When Helen Nakielny picks up her gun nowadays, it's normally around the family farm. So how did she get on when she was invited on a driven pheasant day?
I have been fortunate enough to be involved in the wonderful world of fieldsports for most of my life. From rough shooting with my father to great times on the beating lines, I can still claim that one of my greatest achievements was to be head beater by the age of 18. Such was my devotion to the line, I even managed to beat on beaters’ day. And one of the best experiences of my life was to spend my gap year working as a gamekeeper.
As the years have passed and other responsibilities have taken hold, when I pick up a gun it is for duck-flighting and the occasional tamp around the family farm.
Nervously anticipating the driven day
So an invitation to take a gun on a driven day, and 100 birds at that, was met with mixed feelings. First was gratitude – it isn’t every day that such a generous invitation lands on the doormat. Next came excitement, it may have been some years since I was regularly involved in the world of driven shooting, but the memories were all good. Then came nerves. There was a world of difference between the rough shooting that had taken up my winters and the pressures of standing in line with a picker-up at your back. I could imagine the deep sighs, and the stifled giggles of the beaters as another bird flew over. It was then I gave thanks that it wasn’t a local shoot.
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Pickers-up v Guns
Of course there was always a healthy rivalry with the pickers-up; often a somewhat strained relationship with the Guns who would variously be too bad, too low, too demanding. Guns existed in a different world where wellies were worn to be admired rather than wade through mud, and wax jackets were for style rather than warmth and protection against brambles or wrapped around barbed wire fences. But, although the clothes needed for standing at a peg are not required to withstand the rough and tumble of the beating line, they nevertheless have a function to fulfil. Standing on a peg, as I discovered, is cold. But being able to shoot accurately depends on retaining at least some sensation. In our wonderful British winters, this can take some doing. In the UK you are also almost certain to get wet, cold, and ever so slightly windswept. Staying stylish is the last of your concerns.
Things have certainly got easier for women, finally there’s recognition that the female of the species also likes to take part in fieldsports, and preferably in clothes that are not just fit for purpose but that also actually fit. And, finally, I had found a form of clothes shopping that was almost fun, although not nearly as enjoyable as an afternoon’s clay tuition.
Mixed gang of Guns
The day arrived, a damp misty drizzle that left us imagining the steep hills rather than being able to actually see them. We gathered in a farm yard, where I experienced the joy of manoeuvring my battle tank of an ancient Defender around some rather smart Range Rovers. The usual bunch of Labradors jostled around the legs of picker-ups, spaniels peeping excitedly from the backs of pick-ups while the beaters guffawed and banter poured out of a lean to by the house. I distinctly recall thinking I would be far more comfortable with a stick in hand, than my 20-bore.
We were a mixed gang of Guns, all friends of the host, gathered from all around the UK. I was very clearly the inexperienced one. But a kind host and an experienced shoot captain soon put pay to the nerves, as did a stiff shot of sloe gin. Peg numbers were drawn, “move up two on each drive” and the rules of the day were carefully explained. One blast of the horn to start the drive, one to finish, strictly no ground game, and with the stern reminder that safety was absolutely paramount, we were finally on our way.
Each peg was clearly marked. For the first drive I was half way up a steep bank, facing an oak wood fringed by ramble clumps that suggested late surges of, by-now, wily birds. I was also joined by a picker-up. “You nervous? Just tell yourself it’s excitement. Wait and see, you’ll be fine. And keep your eyes to the right, that’s where they’ve been coming all season.” And so the advice kept coming in little snippets. “They’ll be moving faster than you think, get on them, and swing through.” Again, he was right, and I did manage some creditable shots. I was almost starting to enjoy this. And, as the Guns got to know each other, the banter that had seemed so unique to the beating line, started to flow. This really was starting to be fun.
Variety was the watchword of the day, as it should be of any memorable day in the field. And after a drive of high birds, we moved down the valley to tackle snipe. Here I thought I would be in my element. This was the kind of game Iand form of shooting that I felt most comfortable with. But pride, as they always say, goes before a fall. Not a single bird fell to my gun – and there were an awful lot that really should have done. Of course, a jinking snipe is never an easy target but the Guns to my left and right didn’t seem to be having any trouble at all. I give full credit to my picker-up for his restraint on this one. A hand on the shoulder and a whispered “I fancied a break anyway” brought a smile to both our faces. As did a delicious lunch of game pie.
The drizzle had kept up all morning and everyone welcomed a chance to take cover, take stock and to a large extent, make fun of our many and varied mistakes. If this was what driven shooting was like, I could get used to it. There was also a chance to hear about the experiences of other Guns. Some shot every week, others had tales to tell of days on the moors shooting grouse over pointers. Conversation flowed and it was a slightly impatient shoot captain who hurried us back out and into the elements. Fortified by good food and even better conversation we were off once again.
The beaters had apparently set off earlier, which after a long and winding drive down narrow country lanes, made perfect sense. Here the landscape closed in and took on a slightly magical quality. Finally we emerged from a track through a tangled wood to find ourselves taking pegs in the ruined remains of what must have once been an extremely grand house. Huge drops of rain fell from the leaves and if it hadn’t been for the near freezing temperatures we could have been in a tropical rainforest on the other side of the world. But there wasn’t much time to consider our surroundings, within minutes of the horn being blown a steady stream of birds were making their way over. These were proper January birds, wise, wily and high. With a limited clearing, the birds were there-and-gone in seconds. Despite helpful cries of “over”, birds were gone within seconds, often leaving nothing behind except exhilaration.
It was testament to the beaters and keeper, and their dogs, that each drive had been carried out quietly – the tapping of sticks on trees and the peeping of whistles were the only sounds to be heard. The jokes on this shoot were clearly kept within the confines of the beaters’ wagon. Pickers-up had been efficient, encouraging and a joy to be with. If this was driven shooting, then I was being won over. It is easy to be put off by the air of mystique, and of course cost, but while it might not be a cheap day out, when it’s done well it is a memorable one.
And as a form of sport, it combines all that is best in fieldsports: camaraderie, fieldcraft, skill and good luck, all set in some of the most beautiful countryside that Britain has to offer. Really, who wouldn’t want to be a part of that?