Modern living is at hectic pace; we should take the example of our forebears and make the most of our leisure time, says Sam Carlisle
Leafing through my father’s game book, I particularly enjoy the early pages. The first entry, in a schoolboy’s overly large handwriting, simply reads, “I crept up on the pit. My first rabbit.” Despite his sparse style, I can so easily imagine the shaking nerves of a 10-year-old, as he stealthily peers over the edge of a chalk pit, spies a rabbit inside and gently lifts his single-barrel .410 to his shoulder.
Fast forward a few years, and he and his friends have passed their driving test. Three 17-year-olds head to the Wash for a week’s wildfowling before returning to school. They barely garner a goose between them. The next year they visited Smoo Cave near Durness, before it was a tourist attraction, and managed a number of wading species no longer on the quarry list. The comments remain short, but bely the kind of mischief that unsupervised teenagers with the run of the countryside get up to.
One friend allegedly shot a salmon as it jumped, and another time they nefariously netted some sea trout to sell to the local hotel, having stored them overnight in their cottage’s bathtub.
While their bags were always modest, I am certain that these adventures laid the foundation for a lifetime of enjoying the countryside, wildlife and a variety of sport.
Their experience was hardly novel. For centuries, there has been the feeling that sport should not be rushed. Medieval and Tudor kings would withdraw from Court and spend weeks at a time at their royal hunting grounds.
The Victorians were great ones for spending the whole of the summer in Scotland, pursuing grouse, salmon and stags. George Earl’s magnificent 1893 painting Going North captures the migration: hordes of gentry and their erstwhile gundogs throng a King’s Cross platform, waiting for the long train journey north, surrounded by their sporting paraphernalia. The anticipation is palpable. Most of those travelling would have been relocating to the Highlands for at least a month, if not more.
A cocktail of ease of travel and the pace of modern life has meant that very few, if any, enjoy sporting holidays that last so long today. But even in more modern times, the shooting holiday was once more commonplace. If you leaf through copies of Shooting Times from the 1950s or 1960s, a three- to four-day trip appears to be part and parcel of most people’s season. While many fishermen will still make time for a longer trip once or twice a year, we seem to have lost this when it comes to shooting. I wonder if we’re missing out?
A month may be excessive, but should a day’s shooting really be stolen time from amid a hectic work schedule? While FOMO — fear of missing out — may be a disease of the zeitgeist, surely nipping away from London early on a Saturday morning, shooting, then skipping tea to make it back for a party in the evening is a regression from the ancient mantra that fieldsports should not be rushed?
A 150-bird day, within reach of London, could easily cost £750 per Gun. Using this as the benchmark, I set out to discover what options there are to rekindle the tradition of a sporting break.
The greylag goose population of Orkney has been on a relentless rise. In 2002 there were only 300 resident pairs. By 2008 that had jumped to 10,000, and last year the RSPB estimated there were 23,000. These numbers are swelled further by their migratory cousins from Iceland, which means this small island harbours up to 80,000 greylag geese every winter.
While this sounds excellent for the geese, it is less fun for the farmers of Orkney, who have seen their barley and grazing destroyed by the unbalanced population. As numbers have grown, goose guides have emerged, bringing shooters from the mainland to help with this essential control.
A typical day shooting on Orkney involves an early-morning flight on the geese, using decoys, as they head to the fields. It is a marvel to watch the guides’ fieldcraft as they anticipate the greylag’s peripatetic habits. Hearing those telltale honks coming towards you through the morning sunrise heralds the finest of sport. Your evenings are spent duck and goose flighting over ponds.
Three days of shooting in Orkney, including all your accommodation, meals and cartridges, is barely more than your standard driven day. The local butchers have taken advantage of the surge in geese numbers and produce exceptional sausages and burgers with your quarry, so you’ll leave laden with some of the finest game as well.
While I didn’t quite have the free rein as a teenager that my father enjoyed — always requiring the sobering presence of an adult — we did have a family holiday in Perthshire every year for a week, coinciding with the Glorious Twelfth. Marching through the heather, waiting for an explosion of feathers at my feet as another covey of grouse flew away, or sinking up to my waist in a bog as I tried in vain to walk-up some snipe, they were glorious times indeed. Without doubt, a trip to the Highlands is the ultimate sporting adventure. It can also be surprisingly affordable.
A few days in November walking-up ptarmigan and stalking red hinds is a remarkable experience. Ptarmigan only live on the highest peaks, where heather and cotton grass has given way to scree. Desolate and beautiful, this is a physical challenge. So too is hind stalking, which I prefer to the balmy late-summer days on stags. The winter weather seems to suit the Highland landscape so well and only heightens the sense of wild pursuit. You really earn that dram or two at the end of the day.
Closer to home
Planes and sleeper trains have made it easy to get to the remoter parts of the country but if you find travelling any distance at all an ordeal, there is considerable scope for a sporting break on your doorstep — wherever you live.
Britain hosts a cornucopia of opportunities, with every county having something world class to offer. My home region of East Anglia is no exception and while it was considered the birthplace of driven shooting, for the price of one day standing on a peg, you could tailor a long weekend of sport so varied it would test even the most expert in fieldcraft.
On one day you could start with a morning stalk for a muntjac or Chinese water deer, decoy pigeon from late afternoon and end up flighting teal at a pond in the evening. The next day you could be on the marsh at dawn searching for pink-footed geese, walking-up partridges before lunch, followed by another deer stalk, perhaps for a different species, at dusk.
These suggestions may seem a little arduous, with early mornings and long walks. Yet it is the essence of the landscape, understanding the quarry and the people who look after it, that is at the heart of fieldsports. Unless we take time to dwell in the field we will never really know this. The self-imposed budget, akin to a standard driven day, has meant I’ve focused on more marginalised, niche and wild shooting. This is no bad thing, as these often overlooked pursuits are some of the best.
But if you’re looking to make more of a trip out of a day’s driven shooting this would be equally easy. You could almost certainly find some deerstalking or wildfowling nearby. Staying an extra night in the area, enjoying a pint with the locals, and seeing the ground in the new light of dawn, watching the wildlife wake for the day, is a precious experience. Our forebears knew that not rushing your sport was important. It is time we embraced their approach.