Let’s be honest. We’re not all blessed by inheritance, judicious marriage or lifelong friendship and therefore gaining use of a large chunk of English county, Welsh March or Scottish moor is not always a simple business. There is a more than passing chance that you will have to avail yourself of someone else’s.
This requires making overtures to the owner, shoot captain or keeper, to ascertain whether the ground is fit for purpose, but more pertinently, fit for your purpose. There is a difference.
Your choice is pressing enough if you are looking for a little light personal hedge thrashing or a few days of driven pheasant. But it becomes more crucial still if you are tempted to take the shooting on behalf of your chums or your roving syndicate, for upon your choice rests reputation, many friendships and possibly your solvency. What might offer a perfect day to a team of double-gunners with commodious pockets looking for 500 of the keeper’s best may not be apt for a motley group of itinerants whose resources will be stretched if the bag tops 150.
The first rule should be to never, ever invest your cash until you have pressed the owner’s flesh, looked the keeper in the eye and walked the course. But assuming that you and your prospective new shoot have been brought together by more than serendipitous happenstance, here are 10 pertinent questions, which will help to flush the cover, so to say.
This comes in two parts; firstly, for how long has the ground been shot over without a break, and how long has the current keeper been in post? The answer to the first will tell you if the ground has been laid or evolved for shooting over a century, or just bulldozed together very recently to add an excellent new dimension to the landowner’s income. The answer to the second will help you work out whether your day will be run correctly by someone who knows the ground and knows the form, or otherwise. Ground that has been shot with longevity and continuity, plus a keeper who is not still trying to get his furniture through his cottage door will engender more confidence.
Not a reference to the feet or ears of your host, but the size of the patch on which your shooting is proposed. While size may not be everything and 1,000 acres of Hampshire’s best under a stewardship scheme can show stunning hedge-hopping partridge alongside deafening birdsong, it is more comforting to discover that your host has access to a couple of thousand. The presence of enough drives to accommodate differing wind directions and enough land to ensure the estate is not raped and pillaged once a week by every team that pitches up is very much a good thing. If there aren’t enough acres, the family may well have shot it out over Christmas and the month of January could be dire.
Do your homework on the new shoot and shooting greatness could be within reach.
It is good to discover at an early juncture whether your day will be one of 85 similar days, all but three let to roving teams, or one of only three in a season of 10 days, of which the remainder are shot by the owner’s family or home syndicate. Average bag size is important, for it immediately sets the tone of the owner’s confidence and helps to manage your expectations. If the new shoot regularly turns in 300-plus bags, from early partridge to late pheasant, then it is a pound to a pinch of cow manure that if minded, it can happily show you a nice 200-bird day.
Because you will have done some homework, you may already have a fair idea of the likely cost per bird or per brace, but either way, a key question is how much precisely are you to be charged for the privilege of taking your pleasures on this new ground. Go into discussion knowing what bag your team would like but be a little flexible. Never lose sight of the fact that it costs the owner as much to run a 150-bird day as a 400-bird day, and listen attentively. Try to negotiate if you feel you must but once a figure has been arrived at, strike the deal. Included in this negotiation will be how you are billed by the new shoot and when, so that you can arrange your cash-flow to accommodate or make a counter offer if your team members pay in differing instalments and times.
How do they handle overage or underage?
It is essential to ascertain the new shoot policy for coming up short or going overboard, and who pays whom for what. Shoots will set parameters for both eventualities but the norm is around plus or minus 10 per cent of the target bag, allied to a typical shot-to-bird ratio. This can vary from 3:1 for lowland partridge to 6:1 or more for very high pheasant. In other words, your happy band may shoot like gods and make a nonsense of the projected bag, in which case the day may be foreshortened. Or, conversely, they may be having a particularly bad day and only lay half the nominated bag on the turf, but discharge vast numbers of cartridges in the process. In either case the new shoot boss may quite properly suggest that it’s more your fault than theirs. Never go into a day on an open-ended basis, unless you are very stupid, or stupidly rich.
How do you travel on shoot day?
