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The quandary of the quarry

Shooting is all about numbers. Just what those numbers are depends on your vantage point and whether we?re talking commercial shooting or a private syndicate.

The landowner will be looking at the bottom line and ensuring the shoot makes a positive contribution to the estate?s income. A successful formula is to charge what the market will bear and keep costs as low as possible. One of the biggest variable costs is the casual staff employed on the shoot day ? you can easily end up paying a four-fi gure sum. Beaters are fairly cheap so cutting their numbers won?t save you much and might affect what goes over the paying Guns. Pickers-up cost more so chopping one or two will save more than the same number of beaters. There?s anecdotal evidence to show some shoots take this approach and I think it?s short-sighted.

The keeper wants as many of the birds he has carefully nurtured over the summer as possible to end up in the bag. Percentage return rather than percentage profit is what interests him. A large beating team will ensure birds go over the Guns and a decent squad of pickers-up will ensure that little which is hit fails to make the gamecart. As a result, his return figures will look good.

The Gun wants the maximum bang for his buck. He?s probably paying between £30 and £40 per bird for low ground shooting and twice that for grouse. He?ll keep a mental tally of the number of birds he has shot during the day. If that works out at more than his share of the bag when he enters it in his game book he?ll be pleased ? and all the more so if the bag is around the figure agreed and there are no overages.

Recently there was some correspondence in the shooting press to the effect that the pickers-up are pegging large numbers of birds and the paying Guns are footing the bill for something they haven?t actually shot. Of course birds sometimes get pegged. It?s most likely to happen early in the season, when birds are immature; it?s most unlikely when the season is well advanced and the birds are fit and uninjured ? these will normally give a questing gundog the slip. I don?t believe pegging makes a significant contribution to the bag, and it is probably offset by the number of birds hit and not recovered.

Canine intuition

I?ve often thought it would be interesting to do a correlation between the number of birds the Guns think they have shot on a drive and the number that end up in the bag. If a bird falls dead or shows obvious signs of being shot then the Gun can reasonably count it as a kill. The problems arise with birds that show no signs of being hit. An example from last season illustrates this point. I was sitting more than 250 yards behind the Guns when three partridges touched down in the wood. I looked carefully but none showed any sign of damage. My labrador, Rum, in his seventh season and hugely experienced, thought otherwise. He looked at me in the manner that says, ?One of those birds has been hit.? ?Don?t be silly,? I said. ?Believe me,? was his clear reply, ?and if you don?t send one of us soon it will get away.? I sent him and in under half a minute he was back with a bird. On close examination I found it had taken one pellet in an ankle. I doubt the Gun realised he?d connected, and I certainly hadn?t. Dogs, though, seem to have a sixth sense and an uncanny ability to identify an injured bird.

Generally I don?t like standing close enough to the Guns to be able to see if a particular bird has been hit but sometimes there?s no option. I wasn?t sure whether number eight had hit his last partridge so after the drive I went up and asked him. ?Yes,? was the reply, ?but not hard enough for it to be worth your while looking for it.? There was a shelter belt a hundred or so yards behind him. We found the bird right in the middle.

So that?s two birds in the bag which the Gun would have written off as a miss and might have objected to paying for. In practice I suspect people overestimate ? privately if not publicly ? their own tally. What worries me is the cavalier approach of some Guns to the retrieval of quarry. The chap with the partridge in the shelter belt is a case in point. He didn?t really care that a bird he had hit had potentially become kite food. Fortunately pickers-up do care, and if we know there?s likely to be a bird down we?ll make every effort to recover it. All too often, we?re not told. Part of the problem on this occasion was a shortage of pickers-up. If there are plenty of pickers-up you can stand back and concentrate on hunting the area you?ve been allocated. If you?re short-handed there?s little option but to stand closer and hunt only the birds you believe to have been hit. On the shoot in question, the keeper is limited to the number he can have and it?s often not enough for the terrain and anticipated bag. We?re back to the conflicting numbers of the shoot owner and the keeper. Regardless of the size of the bag, you need a certain minimum team of dogmen to cover the ground adequately. Ethically and economically it?s always essential to retrieve every bird that is hit.

A few years ago the British Association of Shooting and Conservation (BASC), as part of its Respect for Quarry programmes, initiated a study to investigate what proportion of the birds seen to be hit actually ended up on the gamecart. Sadly the study is not yet finished, but I remember being disappointed by the early results. Essentially too few hit birds for my liking were being recovered. On closer enquiry I concluded this was probably due more to the inadequacy of the picking-up team than to poor marksmanship or the wrong gun/cartridge combination. I look forward to the final results, because I anticipate that they will emphasise the need for a strong picking-up team.