Headkeeper David Whitby on how Guns can earn his respect on and off the peg

Another season is over and I have no complaints at all. The abundance of wild food sent shivers down many a gamekeeper’s spine in early autumn; food intake was low, birds were simply not seen and it is always difficult to fathom out how thousands of pheasants remain hidden, but we all know they can.

The pigeons arrived and gave a helping hand with acorns and mast, and between them, deer and other nut and seed eating critters, the autumn harvest dwindled. Game came back on the feed and the coverts started to look promising, then really promising with the cold spell. Thanks to Jack Frost, we sailed home with relative ease. I say sailed home but, as with every year, not all days are exactly plain sailing, as the weather, which is any shoot’s main governing body, was at times less than perfect. Bright sunshine, warm, windless days and high pressure – not just of the atmospheric kind. Combine this with a leafy canopy and it being the first time through the coverts and you have a gamekeeper’s nightmare. The guns wax lyrically about the splendid weather and joys of being in the countryside on such a fine day, meanwhile I hit a new level of depression.

When, oh when, will we see sense and ask for a change in seasons? Our weather pattern has changed, so why have we not responded accordingly? Each year we watch as the best pheasant shooting month (February) passes us by, whilst October generally swelters under a canopy of active chlorophyll. We have pressure groups, so why are they not reacting to what is surely a common sense move: for goodness’ sake, take away October pheasants and give us February!

How to earn headkeeper Whitby’s respect…

Over the years I have read a number of articles on the topic of what constitutes a good beater, a good shoot, a good picker-up, indeed any number of shooting activities with staff coming under scrutiny. I do not however recall a gamekeeper saying what for him is the perfect gun. I’m treading on dangerous ground: “how dare he, who does he think he is?”, do I hear you say. Well, he dares, and no doubt one or more guns will retort with a critique of keepers, or let us hear from the beaters as to what makes the perfect gamekeeper. But for now, it is my turn. So what exactly makes the perfect gun?

I write this having just finished back-to-back days with my syndicate who are the most wonderful assortment of albeit slightly insane individuals I have had the pleasure of running a shoot for. They do not all tick every box of my gamekeeper’s wish list, nor I theirs, but I would not swap them for the world. So what is it that constitutes a wishlist?

Above all else, it’s safety. No compromise here. Guns must be safe, not just no low shooting, but also in the carriage and handling of their shotguns. There is no room for anything less than 100 per cent safety.

Next, quarry respect and care from start to finish. A good gun will know their quarry, know their limitations and never shoot at game they have small chance of killing cleanly. A good gun is not one who achieves the odd long kill, but one who kills cleanly out in front, analyses those they miss and has a high average, not just able to bring down the odd stratospheric pigeon with a lucky pellet. A good gun will collect close birds around their peg and always inform keepers or pickers-up of anything wounded that may have escaped their attention. They will know how to quickly despatch anything wounded and never shoot beyond 40 yards at anything.

Continued below …

red legged partridges

Greedy shot or good sport?

I was talking to a fellow picker-up a few years ago about the performance of the team of Guns visiting the shoot that…

A good gun will also be neither greedy nor selfish; to shoot 60 pheasants on a 200-bird day on one drive is not really going to impress the rest of the team, nor will shooting your neighbour’s birds. Manners maketh the day and greed will spoil it.

Friendly leg-pulling and generally giving the headkeeper as much stick as possible appears to work well for most of my teams. My syndicate takes great pleasure in outdoing each other in giving me grief; sometimes I rather think they hope for a poor drive so, rather like a pack of wolves, they can all turn on me at once. Laughter between drives – and occasionally during, given the way some of them shoot – is essential for a great day. This in no way should breach respect either at a personal level or for the tradition and seriousness of the event.

I have watched people from all walks of life show their appreciation to the entire workforce that makes a day possible. Not just the host and keepers, but where possible say hello and thank you to beaters and pickers-up that they meet. Yes they are paid, but let us be honest, it is minimum wage and barely covers transport, clothing and dog food. Your day would be a good deal more expensive but for beaters and pickers-up working for far less than a banker’s salary.

A good gun will also be aware that much of our sport is steeped in history and tradition; the dress code, behaviour code and the word that should be forever present: respect.

Ours is different from most sports, we ‘deal in death’ after all, with the potential for creating pain, fear and suffering being ever present. The words pricked, tickled, hit, should all be replaced with one less forgiving: wounded.

A good gun also enjoys the entire day, not just the shooting but the picking-up, beating line and wonderful British countryside, all of which is part of this sport we call game shooting.