The annual armed shindig in this part of the Shires revolves around lobsters. ?You cruel buggers, isn?t anything safe?? lamented a lentil-worshipper, recently arrived from Islington and sporting her left-wing credentials from the comfort of a six-bedroom Georgian rectory.
We explained, patiently, that the Lobster Shoot does not involve close-range termination of Crustacea but the consumption of same after the claybusting. ?Yes, but I still don?t approve ? just think how those poor lobsters died,? bleated our right-on friend, forgetting that country people don?t actually seek the approval of townies whose attitude to animal rights is as consistent as British weather.
The shoot is just one of the long and enjoyable summer campaign of charity shoots that many gameshooters now attend to keep their eye in and raise a bob or two for worthwhile causes. And they?re a real exposer of marksmanship ? or lack of it. Locals who have something of a reputation as professors with the Purdeys can look awfully silly missing a string of easy targets on the Partridge stand that?s just been straighted by the parish log-supplier with his battered Miroku.
They salve their egos by drawling,?Of course, not the same as game, you know,? and they have a point. I have discovered a brilliant new way of making sure I blow a fat hole in my scorecard: I over-lead on the High Driven Pheasant targets. I used to be okay on those, but over the past two years found myself giving them a quick flick with the left hand. On the real accelerating thing, it works beautifully, but I cannot override the ?auto response? when I see a high clay that?s pretty much stalled. It?s high, so I give it a bit of welly with the left hand and off it sails undisturbed. To remedy this, I?ve booked myself a session with a local shooting school with a 145ft tower. I have a horrid feeling, though, that while this will certainly improve my scores on pitch?n?chalk stuff, it might not prove the medicine for those January cocks.
And that?s partly why many game Shots resist donning the mesh?n?nylon skeet vest and stick to their plus-fours. Partly, but not entirely. Too many of the covert boys think that they?ll be ridiculed if they turn in a weedy, tweedy score and they just hate being watched.
They should relax. In reality, no one gives a damn about another bloke?s scores ? they?re too busy concentrating on the clays? flightpath prior to their own turn. And game Shots should also realise that a badge-emblazoned claybusting kit does not denote shooting excellence, but merely the ability to persuade one?s partner to get busy with needle and thread.
It?s also useful to appreciate that the man behind you in the queue might look nothing like your normal shooting mates, but they?re nonetheless brothers-in-arms.
Ask them for advice, and they?re usually more than forthcoming. In recent weeks, for example, I?ve learned to deal with two specialist claybusting targets. The first was the looper, those brutish, crossing birds that describe a rainbow about 30 yards in front of you. Now, the only feathered bird that flies like that would be a green woodpecker, inverted, and so every time that target was on the menu my scorecard was filled with duck eggs.
?You want to shoot ?im like a crosser,? murmured a bearded old-stager behind me. ?But start your swing two foot below ?im, and keep your barrels parallel to the clay?s path.? And, amazingly, it worked.
The second tip came from Steve Walton, the current Commonwealth gold medallist in Double Trap and a British Down-the-Line Champion, who does stints instructing at the Oxford Gun Company. I?d missed a string of Teal targets when Steve took me aside and said, ?Just shoot at the top edge of the clay.? After that, I smoked the lot. And Steve is just one of many superstars who?ve been generous with their advice. Multiple world champion George Digweed once showed me how to take high driven birds as crossers (sorry, George, I?m still hopeless at that) and another holder of the title fixed my problem with Bolting Rabbits (?You?re swinging too fast on the near ones. Shoot just behind them?).
In fact, the worlds of gameshooting and competitive clays are so interlinked that it?s practically impossible not to bump into world-class performers such as Richard Faulds or Charlotte Kerwood, both of whom will be representing Team GB at the London Olympics. To put that into context, it?s akin to mooching along to your local tennis club, only to find Nadal or Djokovic playing on the same court and giving you a few tips over the lemon barley water. And if you want some formal lessons, then you can book one with a stellar cast of instructors that include Digweed, Faulds, or Ian Coley, the British team coach, for about the same price as 500 cartridges.
Sadly, I have come to the conclusion that spending a smallish fortune won?t make me anything other than a ?handy? Shot, and that?s only when the wind?s in the nor?-nor?-east and Jupiter is rising in Sagittarius. I simply don?t possess the natural ability or the peregrine-quality eyesight that invariably distinguish the truly great Shots.
Yet we old dogs are still capable of learning new tricks, and if it brings added enjoyment to our shooting, we?re mad not to learn them.
A trophy to prove it
Actual proof of the possible is now residing on the family?s ?boasting corner?, a small section of the welshdresser covered mostly in the junior BZs? showjumping and cross-country trophies. There, next to the silver, is a truly gopping plastic gold thing hauled off by me in triumph at a nailbiting shoot-off on the Bunny stand at a recent clay shoot.
The kids think it?s hilarious, but for me it represents one type of target well and truly sorted, in a reasonably useless sort of way: bolting rabbits and indeed all ground game are boringly off-limits at every game shoot I?ve attended for the past 20 years. I really yearn for a similar piece of plastic bling marking the mastery of High Pheasants and Driven Grouse, resulting in skills that can be applied to the feathered versions. So, it?s off to see matey with the high tower, followed by a trip to the West London Shooting School?s grouse layout at Great Tew, Oxfordshire.
After that, no driven gamebird will be safe, though I do wonder if my hosts might ever invite me again, thanks to one trait I?ve picked up from my claybusting chums. I now (don?t tell anyone) yell ?PUULLL!? quite like a professional. And I have a nasty feeling I won?t be able to curb the habit when I?m next on the moors?