Ian Grindy shows you how to work out if it's your bird or your neighbour's and discusses etiquette on driven shoots
As an invited guest at a driven shoot you are going to be a little nervous. Nobody wants to upset a generous host or do anything that might embarrass them in front of their shooting companions.
I would often stand at the peg with guests who were new to the shoot, usually for a drive or two, to settle them in and make them feel welcome. But after they’d shot a few birds, they always asked the same questions — “Was that okay, it wasn’t his bird, was it?” And then… “I think that might have been too far away, or too low, what do you think?”
The more shooting you do, the more experienced you become. Judging range and which birds to shoot, and which to leave, become second nature after a while. But it does take time. These things are all about having faith in your own ability and judgement, but it’s not an exact science. Remember, good Shots don’t hesitate.
If you are unsure about the bird being too low, too high, or too far away, you will probably “poke” at it anyway — and miss! Worse still, poking at birds could lead to wounding, and that is simply not acceptable, so play it safe, shoot only at what you are comfortable with, and you won’t go far wrong.
“Is it my bird, or is it his?” Just because a dead bird lands in front of your neighbour’s peg doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t have shot it. You might shoot a bird fairly and squarely out in front of your own peg, but if it’s a crossing shot, or going down the line, then there’s nothing you can do about it. The bird will end up falling by your neighbour’s peg, or even beyond it. There’s little wrong in that, so long as it doesn’t hit anybody on the head — shout a warning if you think that’s going to happen.
In a flat landscape, you can see birds coming from a long way away, and the line of flight is easy to determine. You soon know if it’s coming in your direction. Birds driven over steep valleys can be less predictable, and the higher they are, the more difficult it is to be sure about whose bird it is. If the pegs are set fairly close together then the situation becomes even more marginal.
Unsporting and dangerous
The truth is that we all make mistakes and it’s easy to swing on to a bird that might have been better left for somebody else to deal with. I find that people are quite forgiving of this, so long as it doesn’t become a habit. The problems start when people poach their neighbour’s birds — drive after drive — on a regular basis. Common sense and a little self-restraint is what you need to get on with neighbours — and that includes the person on the next peg.
Having said that, I know how nervous people can get about poaching their neighbours’ birds. It might help if you make a mental picture in your mind of a funnel stretching out in front of you. You are standing at the narrow end. Make sure that the mouth of the funnel does not encroach on to your neighbour’s territory, and then shoot any birds that fly in to the mouth of the funnel — these are your birds. The width of the funnel entrance will depend on how close the pegs are set. Close-set pegs narrow the funnel. Wider-set pegs, or if you happen to be standing on the end of the line, open the funnel out a bit. And, last but not least, if you think it’s going to make a better shot for your neighbour, leave it. They’ll probably do the same for you.
Taking the low birds
“That was a bit low. I heard the shot going through the branches,” said my friend Arthur after a Gun’s poorly judged shot, as the beaters neared the end of the wood (to be honest, he was a little more forthright than that!). “Leave it with me, I’ll go out and have a word with him,” I replied. “It’s not the first time he’s done it, Ian.”
Arthur was upset, and with just cause. When I walked out of the wood at the end of the drive, the Gun concerned saw me walking in his direction, and started to apologise before I’d told him what was wrong. He knew what he’d done.
Does it sound familiar? I bet it does. It can happen sometimes, even on the best of shoots. Taking low birds is not just unsporting and embarrassing, it’s downright dangerous, and the sooner you can nip it in the bud, the better.
Hedgerows, woodland, individual trees or other objects are a great reference point for judging the height or range of a bird. Of course there is a huge difference between a 30/40m-high beech tree, and a 10m-high scrub birch, or hawthorn, but that’s exactly the point. These things give perspective and context to everything else in the landscape — including the height or range of a flying gamebird.
No guarantee of success
In a flat, open landscape, it gets a little more complicated as there are not so many trees about in these locations. I worked on flat land for many years and I used to take a great deal of ribbing from fellow keepers about low birds, which wasn’t always fair. I countered that argument by telling them that they didn’t have high birds either, just “low” guns. Their birds were simply flitting from one side of a valley to the other. My birds had to use their wings to get up there. And this is the key to judging height and range on flat land — keep your eye on the bird, and watch it climb. The higher it gets, the smaller it appears, and the time-frame in which you have been watching that bird provides all the information needed to make a balanced judgement about whether to shoot it or not.
Having said that, the good thing about having a tree or hedge close by is that you can step out the distance, and work out exactly how far away you are from things. This may be the best guide for judging range, distance and height, but it’s no guarantee of success. In deciding which bird to shoot, and which to leave, there are other factors to think about.
We should all aspire to shoot the best sporting birds at the optimum range and distance for a clean shot. Optimum range and distance is also determined by ballistics. The right gun, choke, size of shot and load are important when determining what you should, or should not, be shooting at. But the best combination of guns and cartridges that money can buy won’t guarantee that you will hit anything. Naturally gifted game Shots are the exception, not the norm, so accept that you will get better with experience, and remember the golden rule — respect for the bird comes first. Shoot within your limitations.
The other thing to think about is which species it is taboo to shoot on the day. Whether you can or cannot shoot woodcock is often covered in the shoot briefing, but not always. Be careful, and if nobody mentions it then have a word with the host or shoot captain, and make sure. The other no-go area, unless told otherwise, is grey partridge. We still have small numbers of wild grey partridges in my part of the world, but not enough to harvest a surplus.
Anybody can make a mistake, but if you see a group of partridges flying so close together that you can throw a towel over them, be careful. Wild greys usually fly in close formation. They follow the leader
and will swing one way or the other as a covey. Their wild nature also makes them more reactive to the sight of the Guns, and they are far more adept at taking avoiding action than reared redlegs.
The beaters, keeper or shoot host will usually shout a warning if they see a covey of wild greys coming over the line, but it’s also worth keeping your ears open for the distinctive Kuta, kut, kut call of a wild grey in flight — it is so different from that of redlegs. If it looks like wild grey country, find out. Don’t leave it to chance!