Former gundog trainer to HM The Queen, Bill Meldrum shares his valuable knowledge and reminisces on some past shoot days
It’s over 65 years since I first went picking-up as a gamekeeper with a brilliant game-finding bitch. One day I was hunting rabbits with her, the next picking-up on shoots. I learned a lot from her. Picking-up should be a team effort but it’s best if one person is in charge.
These days I only pick-up on one shoot where there are six of us: we get our orders from the keeper in the morning and then the picker-up in charge tells us our positions for each drive.
We work in pairs and keep well back from the guns during the drive; then two of us sweep up where the guns have stood. It seems to work well and we all enjoy our day.
Bill Meldrum’s golden rules for picking-up
Someone should write a rulebook for pickers-up. For me the golden rules are teamwork and to never tell lies because you are soon found out.
A bad fault is picking-up in the gun line during the drive and immediately after it. Most guns like to pick up their own birds even if they don’t have a dog with them. Remember that dogs are there to find birds you can’t pick-up by hand.
Listed here are the rules that I learnt from an old headkeeper when picking-up in my early days. It’s worth noting that in my experience, 95 per cent of pickers-up do a good job.
1. Don’t go into the gun line unless you see a gun without a dog looking for birds, and then leave at least two of your team behind.
2. Try to get as far back from the gun line as you can. Around 300 metres is a safe distance.
3. Remember that as a picker-up you’re there to do a job; the guns are there to enjoy themselves.
4. If you leave a drive for an hour or two and then return, you will often be surprised by the number of birds you pick up, especially grouse and partridge.
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In my late 20s I worked for a boss who had his own personal loader and picker-up. We travelled the UK, from northern Scotland to southern England, and the only days during the season when he did not shoot were when travelling from one far-flung estate to the next. I had to keep at least 22 dogs trained and would bring on at up to five young dogs during summer to replace those retiring.
At one Kent estate, a husband and wife picking-up team stayed close to the gun line, retrieving birds as they fell. They would put what they had picked up in their Land Rover instead of handing them to the game cart. At lunchtime they would wait until the host and his guns arrived (the game larder was next to the lunch hut) and then start unloading about 100 birds, making sure everyone saw them.
The other two pickers-up, good, honest men, said the same thing happened every time and the estate owner thought they were great pickers-up. On the way home, my boss said what fine pickers-up they were. I put him right. A few years later a new headkeeper arrived: he told his boss what they did and they were never seen on that shoot again.