I have a confession to make. As a novice shot, which of us has not been guilty of a small ?lapse of judgement?? In my case, aged 14 and nervously flying solo on peg one, I mistook the keeper?s lumbering pet guineafowl for a soaring pheasant. I?ve been wracked with guilt ever since.
Fortunately, a sympathetic picker-up acted swiftly to hide my shame, for which I am eternally grateful. The unlucky bird vanished into his poacher?s pocket, quiet words were spoken and the matter closed before the rest of the Guns had gathered at the end of the drive. We learn from our mistakes, so it is highly appropriate that Phil Jones, my saviour with the spaniel, also happened to be one of my schoolmasters ? a teacher who helped instil in me not just a formal education, but also a lifelong love of shooting.
Wind on two decades and it is no surprise that another of Phil?s sporting protégés ? and one of my school contemporaries ? is following in his former master?s footsteps, shepherding another generation of shooters as they take their own first shots. But Chris Hattam has taken the process a step further. Where we were reliant upon the benevolence of family and friends for our earliest invitations, thanks to Chris?s boundless enthusiasm, gameshooting is now enshrined as a regular activity at Sedbergh School in Cumbria, where, aside from overseeing the welfare of 800 pheasants, his role also includes the welfare of more than 50 boys in School House, of which he is the housemaster. I don?t know many schools that boast their own shooting syndicate, so I gladly accepted Chris?s invitation to join the line on the last driven day of their season in January.
The school, and its shoot, lie in a landscape of moorland hills, lush pastures and drystone walls and the children are privileged to learn here ? but don?t get the notion that the shoot is funded by cosseting mummies and daddies. Pupils earn the right to take part thanks to work on the shoot throughout the year. Their enthusiasm has ignited interest in members of the local shooting community from whom feed, birds and advice come freely. In return, the pupils put on a day each season for those who give their support. Beating services on all of the shoot days are naturally provided by the pupils with help from their parents ? one of whom commented dryly that ?this is a shoot for the parents to run out of breath while the children show their fitness?.
The hard work doesn?t stop at shoot days. In the summer, pupils regularly get up at 5.30am to work on the shoot before they start the school day ? they do all their own keepering on ground a few miles to the south of the school. Whether it is undertaking feed rounds, pen maintenance, vermin control or preparing shot game, their input is no token gesture. Before it was established two seasons ago, syndicate members had to present the school bursar with a financial plan and draw up their own risk assessment.
?It?s classroom stuff for the real world, and that?s before they learn the obvious safety and etiquette rules of a shoot day,? explained Chris. ?Running a shoot helps develop the children?s confidence too ? we have pupils from all parts of the school involved and they work together across all age groups. That means, for example, that on the shoot every Thursday you could have a year 10 pupil telling the captain of rugby to pop off and check the feeders.?
How does this translate into a shoot day? On a still, cold morning the school minibus drew up at the shoot?s headquarters where snow still lay from earlier in the week. A formerly disused barn, the shoot?s base has been prepared by the pupils to store feed and shoot equipment. As the youngsters ? several joined by their parents ? gathered in front of it, they chattered excitedly. They were then called to order by shoot secretary Max Wilkinson, one of the senior members of the school. ?Pay particular attention as we?ve got lots of Guns out today,? he noted at the end of a flawless brief.
Safety is paramount
One or two members of Sedbergh?s prep school were lucky enough to join the line as several members of the Upper Sixth had exams to sit. With so many youngsters out, Chris firmly reinforced Max?s safety message to all, but was mindful that it was the last formal day of the season. He urged the Guns to get stuck in, adding the proviso, ?but they have to be safe shots?. With that,the party set off up the hill to Pond Drive, with half of the children heading out to the beating line to join up with stops who?d been stomping their feet to keep warm for the past half an hour.
With the wintry landscape dropping away behind us and warm woods in front, it didn?t take long before wild January birds came clattering through the trees where they had been driven by the cold. Staccato pops from 20-bores and the occasional 12 rang out at a distance, indicating that the walking Guns had brought down the first four pheasants and a duck. My own confidence in the Guns was bolstered when a pair of woodcock came flitting out low between the youngsters to my right. No dodgy shots here ? the boys didn?t even flinch.
After the whistle, the team gathered the fallen birds and headed to a belt of fir trees at the summit of a steep bank ? the Black Wood drive. ?This is a blanking exercise really to fill Grove Gill,? explained Chris, ?but when you do see pheasants off here they?re belters.? As expected, we didn?t see many, but there were plenty of pigeon, which Will Westgarth ambitiously tried to drag down, leading to gentle ribbing from his housemaster: ?How far behind that were you, Westy? Stratospherically or astronomically??
Black Wood also held a number of woodcock, including a fine bird shot out on the left of the line by Scott Carnochan, headmaster of Sedbergh?s prep school. Though keen, with such a full-time job he doesn?t get many opportunities to go out. ?I think the best thing for me is to have a year between shoots,? he joked after his virtuoso performance.
Putting their guns away to swap roles, several of the pupils quickly deployed sewelling at the bottom of Grove Gill. Here the anticipation was palpable ? the Guns that had worked hard to blank-in the previous drive were now way below and hoped for birds coming off the top of the wood. They weren?t disappointed. Standing with their fathers, muffled pops from prep school members Josh Hodge and Will Taylor indicated that they were bringing down birds that anyone would be pleased to write up in the gamebook.
The success of Grove Gill spurred the shooters on for the next drive, Tuplot, in the woods above the house around which the shoot is centred. Here, Sophie Ferguson, a member of the Lower Sixth hoping to study psychology at university, shot her first bird on her first shot. ?Must be beginner?s luck,? she beamed.
Suitably sustained after a feeding frenzy of pies, chocolate and soup, the team set off for the four remaining drives. These took place on lower ground. Round Wood showed some towering pheasants ? and this time Will Westgarth managed to find his mark, bringing down some lovely high birds. Middle Pasture couldn?t match the showcase Grove Gill drive, but Clondyke put more in the bag.
George Renwick, shoot captain on the day, seemed disappointed with the performance of the last drive, Shamrock ? a beautiful parkland drive with wetter areas to flush woodcock from. ?Last time we were out we saw over 30 pheasants here,? he said as he braced up the final birds of the day. Max Wilkinson agreed: ?There?s normally more here and woodcock in the boggy bits.? The boys were being hard on themselves ? I suspect the cold had concentrated pheasants in the warmer woods we worked earlier.
With the light drawing in, the team gathered to hear the final tally ? 54 pheasants, six woodcock, two jays and one duck were in the bag. The delight was evident, not just from the pupils but from Chris also, particularly when he quietly worked out the cartridge-to-kills ratio. More experienced Guns would have been justifiably pleased with the same figure ? it had been the Sedbergh Shoot?s most economical performance of the season.
So what were my lasting impressions of the shoot? It was a properly run syndicate on which those involved learn to act responsibly, safely and confidently. The members can translate their classroom skills into a real world environment ? and that sounds like the foundation for a proper education. Running a school shoot may sound like an elitist activity, but Sedbergh?s shoot succeeds and exists solely because of the work put in by the pupils. They do a dedicated job and clearly relish their involvement. If I were the minister for education, I?d put shooting on the curriculum.