Driven shoot advice – lessons from a former Royal Marine
Simon Garnham attempts to apply lessons learned during his time in the Royal Marines to his Christmas driven shoot — with mixed results
Quite a lot of the lessons I learned in the Royal Marines have not turned out to be terribly useful in civilian life. For example, while I can still recite the necessary mnemonics to tune a high-frequency radio and deal with a stoppage on a general-purpose machine gun, I haven’t found the need to do so in recent years. Equally, the vital truths to a young marine about never eating yellow snow and on no account ever opening a map wider than 6cm for fear a sniper will see it and pump a high-velocity round your way are no longer the life-and-death matters they once seemed to be. Some lessons learned at Commando Training Centre, however, did return to me during the chaos of our driven shoot this Christmas.
‘Start cold’, for example, was always a mountain leader’s preferred piece of advice as we shivered on a start line in some glen or fjord. I have since entirely rejected this advice, learning the equally important, entirely contradictory lesson that any fool can be uncomfortable. So, as spiderwebs drooped under the weight of frost and the grass crunched beneath our boots, I made sure that a boiling vessel was billowing with steam and that bacon rolls were prepped. An army marches on its stomach and we had a lot of marching to do before the day was out.
The first drive was an excellent reminder of fundamental military rules one and two: expect the unexpected and no plan survives contact with the enemy. Guns tiptoed down the side of a thick hedge line to take up ambush positions. I was point man with finger firmly on lips, more like a primary school teacher leading a class into assembly than a highly attuned scout if I’m honest with myself.
Gun number one had just been shown where he should do his duty when the ducks began to stream off the pond. It was impossible that they had seen or heard us and yet there they were in all their glory, flying 30 yards up, spread over pegs two to seven in a flush that would have made a wonderful opening to the day had they delayed for a mere five minutes to give me time to get out the Guns.
I spat out some expletives, realising that not only were all the ducks heading out to sea but that I’d left the dog in her kennel. At this point a covey of a dozen grey partridges chose to bomb-burst from under the hedge, the air alive with kar-wicking and crick-cricking and still only one Gun in position. We hurried on.
‘Hurry up and wait’ will be a phrase familiar to most former servicemen and women. With all the ducks departed and a fine covey now on high alert well away from beaters and Guns, we had both hurried and waited in the space of a few minutes. The family of mute swans in residence on the pond enjoyed their breakfast of wheat and barley while we mused on missed chances.
Frost gripped the land. On the horizon, flags were waving, sticks were tapping and occasional ‘aye-yi-yies’ could be heard rolling across the frozen landscape.
A covey of redlegs swept down the hill and settled into the game cover between the beaters and the Guns. A handsome cock pheasant chuck-chuckered out of the rough headland at the top of the field and curled towards us. With no wind to lift him and apparently unaware of the danger lined out along the woodline below, he hugged the contours, twisting across the line of Guns but only a few feet up. The partridges lifted again and showed that their earlier flight was purely for reconnaissance. This time they set off with a purpose and managed precisely to bisect the gap between right-hand beater and left-hand Gun. They were another lost chance.
This was not the start for which I’d been hoping. The ducks and the partridges had not read the script. I thought back to the summer, when it had seemed so important to choose the right poults. Would partridges and ducks be enough? With pheasants in short supply and knowing that I had a decent wild stock, I nearly opted not to buy in any at all. But now, with ducks and partridges evading us, I was about to be glad that I had invested in a few dozen pheasants. Perhaps perfect planning really does prevent poor performance.
The beating line approached the first of the feeding areas. I throw out mixed corn twice a week and have a line of feeders at the top of the kale and in the maize to supplement this supply. A keeper once told me to “feed them where you want them” which, with hindsight, sounds a very obvious tip but at the time I wasn’t doing so. Now I was pleased of it. Birds began to lift from the ideal place.
The first was a fine hen pheasant, which looked to clear the wood. Beef farmer John Mitchell, with children Evie and John and wife April in support, used only a single shot to send it thumping into the tree line behind. The next was a cock pheasant on full throttle, which arable farmer Alastair Davidson dealt with similarly. I could relax.
It’s no wonder pheasants are the mainstay of so many driven shoots. They were doing what pheasants do best: flying with power and speed and gaining sufficient height to make for challenging shooting.
I rarely take a clicker on our little informal events but, just for my curiosity, I had one in a pocket. Thirty-two shots on the first drive seemed like a reasonable return considering the underwhelming start. A decent flush and a pair of mallard that hadn’t left with the rest saved the drive and we regrouped back at the house, meeting some neighbours as we walked who were very pleased to be offered a brace of birds. How good it is to find non-shooters who are on our side and appreciate a fresh, local, delicious product.
Two new drives were much anticipated. We mounted up into a convoy of vehicles through the village. First-time guest Dave Snowling leapt at the chance to be a walking Gun —
a man after my own heart. Given the chance of a bit of freedom, some snap shooting, the banter of joining the beaters or setting off solo on a flank always appeals. He and mate Michael Scarfe were be rewarded for their willingness to walk with fleeting chances at woodcock.
I found myself trying to remember voice procedure as I marshalled the beaters on radios over unfamiliar ground belonging to neighbouring farmer Charlie Hutley. I managed to avoid the popular example of typical officer speak — “follow me, I’m right behind you” — but wasn’t much clearer. We somehow completed a long left-flanking manoeuvre to add a single, very good hen pheasant to the bag, and a long right-flanking manoeuvre to discover that a noisy muntjac had crashed through the kale, clearing most of the birds before we arrived.
However, with concurrent activity and anticipation at all levels — key principles of battle procedure — we were able to return to HQ in time for mulled wine and huge quantities of Christmas food: the phase of the battle most cherished by the vast majority.
The afternoon passed in a chaotic blur, during which time first-timer Dave Howesgo managed to bag himself a pheasant — a real screamer that cleared a line of Italian alders and looked set to end up somewhere in Suffolk without his intervention. ‘Ballistic’ Bob Feaviour shot as good a bird as we’ve ever presented here, a curling hen pheasant 40 yards up and a similar distance out. The beaters became more and more furiously enthusiastic, with blood-curdling cries emanating from the woods as squirrels were pursued with vigour. Parents counted the children out and finally counted them all back in again.
The light was draining from the day as we made our way back to camp for sun-downers. The bag had reached double figures (just) and we’d managed to keep the shot ratio below seven-to-one (just). All sense of military precision and order had been abandoned. But the key principles of camaraderie and morale had stayed strong throughout a busy and enjoyable engagement.