I was 24 years old when I shot my first pheasant. It was a cock bird and it glided low across a ploughed field ? a safe shot and far from sporting many would declare. But, thanks to the second barrel of my AYA Yeoman, it was mine. I held it and stroked it before folding the head under its wing and placing it in my canvas gamebag. And then I began to run. What happened next was like a scene from Braveheart, with men appearing over the hill and wanting my head on a stick. This was my first encounter with a syndicate shoot.
The problem, it appeared, was that while I had permission to be on this particular soil, the natives felt that the pheasants were ?theirs?. Despite this, I continued to shoot this small piece of land, and shortly after the incident an olive branch was kindly offered in my direction and I was asked if I would like to join the shoot. Henceforth, a long and happy alliance was formed.
Prior to joining a syndicate, my wanderings produced mostly rabbits and fowl, and I thought that pheasants were only for the well-heeled in society, and not for a ferreting boy like me. However, here was a group of working men, with a rag-tag bunch of dogs, enjoying the countryside ? and what glorious sport it was. Being young at that time, and having no children, I spent countless wonderful hours repairing pens, coppicing, trapping and attending many work parties. We purchased various strains of pheasant, poults, ex-layers, mallards, redlegs and greys. I learned much about the natural world ? the biology and ecology ? and a lot about myself. I began to understand how much effort went into putting that November pheasant in the air.
Most syndicates, I would suggest, operate with a chairman, a secretary, a treasurer and so on. There are many variables to this format, but respect for these roles is paramount, because we all like to know who is responsible for what.
This syndicate, like countless others across the country, offered exceptional sporting opportunities, but, in truth, it operated more like a structured roughshoot than a driven day. It simply featured stands ? or, more accurately, areas ? in the landscape where birds historically travelled across.
I soon became aware that everyone had a part to play, and that usefulness can take many forms. Our syndicate consisted of a cattle farmer, various tradesmen, a gamefarmer and a man who, while not especially practical on the shoot, worked for a bakery and was therefore able to improve our lunch breaks with various out-of-date goods.
The syndicate operated on a financial shoestring, but time was given freely and often, as was fuel to run the chainsaw, brush cutters and other machinery. So, if you do not have the time, I would strongly suggest you are upfront about it ? a member who never attends the work parties but is always able to make the shoot dates is not someone you want.
I always found work parties to be tremendous fun and sociable affairs but they require organisation, planning and structure to be efficient. The number of work parties you might be expected to attend can change considerably from year to year. One spring could be spent completely rebuilding a pen, which for many years thereafter will hopefully require only minor maintenance. The number of days you might be required is therefore difficult to quantify, but four to eight appeared to be our average. They were rarely full days ? mostly summer evenings and Saturday mornings.
I can recall a friend who, while being a paid member of the shoot, rarely attended work parties. His idleness knew few boundaries and if an episode of Lovejoy was on the television or there was some other equally trivial distraction, he would not attend. We all knew this, but what he did offer was a stunning, hard-hunting Labrador which left no bramble bush unploughed, and the dog?s ability to retrieve a wounded duck from the water was second to none. The dogless syndicate members knew this, and their work party efforts compensated for the birds his dog put in the air and retrieved.
Increasingly, retired gamekeepers are plying their special skills on small DIY shoots in exchange for a place as a Gun. They welcome the worthwhile challenges involved and it gets them up and out in the morning with a sense of purpose. In those syndicates lucky enough to have a professional in their midst, the keeper may take care of all the maintenance and management on their own.
I am always amazed at how inexpensive some shoots are, and I believe it is still possible to find half-Gun places, available for the right person, for as little as £200. This might get you four or six dates for the diary with an average bag of 20 birds on each day.
This year?s high wheat prices will be reflected in the fees that shoots charge. Over the past five years, prices have risen dramatically ? fluctuating from £80 per ton to around £140. A neighbour of mine was recently selling feed wheat at £174 per ton. This might seem an outrageous price, but it is more realistic when the true cost of production and the risk to the farmer is scrutinised. This has resulted in some considering habitat management and better predator control, with a renewed effort in securing wild broods. Earlier this month I saw the first broods of wild pheasants, ducklings and roe fawns, and this gives me hope for the coming season. Another option is to put down fewer birds.
Now is the perfect time to make your enquiries about the possibility of joining a syndicate. Changes in circumstances force some members to stand down, allowing others a special opportunity. If a place is not available but you like what you see, help with picking-up or beating and it might give you a foot in the door.
I am currently about to start my own syndicate, which I am somewhat apprehensive about. I am lucky to be in a lovely valley, nestled between National Trust farms, and my neighbour has allowed the sporting rights to be excised through me. Despite recent controversy associated with the National Trust, I have found it to be supportive of my plans. The opportunities for wildlife enhancement are excellent and I live in hope of flushing a woodcock where once there was impenetrable blackthorn. I look forward to welcoming the motley bunch of dogs, friends and newcomers, a small mixed bag at the end of the day, but most of all I look forward to hearing laughter.