This becomes an important part of your database. A good shoot may have a smart gun bus, either trailed or self-propelled, on which the guns and other guests recline in splendour while traversing trappy clay, slippery chalk or deep red Devon mud. Or the owner may suggest that 4x4s are de rigeur. Find out either way, for it ill behoves you and your team to turn up for a day on fearsome 45 degree banks driving a fleet of Porsches to discover that there is no gun bus. It is also sensible to get a feel for how much walking is involved throughout the day, especially if your team contains representatives of the frail, elderly, infirm, unfit or recently rebuilt.
Establishing the nature of the day’s catering arrangements on a new shoot is always useful.
When and how is the catering provided?
It may sound simple, but ask who handles the important issue of victuals, how, when and where. Smart estates have shoot rooms, where irrespective of the weather outside, a roaring fire and a professionally trained, rosy-cheeked lady will serve up croissants, bacon rolls and hot coffee to ease you into your day, and later serve you a sumptuous lunchtime roast repast. Less smart shoots may favour converted cow byres, pig pens, Victorian stables, Dutch barns or even the keeper’s cottage, and a lady from the village will produce a tea urn and a midday casserole of mystery meat. Both can be good, but it helps to know in advance and prepare the team. Dietary peculiarities from your side should be explained and, if the keeper suggests shooting through, he probably has a good reason, so go with him.
What is the ground like?
This should really be dealt with in person and before the shoot day. But an OS map and Google Earth can show you a thing or two, such as whether your team will spend its day peering upwards from the stygian gloom of deep woodland, while standing on slippery leaf mould, attempting to engage the fleeing quarry in the nanosecond in which they reveal themselves. Or whether you will be standing on billiard table flat cultivations, assaulted by a wind that has arrived straight from the Urals. In considering the ground, it is often helpful to explore the ratio of woodland to pasture and cultivation, and what percentage of drives are likely to be nice and open. One gun’s happy snap shooting is another’s blank peg.
Who will host the day?
Until you have suffered a day hosted by a man who clearly doesn’t know the ground and whose grip on client contact relies on the beaming rictus smile, the touch on the arm or worse, the importance of a good host is often underestimated. Trust me, it seems simple, but more than once I have been in a team left stranded on new ground somewhere between the third and the fourth drive, as the so-called host has sailed off into the distance apparently unaware of his important guiding role.
So, ask who is to be your host, ask to meet them on your essential reconnaissance and find out if they have been doing this for years or have recently been parachuted in as a friend of the owner. A day can be broken by a host who is more hail fellow well met and less well-informed guide, but you have to take some things on trust.
It’s important to confirm transport arrangements in advance to avoid confusion on a new shoot.
What support will there be on the day?
Not the RAC or even AA, but after the availability of the quarry, the two most important elements of any day are getting the birds into the air and hoovering up the fallen harvest. It is therefore perfectly acceptable to enquire how many beaters are likely to be abroad in the land and how many pickers-up will be present? Some shoots populate their beating line with 10-15 rural footpads and retired bank managers who are rarely seen or heard, whereas others have 20-30 on parade, whose chorus of pithy comments and descriptions of unlikely practices are an ever-present hum from beyond the horizon. Both can do the job.
There are occasionally too few rampaging spaniels and lolloping labradors, but very rarely too many, and the collective ambition is to recover everything from stone dead in the air, to local runners, to pricked and fallen in the next parish. But it’s important that your team knows what the canine provision will be, so they can either bring their own or leave them at home if they wish.
Will I enjoy my day?
The last question is for you alone and totally subjective. If we assume you have met the owner, been driven around by the keeper, like the lie of the land, can afford the ante and can otherwise fit in, the question that lingers longest is ‘will I, on the balance of probability, enjoy my day’s shooting?’ If you have asked the preceding nine questions and received reasonable answers then chances are that if God smiles with kindly light, you will. If, on the other hand, you are in any doubt, then make your excuses and leave, because if it doesn’t feel right then it probably isn’t right. Deciding is all part of the challenge.