A century ago, a contributor to ‘The Gamekeeper’ wrote despairingly about the “epidemic of shouting on the part of beaters, who entertain an idea that the greater the noise they make, the better they are performing their work.”
He added: “The result of all this shouting is that the game becomes thoroughly terror-stricken and unmanageable. In addition, game in adjacent coverts hears the noise and creeps silently out of hearing.”
I’ll lay my cards on the table and declare that I totally agree with this long-dead keeper. Some beaters make more noise than football fans at a Manchester Derby, whilst on other shoots the keeper runs a ‘silent-line’. My money is definitely on the latter.
First of all it’s so much more civilised. If the Guns are insufficiently alert to spot game heading for their peg without raucous cries of ‘forward’ or ‘over’, they are probably better off at home watching daytime television.
Second, and more importantly, pheasant have better hearing and are far wilier than is often appreciated. Although they appear dim-witted once on the wing (and head straight for the Guns), pheasant will do almost anything to avoid taking to the air. I’ve witnessed pheasant creeping snake-like on their bellies along a plough furrow, sitting tight under cover or hiding in tree holes once they hear the beaters coming. Most often, of course, they just hoof it – running at speeds of up to 10 mph.
Keep quiet and carry on
This was brought home to me in spectacular fashion on a beat and stand shoot in Kent. I was on the beating team for the first drive and was despatched by road to loop around the rear of the estate and act as a backstop well before the beating line arrived. Once quietly in place, I was astonished to see pheasants by the score running out of the back of the drive, alerted by the Guns arriving and slamming car doors some half a mile away. The birds knew the game was on, and they did not want to play.
In fact, beat and stand shoots harbour some of the worst culprits for hollering. I have two theories about this. The first is that the beating team is trying to show the standing Guns that they are actually doing something; the second is that in dense woodland, they want to advertise their whereabouts to walking Guns, so they don’t get shot! Whatever the reason, a quieter and more sober approach would likely put more game in the bag.
One small woodland shoot in Surrey had four drives almost side by side. I gave up trying to tell the shoot captain that all the yelling and clacking during the first drive was likely the reason few birds were showing during the following drives. By the end of drive one, they were out of the wood and well away.
Who’s a clever boy then?
Pheasant, like other species, soon learn to associate certain noises – the closing of car doors, the metallic click of a closing shotgun, loud laughter (never mind cries of ‘Hoi-Hoi-Hoi’) – with danger.
Amazingly, some folk believe pheasant don’t have ears. Skin a pheasant’s head and just behind the eye is the hole that forms the ear. Relative to its head size, a pheasant’s eyes and ears are huge and are well adapted to spotting and hearing the slightest change in their surroundings. In addition, pheasant can sense ground vibrations through the pads on their feet. Put these three detection systems together and you have a highly refined beater spotter.
I recently spoke to Dr Roger Draycott, a research scientist with the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust. He told me about a GWCT research project in which wild pheasant had been fitted with tiny radio tracking devices. These would alert the researchers to a stationary pheasant in thick cover ahead. Even when creeping towards the bird as stealthily as possible, it became clear to the researchers that the pheasant had detected their presence and was moving away – well before they got within 50 metres of it.
He also pointed out that pheasant are very adept at moving through dense cover without themselves making a sound. “They can disappear without you ever knowing they were there,” he said. Like me, Dr Draycott prefers a quiet beating line.
Silence is the key to success
So forget clackers, rattles, banging mess tins or making farmyard guttural noises; the essence of a good beating line is quiet coordination calmly to shepherd the birds to their flushing point – especially later in the season when they are more skittish.
The occasional gentle tap-tapping of sticks is all that should be audible. Birds thus driven will be less agitated and therefore less likely to flush en masse. They can be trickled over the waiting Guns in a steady stream – every keeper’s ambition.
And Guns, when you stop for elevenses, a bit of cake, craic and a laugh, do it well away from the next drive, or you may just find your quarry has tuned in, and moved out!