dog.
In the British Isles from the time of the arrival of William the Conqueror, hunting has been the sport and domain of the landed gentry. Laws against trespass and poaching have been rigorously enforced throughout the centuries. The introduction of the French fashion of high volume game bird shooting (so-called battue shooting) to Britain in the early 1800s, coincided with meteoric advancements in the design and function of sporting firearms. As a result, by the turn of the century the British sportsman had almost exclusively moved away from shooting over dogs, in favour of driven shooting from butts and pegs.
The first shooting visits by American Guns would certainly have been by invitation only. There were no commercial shoots until after the Second World War. This war was a catalyst to a good many changes in every walk of life, and shooting was not left out.
The recession following the war and the financial impact of the demise of the Empire, meant that private shooting estates had to find additional sources of revenue. At the same time, there was a wider distribution of wealth on both sides of the Atlantic. These two factors created that all-important requirement of any business, supply and demand.
Thus began the leasing of private shoots, the formation of the travelling syndicates and the creation of sporting agencies that looked for clients both home and abroad.
The first-time shooting visitor from America suffers some serious angst. There are so many decisions to be made; where and what to shoot, the best time of year, logistics, licences, clothing, equipment, and the all-important choice of gun. In addition, there is grasping the shoot etiquette and, of course, learning to shoot driven birds.
To the best of my knowledge, there are only two true driven shoots operating in America today. Even the continental or European tower shoots are few and far between. The shot taken in America that is closest to a driven pheasant, is the pass shot at migratory dove or duck, but rarely does that quarry resemble the height or the challenging curl, drift or speed of European driven pheasant.
For the past 15 years I have spent several months a year in America, hosting shooting schools, giving gunfittings and attending various trade shows. I have made many acquaintances, some of which have developed into firm friendships. However, I have never really thought through the cycle of meeting a complete stranger, to some years later guiding him or her on their first driven game shoot in the British Isles.
The decision by Americans to travel to the UK to shoot for the first time, is far more complex than one would think. A large element of that decision is the desire to visit the ‘Old Country', to scratch the itch of curiosity of their family's beginnings. And not surprisingly, the areas of choice for a first visit are nearly always Scotland and Ireland, followed by the request: “Is it possible to have a day shooting over dogs?”
I believe this request finds its origins in the comfort zone of a style of shooting that they know and understand, combined with the opportunity to do this in the ‘Old Country'. So most shoots for Americans are of four to five days' duration, consisting of two or three days of driven shooting, a walked-up day and a day of rest and recuperation, usually spent sightseeing in the local area.
Once the country, format and duration are decided upon, the real work begins. For the first-time visitors, wherever possible, I try to organise a shooting school for them, either in the USA or before their shoot in the UK. At the school, I explain the idiosyncrasies of driven shooting, which, with its strange names of the backroom staff that make it all happen, could be akin to explaining cricket. I begin with describing the setting, format and the role of the host or shoot captain, the beaters, pickers-up, and loaders or stuffers (whose title always raises an eyebrow). I then explain the purpose of tweeds - the original camouflage and ventile (somewhat) waterproof fabric, followed by a description of the benefits of a pair of plus-four breeks, that roll well over your Wellingtons and stop water ingress on the inevitable wet day.
Then I go into the etiquette of choosing pegs and the mysteries of the moving up two or three pegs each drive. Over the years I have seen so much confusion caused by a gun forgetting his original number that I now instruct them to write it down and keep it safe.
Advice on the right gun for the job and how to travel with it safely in and out of the UK, is an area of particular anxiety to first-time shooters. I recommend the CPSA or BASC to supply both insurance and the temporary visitor's licence, both do an excellent job.
Most important of all the shooting instruction they are given is the emphasis on safety. I go into great detail regarding the dangers created by the backstage cast of beaters and pickers-up. The warning is driven home daily that if a low bird is attempted there could be a terrible, if not fatal, accident! I emphasise the need for lots of sky around every bird before a shot is taken. In addition, I describe the dangers of hills and slopes, where the bird can appear to be in clear sky, but because of the angle created by the hill, the shot can still be dangerous.
Then I further explain the characteristics and flight patterns of the quarry we are going to be shooting and the best way to tackle them. Emphasis is as always on the importance of the fundamentals of straight shooting, footwork, posture, gunfit, gun-mount and technique. Also, I explain that unlike walked-up quarry, driven birds have two distinct types of flight or presentations, requiring two different techniques and to complicate matters further, two different styles for each.
The following covers the gist of my ‘Instructions to First Time Shooters Facing Driven Birds.'
The ultimate driven bird is the high pheasant. Establishing the line and speed of flight is the most necessary core skill. Then footwork: stepping into the line, or if the bird is flying straight, the normal stance, where facing 45 degrees to the line of flight, is correct.
However, if the bird is curling to the left, then you will be required to close or turn your stance to the left. If curling to the right, then open it or turn to the right. The correct stance is essential, allowing you to keep your muzzles accurately on the bird's line of flight and ensuring good, smooth rotation of the body, keeping you from checking your swing, dropping your shoulder and rolling or coming off the line (windscreen wiping).
There is a great debate regarding the best technique for shooting driven pheasant. Should it be Stanbury's technique: stepping into the line of the target and maintaining the weight on the front foot throughout the shot? Or should it be the Churchill Method: by lifting the heel opposite the target flight line, and transferring weight from one foot to the other?
The differences between the two are easily explained. I begin by having the client shoot a straight driven target, and letting them experiment by shooting it with both techniques: Stanbury-like, maintaining the weight on the front foot, followed by the Churchill trick of transferring the weight onto the back foot.
The arguments for and against the Stanbury and Churchill styles have raged for over half a century. A point to note is that Stanbury was a tall, bean-pole of a man, whereas Churchill was short and squat. I personally think that their personal physical characteristics had a great bearing on their individual approach to the same problem. As for which method is the best, I leave that for the client to discover themselves.
The hardest lesson to impart is the need to move one's feet. “When shooting driven birds you must move your feet!” This statement most often repeated but always worth the reading: “The deadliest move a wing shooter can make is with his feet.”
There is no greater satisfaction than seeing a line of American Guns who you have worked with over the years at their pegs, spaced across an Irish meadow facing a steep bluff, as squadrons of towering pheasants rise high over a coppice of Scots pine and begin their curling, drifting passage over the waiting line. The cacophony of shotgun blasts, that time lag of speed of light and sound before the bird folds and falls, witnessing the fruition of our combined efforts to see such majestic arch-angels brought down with marksmanship to admire and envy.