Of all the elements that make up a driven game shoot, perhaps the one that is least understood, and is even at times maligned, is the role of the picker-up. Picking up is a specialised job that requires quite a lot from its practitioners to do properly. It requires self-motivation, teamwork, initiative, concentration, observation and the ability to prioritise. A famous angler from the 1950s once wrote, ‘Observation plus thought equals fish’. I think that applies equally to picking-up. ‘Observation plus thought equals game retrieved.’
A good knowledge of the ground being shot is vital. This includes the layout of the drives and their relation to each other, the position of the gun line, the direction the majority of the birds fly, the odd corners where the crafty ones leak out and the spots the wounded birds make for year-on-year. This knowledge comes with experience accumulated over several seasons on a given shoot, but the lack of such knowledge should not deter the newcomer, provided they are willing to look and learn.
Make sure you are prepared
The most important tool in a picker-up’s box is his dog. Number and breed of dogs is a matter of personal choice and circumstances. Obviously having more than one dog will enable you to cover more ground, but it is a common mistake on the part of shoot managers and some keepers to equate numbers of dogs with quality of picking-up. This is not always the case. What is very important is that the dog(s) should be quiet while the drive is in progress. They must be obedient and responsive to whistle and hand signal. They must not fight or be aggressive to other dogs and they must retrieve smartly and deliver neatly. A good picking-up dog needs little direction from his handler, as it will have learned to think for itself. They must be able to deal with all the game they are likely to encounter on any particular shoot, whether pheasant, partridge, grouse, woodcock or duck.
Number and breed of dog are personal choices, but what is important when picking-up is that your dog is up to the task.
Other equipment a picker-up will require is a means of despatching wounded birds. This can be a priest, one of the humane despatchers, or a good walking stick. Do not kill birds by holding them by the neck and swinging them round and round. This is little short of barbaric and moreover looks appalling to anyone watching. A mobile phone is useful for keeping in touch with your fellow pickers-up. Some means of carrying collected game is essential. There are commercial game carriers available or strings can be collected from the game cart if there is one. Finally, water for your dogs. They will drink quite a lot on shoot days, even if the weather is cool, and I never like to see them drink from puddles or water troughs as you can’t be certain what they may contain.
Location, location, location
Where to stand for a drive is a perennial puzzle and will vary from drive to drive, shoot to shoot and keeper to keeper. My view is that you should stand as far back as possible, bearing in mind other drives which may be done on the day and the general lie of the land. A view of the gun line, or at least that part of it which is your particular responsibility is desirable. This is not always possible, especially in woodland, and this is where that local knowledge earns its keep.
While the drive is in progress watch the birds as they go over the gun line if you can, and look to see where downed birds fall. Look especially for wounded birds and those that don’t look ‘right’ in the air. Experience again will get you looking and seeing those birds. Do not forget that partridges can fly on some distance before suddenly falling dead, sometimes as much as half a mile from the gun line. Pheasants too have been known to fly on some way before falling dead. If these are not seen they are lost, with all the economic consequences that entails. This is one very good reason for not standing too close to the gun line. In many cases the further back you are the more you will see.
Mind your manners
Don’t pick-up during the drive if it can be avoided. Dead birds around the gun pegs are just that – dead. They aren’t going anywhere and should be collected by the guns some of whom may have dogs which they wish to work. If a bird hits the ground and gets up, watch it carefully. It may just stagger a few feet and then quietly expire in which case it is no problem, but it might run. Wounded birds mostly run in the direction they were flying before they got into all that trouble, and if that happens to be towards you then let it keep on coming. Watch to see if your dog has seen it and if he has make sure he is absolutely locked onto it. Let the bird come in as close as you can before letting the dog go. That way the bird can be picked with little fuss and without interfering with the drive.
When the drive is over the general principle is to work forwards to the gun line. If you are standing far enough back this will give those guns who have a dog with them time to get a retrieve or two before they have to move off to the next drive. This general principle will depend on a number of factors. What sort of ground are the guns on? Is it open drill, plough or cover crop a foot or more in height? Are they in woodland or on open grass? These factors will determine a picker-up’s course of action on any given drive.
Your dog must be able to deal with any type of game which is likely to be encountered on a shoot.
If the guns are on open ground I would be inclined to leave them to it, while I first go in search of the wounded birds that may have gone down a hedgerow or a small copse they always make for. Once that is done a look along the gun line to make sure nothing has been missed is all that would be required.
If, on the other hand, the guns are standing in a cover crop or a field of rape for example, then the work would be done in reverse. Wounded birds, even hard hit ones, can cover a surprising amount of ground if they are in cover crops, so it is important to get this area swept up first. Work as a team if possible with two or three pickers-up systematically sweeping the area rather than wandering randomly about. When you are sure you have covered the area thoroughly, turn your attention to wounded birds which have flown on to a hedgerow or other parts of the shoot they tend to make for.
Pheasants are creatures of habit
The birds back here, of course, are the more lightly wounded, and in many cases are still capable of running or flying. Nevertheless, efforts must be made to find them. One factor that may assist in some cases is the knowledge that wounded birds do not like to cross open ground. So, while they may run through a wood, when they get to the far edge of it they will stop and take cover. Similarly with rides and tracks.
Pheasants, in particular, seem to fly to the same areas year on year, so it is worth identifying them as that will save a lot of fruitless searching. They are often flown towards “home”, i.e. a release pen. Always check before entering a pen as some keepers do not want pickers-up in them, and in truth it is sometimes wiser not to if there are large numbers of unshot birds in there, which the enthusiastic dogs can pin against the wire and catch. However, wounded birds will frequently over fly the pen and then creep back to it so a hunt along the cover at the rear of the pen is frequently rewarded.
Finally, the dogs are only as good as their handler. If you get them into the right areas they will do well. If not, it matters little how much red there is in the pedigree.