So there I was in a deep Lancashire valley. I had drawn No4 peg, and found my spot on nice flat ground on the valley floor. Much easier for footwork than those on each side who were some way up the bank on either end of the line. High above me, the beaters converged on a flushing point of bracken and scrub, and several pheasants came swinging out, before turning one way or the other along the valley to my neighbours.
By the end of the day, I had enjoyed some fine shooting at pheasants and the odd woodcock on that wonderful shoot, but only one bird came far enough forward to count as mine on the first drive. I watched as it turned back along the valley, but did not lift my gun ? it was simply too high. At the end of the drive, my old friend Ian, who had shown me to my peg, came back from his picking-up position and said, ?What was up with that cock, too good for you?? I replied that it was, and then fired a question back at him: ?You are kindly taking me to try for a few pinkfeet out on the moss tomorrow. Would you shoot at a skein of geese that high??
?You are quite right,? he replied, ?and I?d tell you off if you did.? So, there we have it, even a wildfowler who knows his limitations was prepared to tease me for not shooting at what we both knew was an out-of-range pheasant.
Shooting high birds
This issue of high birds has been a topic of conversation in many places over the past six months. Is it me, or is the tide turning a bit over those high birds? Compared with a few years ago, I hear much more criticism of the shoots where they brag about the numbers of cartridges it takes even the best Shots to kill each bird. Only last week I was on a shoot where the boss insists on doing his best drives, and sending birds over the boundary as a consequence; but he still expects to see his guests killing birds cleanly.
So, what can a shotgun do? I think there are some folk out there who fail tounderstand the fundamental ballistic truth. No matter how tight the choke, how big the shot, how much of it you throw, and how long your barrels, there comes a moment when the gun will no longer kill reliably.
Being an occasional punt-gunner, I can also vouch for the fact that even 350g of BB will not kill a wigeon at 120 metres. To be reasonably sure of our sitting duck, we aim to stalk within 70 metres, so what chance has a tenth of the load through a 12-bore at the same distance? Now, it is fair to say that our big gun has no choke, and a tight pattern in skilled hands will do more than an ordinary game gun, but it still has its limitations. Modern guns and cartridges are better in some respects, but it is still true that the basic ballistics have remained the same for a century ? and so has the vulnerability of the quarry.
Coming from a wildfowling background means that I have spent much of my time hoping that something will fly close enough, but it has also given me a strong incentive to judge range well. One thing that my father taught me early on, was that hearing the pellets strike is bad news. The patter of pellet strike can only travel at the speed of sound; meanwhile the bang rumbles on. If enough time elapses for you to hear the one after the other, it has come back from some distance away.
However, we should not lose sight of the fact that the pellets have still got plenty of energy to cause harm. This came home to me one sunny morning when I tried for a couple of high wigeon. After hearing the pellets strike, I saw two red blood streaks develop against the white breast of the departing bird. Game Shots rarely get such a visible sign of the damage that they are doing.
Know your range
There is not a sudden cut-off point when your shotgun becomes harmless. What happens as we extend range, is that we move through a wide zone where lucky pellet strikes will bring birds down sometimes. However, for every screamer that we pull off beyond the reliable limit, there will be others that you have only wounded, and if you are a good shot that may well be most of what you shoot at.
So, what do we keepers do to address this? It is now some time since I first heard a keeper say: ?Please do not feel embarrassed to pass up a bird if you think it is out of range? as part of the opening address. I wish I heard those words more often.