Some shoots pay nothing at all, writes Ellena Swift
It is a pretty fair assumption that there are few people for whom beating, picking-up or even loading is their main source of income throughout the season. Though the money is welcome, it by no means replaces a regular salary — particularly since earnings on a shoot now have to be declared and, if applicable, taxed.
Passion for shooting
Despite the low “pay” it is rare to hear anyone complain. The majority of people who get involved in our sport do so because they have an unrivalled passion for shooting, the countryside and everything that goes with it. A lot of shoots, in fact, pay nothing at all, yet it is rare to find these shoots short of beaters or pickers-up.
Most weeks I will be picking-up at least three days, beating for one and loading on another. If I am really lucky I might even get the odd day’s shooting as well. There are many people who, like me, enjoy the variation of these roles and others who would much rather stick to one preferred job. I have no doubt that the latter do not stick to one role because of the pay but because of their passion and enjoyment for that particular role.
Moaning and grievances
So I was surprised, and frankly disheartened, to overhear beaters, loaders and pickers-up on a shoot last season moaning as to why one job was paid more than another. While I was aware that there was a difference in wage packet, it never occurred to me to compare or moan. So I decided to look into their grievance.
Loaders are nearly always paid — I have yet to come across a shoot where the loader goes home empty-handed. However, it is normally the Gun who “tips” the loader rather than the keeper delivering the pay packet at the end of the day. As it is a tip rather than set pay, it is totally subjective to each individual Gun on the day. Some Guns may be thrilled with the job their loader has done and feel a £100-plus tip is in order.
The legendary tip
I have also heard the story — perhaps an urban legend — of a team of wealthy Guns visiting the UK for a few days’ shooting. Their loaders were basically their personal assistants for the duration of their stay, including driving, minding, loading and taking care of the guns. Upon departure, one of the Guns — who had bought a brand-new Range Rover for his stay — simply handed their loader the keys of the 4×4 as their “tip”.
While the majority of loaders will have not experienced this level of tip, I think it is safe to say that normally the going rate for a loader is within the region of £50 to £100. So what do the loaders do to earn this? They carry their client’s gun(s) and cartridges. They load guns — either double or single — throughout each drive and collect the empty cartridges at the end. At the end of the day, the loader will clean the gun(s) and, more often than not, the gunslips and cartridge bag if they have been sitting in mud all day.
While on paper this sounds like an easy job, most loaders will attest to the fact that often it is anything but. A pair of guns is not light and there is also the cartridge bag, often loaded with several hundred cartridges, to contend with. It is safe to say that if it is a double-gun day, the drives are likely to be busy and so plenty of cartridges will be needed — heaven forbid the loader runs out before the end of the drive.
The art of loading
Loading may look easy to the uneducated eye; however, it is without a doubt a true art. To load a gun smoothly, quickly, efficiently and, most importantly, safely, every few seconds takes practice, timing and a true awareness of your surroundings.
A novice loader is easy to spot — fumbling, dropping cartridges or attempting to hold them in every available orifice, rushing and easily flustered when under pressure.
An experienced loader is a joy to watch. The Gun and loader seem to move in harmony as in one easy, smooth motion the guns are passed effortlessly between them. The loader never appears to have to speed up as, like any good sportsman, their technique is flawless and they can easily keep up no matter how quick the shooting.
One of the loader’s responsibilities I have yet to mention — which I feel increases their value still more — is their obligation to keep their Gun safe and offer guidance or coaching. Some loaders I know are shooting coaches as well. On many loading days I have been on, the loading team is there as much to “mind” their Guns as they are to physically load. There are often novice Guns attending shoots who require guidance and support, particularly when it comes to staying safe. Even an experienced Gun can become a little overexcited during a busy drive and it is the loader’s responsibility to ensure the Gun remains safe at all times.
So what about the beaters? They work just as hard, if not harder, than the loaders most of the time. The sheer distance they walk, and the terrain they cover, on a day’s beating is highly impressive. A beater’s wage packet again varies from shoot to shoot, but on average he or she will be paid approximately £20 to £40 a day. Does this mean they are less valuable than the loader? Obviously not. Without the team of beaters, our driven shooting would be near impossible.
Beaters spend hours bringing in various bits of ground, pushing birds to the perfect spot to flush over the Guns. Despite their obvious and undeniable worth, beaters are normally transported around in a beaters’ wagon, whereas a loader often uses their own vehicle. A beater is required to carry a stick or flag, whereas a loader is required to handle and carry sometimes in excess of £100,000-worth of guns.
And the picking-up team?
They work just as hard as the loaders and beaters. Working teams of dogs and often walking massive distances to find that one elusive wounded runner, a picker- up is normally paid £30 to £60 for the day. So a little more than the beaters but less than the loaders.
A picker-up has to have a dog — the job cannot be done without them. A good beating dog is undeniably a huge asset, but many beaters do not have nor require a dog to do their job. Many shoots insist a picker-up has a team of dogs, so if one is injured, in season or has to retire, they have another to replace it. Plus the workload is often too much for a single dog.
So you could argue that a picker-up has increased costs purely from the fact that they need a full team of dogs, whereas for a beater it is often an option not a necessity. A picker-up frequently uses their own vehicle, so incurs those costs too. They also require essential equipment such as a priest, game bag or carrier, first-aid kit, drying coats for dogs and so on.
Picking-up: A few wise words from a picking-up expert.
The loader standing by his master, deftly handing him a loaded gun while swiftly reloading the empty one, as the birds…
Most of us go beating or picking-up for fun and don’t think of it as a form of employment with formal beaters’ pay.…
The pay by no means defines each role’s worth. Every single job on a driven day — whether it is a beater, stop, picker-up or loader — is just as important as the next and if done well they become a priceless asset to the shoot.