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Handling game – give it the respect it’s due

We must set a higher standard when it comes to handling game, writes David Tomlinson

Picker-up handling game

Pickers-up should always treat game as though it is food

In Germany, as in most continental countries, handling game is done with great respect. Sadly, that’s rarely the case in this country. Here, it’s quite usual to see Guns, and sometimes pickers-up, throw birds to the ground in a manner that suggests that the bird’s dead now, so it doesn’t really matter what’s done to it. The word respect doesn’t come into it. It’s easy to have the feeling that many Guns, and some pickers-up, believe that it is more macho to handle game in this way.

Handling game and excessive bags

Excessive numbers of shot birds leads to poor handling. On a big-bag day, it’s that much harder to look after each bird that has been shot, to lay it on its back or string it up in the game cart. I once picked up on a 500-bird day on a shoot that struggled to handle half this number. Birds piled up on the floor of the game cart because it was unequipped to cope with so many. It made me resolve never to have anything to do with similar days again. I haven’t.

In a recent article I mentioned the Guide to Good Game Handling, which is a supplement to The Code of Good Shooting Practice. It’s full of common sense, and if you are an experienced picker-up you won’t find much you don’t already know. However, I would still recommend that everyone who handles birds on a shoot should read it carefully.

It emphasises, for example, that “the process of good game handling begins as soon as the shot bird is in the hand”. True, but it could be argued that it begins when it is retrieved.

Dog handling game

It’s important that dogs used for picking up are soft-mouthed to avoid any damage to the birds

Hard-mouthed dogs

In trials, a dog is deemed to be hard-mouthed if it crunches a bird’s ribs. Over the years I’ve plucked an awful lot of pheasants and partridges, most of them retrieved by dogs. Plucking reveals a lot about a bird, from how hard it was shot to how it was handled afterwards. It’s not unusual to find tooth marks in birds that were clearly inflicted by the retrieving dog, but it is unusual to find a bird with crushed ribs. Clearly some dogs are competent at retrieving birds but are not as soft-mouthed as they might seem. Whether such dogs should be used for picking up is debatable, but I suspect that many handlers are unaware of their dog’s fault. (Read more on hard-mouthed dogs.)

The guide goes on to advise that Guns and pickers-up should carry game using carriers rather than closed bags, as this aids the cooling process. Sensible words, but I can’t remember the last time I saw anyone use a traditional gamebag for its original purpose; most bags are used for carrying sandwiches and flasks, and game carriers are ubiquitous.

The next advice is that game left at a peg or collection point should be protected from contamination by animals and pests, and laid out to allow it to cool as speedily as possible. “Never leave birds in heaps as they will quickly begin to deteriorate.” (Read our guide to freezing game.)

There’s nothing about throwing birds to the ground, though perhaps there should be, so widespread is the practice. The guide does, however, emphasise that “one of The Code of Good Shooting Practice’s five golden rules is that game is food and should always be treated as such”. Do people who throw game to the ground chuck their shopping into the back of their car at the supermarket? I’m sure they don’t.

Wounded quarry

It’s The Code of Good Shooting Practice rather than the Guide to Good Game Handling that touches on the subject of despatching wounded quarry, stating that it should be carried out “in a swift and humane manner”. It doesn’t however, give any further guidance. I hate seeing the so-called football-rattle method used, as it’s hardly swift or humane. Everyone who goes picking up should carry a suitably weighted priest and know how to use it quickly and efficiently. If you’re not prepared to do this, you shouldn’t be picking up.

Those of us who work our dogs invariably handle far more game than the Guns. Thus, it is often up to us to set the standard, which really isn’t very difficult. The fact that shot game today has little commercial value should not be reflected in the way we handle it. I can’t see us ever adopting the continental practice of playing hunting horns over the bag at the end of the day, as that’s not part of our tradition, but we can at least treat game with the respect it deserves.