A doubt that blights a memory of a day is bad but some doubts can prove positive, says Ian Morton

I came off a dawn flight clad top to toe in camouflage, including a baseball cap given to me in the US, with my over-and-under magnum-chambered 12-bore and fowling cartridges in the boot. In the estate yard I joined the beaters for the day’s pheasant shoot, but when the host discovered that a guest Gun had suddenly had to call off, and knowing that I had come from the nearby marsh, he invited me to join the line.

Inappropriately dressed

If the official guests thought I had merely arrived inappropriately dressed and equipped, they were too polite to say so, but one in particular registered that askance look whereby eyes and brows say more than words. My apologies were waved aside, one Gun furnished me with a box of Eley Hi-Flyer No.6 lead shot, and I had the satisfaction of performing consistently in the hot spot on the best drive of the day.

To be on the safe side, carry a change of clothing, should a dawn flight be followed by a day on the Gun line.

To be on the safe side, carry a change of clothing, should a dawn flight be followed by a day on the Gun line.

But it is the awareness of being an incorrectly dressed interloper that sticks in the memory. On similar potential double outings, I now carry a change of kit plus a classic side-by-side with appropriate cartridges, just in case.

For there is nothing quite like the discomfort of thinking you are not believed. You take a bird down, you can’t find it, nor can the picker-up and his dog, and you detect an expression that says: “I think you’re having me on and I’m getting fed up, so admit you missed the damn thing and let’s get on with the day.”

But an unpicked bird is not acceptable so you persist. In a wood clearing on a Suffolk drive I had a brace of woodcock with consecutive and near-identical shots — sadly not quite the right-and-left I need for the Shooting Times Woodcock Club and no witnesses were close enough anyway. The birds appeared to fall in virtually the same place. I found one immediately, but the other seemed to have evaporated.

That look

I was joined by a dour picker-up and his dog, but still found nothing. Several times he asked: “Are you sure?” Then he moved on, taking my first bird with him, but with that look. After further searching I discovered the second bird almost on the very spot where I had picked the first, its camouflage plumage having previously defeated us. The dog was clearly one of those that are useless with woodcock. At the end of the session, I had the satisfaction of waggling the evidence in the picker-up’s direction and getting a brief nod of acknowledgement, though the po-face didn’t soften. Perhaps, out of sight, he gave his dog a kick.

A good dog can make the day

In a similar vein, there was that over-and-under double at dawn teal crossing  the Severn bank some 30 yards away, instinctive shooting at the start of the season that I shall never better. I found the first duck where I had seen both fall. The second was nowhere. Then two fellow fowlers with spaniels came along, saying that they had put up the birds that had passed me. A lengthy quartering by all of us still produced nothing and they moved on, exchanging that familiar look. Then farther on, one called back and returned carrying the second little duck, located by his dog a good 250 yards from where it had come down. After palpable disbelief there is nothing like a spot of vindication — and a good dog — to bolster the morale and salvage the reputation. Naturally I praised his dog lavishly.

Picker up and dog

Though you know you’ve hit a bird, if the picker-up and his dog cannot find it, you will get “the look”

These days I always have a dog with me, and he has proved how a good one can make the day. A black Labrador of Drakeshead provenance, he has pulled from deep cover pheasants that other dogs have failed to extract. Sometimes he is requested for that very purpose. One such bird, an elusive and determined flapper, he delivered to the appropriate Gun, who wrung its neck so forcefully that the head was almost detached.

Peg dogs were never in the good books of the grumpy keeper on that shoot, and perversely he would let his own dogs charge around unchecked, mopping up birds before the end of the drive. On this day I felt obliged to ask my fellow Gun to inform misery guts that it was he who had damaged the bird he was putting on the cart, and not my dog. This he did, in my hearing, but the keeper’s attitude did not ease then, or ever, and there was no hint that he had believed what he had been told. He and his undisciplined dogs may be history, but it rankles. Why do we remember these irritating and essentially unimportant moments?

A lesson in etiquette

Sometimes disbelief may provide an opportunity to teach a necessary lesson in etiquette. In his treatise Letters to Young Shooters, the eminent late Victorian Gun and chronicler Sir Ralph Payne-Gallwey related how one of the best Shots in the country had invited several young and enthusiastic guests to his grouse moor. Vouching for what followed, he wrote: “The bag was a heavy one, and all save the host were full of their own shooting, and what each Gun had killed as his share. After a deal of dispute as to how this shooter had brought to bag 50 birds and that one 60, they  finally arranged everything to their satisfaction — a satisfaction somewhat marred when the host, who had to every eye shot splendidly, quietly remarked that he was afraid he should have to give up shooting because, during the day, he had  fired at least 100 shots, and after subtracting the bag accounted for by his friends from the real total brought in by the keepers, it appeared that he had only killed three birds.”

Chilled shot

A swift and confident riposte can turn the tide, too. One season in that same era a guest on Lord Lonsdale’s grouse moor in Cumbria, Lord Sefton, discourteously remarked how few birds were laid out behind his host’s butt, implying that he doubted Lonsdale’s abilities. These were never in question, and anyway Lonsdale often preferred to smoke a cigar and watch others shoot. But the following day, Sefton observed a carpet of birds behind Lonsdale’s position. Handling the birds and  finding them stiff and cold, he renewed his doubts by suggesting that they were part of the previous day’s bag, which, of course, they were.

“Nonsense!” replied Lonsdale. “Don’t you know I always shoot with chilled shot?” He regarded this as evidence of his wit and humour, and proudly related the exchange on sundry occasions.

A touch of humour can dispel doubt. I recall an estate shoot in East Anglia where the  first drive involved a lake on which quantities of wild duck gathered. The bag included a smallish bird with body plumage the colour of milky coffee and a mallard-like head and neck in dark chocolate, presumably the result of a liaison between wild and domestic birds. Several Guns thought it doubtful as genuine quarry, but were won over when one remarked that he had shot duck on the Continent with French theatrical friends and the bird was undoubtedly what they would term a mallard imaginaire.