What's wrong with driven shooting?
James Darvill feels it's time for a moan about the state of driven shooting in the UK.
Driven reared pheasant and partridge shooting is now the most common form of game shooting practised in Britain. Over the last 50 years it has changed out of all recognition, with the massive increase in commercialisation being the prime driver behind this. Not all this change has been for the better, and I list below some of my most common gripes.
Most shoots have too many Guns
This has one of several possible results: firstly, that usually the pegs are too close together, resulting in sometimes three or even four Guns all shooting at the same bird. Looking at pictures in the shooting press, you can see this happening time and again, with the Guns clearly no more than 20 yards apart. The higher the birds, the farther apart the Guns should be, but often the opposite is the case.
Sir Joseph Nickerson was a devotee of a short gunline, reasoning: “The optimum distance between Guns for shooting normal partridges and pheasants is 45 yards but, when the birds are really high, the Guns should be 60 yards apart. Pegs should never be closer than 45 yards.”
With the now usual eight Guns (why?), that would require a Gun line over 300 yards long for ‘normal' birds, and 420 yards for high ones, and there are few drives nowadays which can provide shooting along the line over a drive that wide. In the old days of shooting large areas of woodland, with hundreds of beaters and thousands of birds, it was possible, but with cover crops nowadays there is often a very narrow line taken by the majority of the flushed birds.
To cater for this, there are two solutions: either to accept that several Guns may be out of the shooting on every drive – surely wrong, but too common – or to have back Guns. The use of back Guns on a drive is an admission that there are too many Guns, or the keeper isn't skilled enough to vary the flushing point during the drive. On some shoots, there are back Guns on every drive, which is ridiculous.
If back Guns have to be used, they must be far enough behind the front line to allow those in front to have first crack. In practice, this means at least fifty yards back. With some Guns shooting high birds as crossers, it means that their second shot is often taken at a bird some distance behind them. On many valley drives, it is simply impossible for the back Guns to be positioned that far behind, resulting in too many shared birds.
If I shoot at a bird, and it falls dead, I want to know I killed it. Where's the satisfaction in a great bird falling dead, if four people have fired at it? Why not have fewer Guns, wider apart? Yes, it then costs more, but you should get more shooting, and less frustration.
Lack of respect for the quarry
The development of shooting in the past 20 years has led to higher and higher birds. In the 1970s, when David Hitchings was pioneering high pheasant shooting at Gurston Down, a true archangel was a 50 yard pheasant. I've been to shoots where such birds now go unsaluted, and many of the birds presented are 60 or 70 yards up, and some even higher. It is rare to see any such bird be left, but, sadly, common to see a flinching bird as the result. Enough has been written on the ethics of ‘how high is too high?', but to little effect, it seems. We are expected to leave birds that are too low to be sporting – it's time the ridiculously high birds were left alone, too.
Shooting as a sport is difficult enough to defend, as some wounding is always going to happen, but when wounding, rather than clean killing is the norm, then something is wrong.
The running of the day
Although we all know when we are going on a shoot where the majority of the birds are reared, deep down we still like to pretend they are wild. To my mind, there is little worse than watching pheasants being blanked into a drive. If it's got to be done, it should be done with the Guns out of sight. It's worse still when you see the birds flying – rather than walking – into the cover crop, as every keeper worth his salt should know that a pheasant needs a long recovery time after any length of flight, so this blanking-in is completely counterproductive, unless it's done an hour before the drive takes place. You can usually identify these blanked-in birds, coming out low, slow and knackered towards the end of the drive: it's pointless!
Another beef I have is with the use of radios. While it may be very useful for the keeper or shoot manager to keep in touch with the beaters, I do not want to hear a running commentary all through the drive, especially from someone standing right beside me. If they've got to be used, use them surreptitiously – and quietly.
The role of pickers-up
The primary role of the picking-up team should be to retrieve and despatch wounded birds, as quickly as possible. To do this, they should be well back behind the line. Ideally, wounded birds should hit the ground between them and the Gun line, where they can easily be gathered. Too often, they are too close and too interested in picking dead birds during the drive.
If there are Guns in the line with dogs themselves, then they should be allowed to pick the birds they have shot, lying near their pegs. There is little more irritating to a dog-owning Gun than turning at the end of a drive, to see that there are no birds left to pick: I once shot 18 birds on a drive, which my dog watched being picked-up during the course of it. More recently, when my dog was injured and not with me, I spent 10 minutes with a picker-up looking for a partridge I would have sworn was dead, only then to be told that a dog had come from the other end of the line during the drive and retrieved it. It shouldn't be too difficult for the keeper or the shoot organiser to brief the picking-up team accordingly, but, too often, it doesn't happen.
The counter-argument to this, sadly, is that there is a significant proportion of Guns who aren't interested in picking up any of the birds they have killed, even those right by their peg. I've often walked back to the transport at the end of a drive, with my dog sweeping along the line, and been totally weighed down by the birds he has retrieved for me. If it's a posh enough shoot that there is a game wagon which comes down the line afterwards, then birds should be left neatly in a row by the peg, not just piled in a heap.
It helps if the shoot owner is a dog fan and likes picking-up as then there is generally time to do it. Too often the horn goes at the end of the drive and Guns are hurried back to the vehicles to get on to the next drive. For me, it's an important part of the day and nothing is more satisfying than knowing that you've accounted for everything you killed.
The end result
The result of a day's shooting is what's in the bag. When I started shooting, at the end of the day the bag was always laid out in front of the Guns, to be counted and admired. On the local aristo's shoot, there was an A-frame that the birds were hung from.
I can't remember the last time I saw the bag displayed on a British shoot. On the continent, the slain are respectfully displayed, and applauded for the sport they have given the Guns. In Eastern Europe, a tableau of birds is often displayed with braziers blazing, and hunting horns sounding. Often in Britain, the Guns are off home before the pickers-up have finally come in, and aren't bothered about the total. We seem to have lost that respect for the quarry.
Eat what's shot
I shot quite a lot last season, but there was only one shoot I went to where we ate game. I forget how many bland chicken dishes, or boring beef stews I ate, when pheasant, venison or game pie could just as easily have been served.
It's a fact that there is too much game shot for the UK market to handle. Even with the increased publicity and sale of game to the wider public, we should be eating it at every opportunity, no excuses.
Guns should always take birds home, too. Some shoots now present them oven-ready, which is an easier option for most people, but often the birds have not been hung at all so their flesh is very ‘squeaky' when cooked. I'd rather have them in the feather, so I can hang them long enough for their flesh to relax, and develop flavour.