Over 35 years and more I have picked-up on a number of different kinds of shoot day.
This means I am more than usually conscious this is not a time for loose generalisation.
The diversity of terrain, weather conditions and other circumstances all make for the wonderful variety which is a great joy of shooting.
But they mean that it is to general principles we must look: recognising they will be embodied in practice to varying degrees according to local conditions.
Ambrogio Lorenzetti’s Allegory of the Good and Bad Government hangs in Siena’s town hall as a warning to the republican government which met there.
It shows the effects on town and country with, on the good side, prosperous townspeople trading and dancing in the streets.
Beyond the city walls is a lush countryside with crops being harvested, whilst on the bad side crime is rampant and diseased citizens roam a crumbling city and the countryside suffers from drought.
Good government is associated with enthusiastic, mutually supportive co-operation, whereas the bad is all sullen compliance and resentment with a lack of regard for citizens who are taken for granted.
There are shoot day equivalents and we’ll give them an airing, but before that we need to recognise a few self-evident truths.
Performance and spectacle
Performance and spectacle are a key part of what formal shooting is all about.
Just think of the sustained effort over many months in the rearing field; the dogging-in and blanking-in; the beating and the dog work, to say nothing of much else besides, that make it possible.
Teamwork is of the essence.
Without studied orchestration driven shooting is likely to be disappointing.
In that sense it is like grand opera: expensive to stage, but where magnificent effects are produced by the careful disposition of the chorus and soaring moments from the principals who cope brilliantly, as it were, with the most demanding birds.
The picking-up operation is an integral part of that team effort and, where it is done well, the pickers-up are typically a team themselves.
They are, moreover, a team on an ethically driven mission to which all must be fully paid up: namely, to ensure, as far as can be done, that everything shot ends up in the bag having been, where necessary, humanely despatched as expeditiously as possible.
There is, in short, a job description and anything that gets in the way of its realisation counts as a problem.
Pickers-up bring skills which deserve to be recognised and do something utterly necessary which guns, for the most part, cannot or do not want to do themselves.
There are, of course, many exceptions to that statement.
I take it as read there is no more satisfying experience for a gun than to bring down a demanding bird which is subsequently brought to hand by the dog they had by their side when it was shot.
If pickers-up are operating where they should be during a drive, well back behind the line, there should be no question of their distracting guns whilst they are shooting; nor should there be any question of their working in the vicinity of the pegs either during or immediately after the drive.
Guns who have dogs should, therefore, have every opportunity to work them.
Notice I did not say right to work them.
Effective picking-up relies on good teamwork between all the participants on shoot day.
That would be the normal way of expressing the point for sure.
But, rights entail responsibilities and there are obligations which should be binding on guns as much as anyone else for reasons bearing on the effectiveness – and thus humanity – of the picking-up operation.
Although working opportunities should be given to peg dogs, a gun does not have a God-given right to untether a dog – hitherto corkscrewed down – either during or after a drive to collect a bird, but which it then deposits in some other place before turning its attention to what was happening whilst it was out ‘working’.
Don’t get me wrong.
I’m the first to accept neither dogs nor humans are paragons.
I’m not talking perfection here.
I just want to emphasise there are some bottom- line criteria which ought to be taken seriously.
Where an unsteady staked dog does nothing remotely constructive once released you have to ask the question, “Is its presence more a matter of it being a shooting accessory than a gundog?”
There are plenty of such dogs about, and it cannot be said they add to either the art or the elegance of the day.
Worse, their rampagings are seldom neutral in their impact, for they often subvert the best efforts of others.
So, be honest and if your dog is unlikely to make any positive contribution, leave it at home.
Provide correct information
Ideally, guns’ dogs and pickers-up should work in tandem, scarcely impinging on each other’s activities.
But even if they don’t have a competent gundog with them there is a great deal the guns can do to help the picking-up operation.
Guns vary enormously in their ability to identify and mark down what they have shot and, human nature being what it is, those who are known to be accurate engender sustained effort from pickers-up whilst those prone to vague speculation prompt more token responses.
So, quality information is much appreciated by pickers-up who even so, after their long searches, often have to sweep through behind the pegs to check for birds on ground which has already supposedly been cleaned.
Game, what’s more, has to be got onto the game cart and guns can help here too.
There’s nothing more dispiriting for an already laden picker-up than to see piles of game on pegs with guns walking off empty-handed.
Finding things, it hardly needs emphasising, is not a mechanical matter.
The vagaries of scent and a whole lot more can significantly change the time it takes to do a particular job.
If there is one thing pickers-up are often short of its time.
Again this varies according to the disposition of drives, the extent to which pickers-up have their own transport and so on.
But doing a thorough job takes time and sometimes, when conditions are not favourable, it can take a long time.
Everyone in this big team which is the formal shoot needs to appreciate that.
I picked-up on a shoot where the guns were interested in the dog work and whether their birds had been picked.
I wish that were the norm: sadly it isn’t.
Generalising, as I said, is a mug’s game.
But my guts tell me the time for picking-up and for mutual regard between guns and those who search for their birds is more at risk of being compromised on commercial days.
The fact is we all want ‘good government’ and we all know what makes that more rather than less likely.
And it’s down to each of us to be honest and to care about the ethics of the sport we love.