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Shooting memories I’d rather forget …

Nick Ridley shares some of his worst shooting moments …

man shooting over dog

Nick has been fortunate enough to shoot over many breeds of dog

Following a conversation I had with someone at a game fair recently, I realised that despite there being many thousands of gundogs working in the field not many of their owners have shot over their dogs – and I think there are a lot of people missing out on a lot of fun. Over the years I have been fortunate enough to not only photograph some of the top gundogs in the country, but also had the opportunity to shoot over many different breeds and without any doubt some of my most nerve wracking moments have been when  shooting over HPRs. In fact, some of the memories are so embedded in the inner sanctuary of my mind that I am hoping by sharing them with you I shall then be cleansed and free of the dreams that haunt me.

We had been walking on the edges of a grouse moor in the driving rain for over three hours and everyone was wet and fed up. The gamekeeper kept pointing to patches of rank heather saying “look there’s some grouse s**t, we’ll find them soon”. I remember turning to a fellow Gun and saying: “the only s**t around here was bull”. I was on an HPR training day and it wasn’t going well at all. I was the right hand Gun when a flashy German shorthaired pointer turned into the ever increasing wind and went on point – to lock and load. Let me just briefly explain a couple of things about shooting over any of the hunt, point, retrieve breeds. First of all, these dogs work a far greater pattern than a spaniel, although to be fair, I do know of a couple of spaniels that would match anypointer in the ground they cover when hunting!

HPR dog

HPRs will stop dead and go on point when they wind any game

The pressure was on

They move at quite a pace and when they wind any game they will stop dead and go on point, as a Gun you have to be ever vigilant and concentration levels have to be maintained.

When the dog has locked on and is holding the bird, the Gun and the handler will walk up to the dog and the handler will command the dog to “get in”. In theory the dog flushes the bird
and the Gun takes the shot. “Easy”, I hear you say, however on this occasion it all went very wrong. The dog held the point long enough for me to get into position, my shoulders were aching from the long hours of walking in the appalling weather and I was wet through, the wind was blowing a gale and the pressure was on to get something, anything, in the bag. Just as I got to the dog it moved in and flushed a couple of snipe. As they got whisked away in the gale, I raised my gun, flicked off the safety catch, swung through and pulled the trigger. now just one other point, this was a young dog, it had worked its paws off to find the only feathered game anywhere on the moor, it had pointed the birds, it had held the point long enough for the Gun to get in place.


Just as Nick got to the dog, it moved in and flushed a snipe

The reward for all its hard work was going to be a retrieve – wrong because when I pulled the trigger nothing happened, nothing at all. I wanted the wind to pick me up and drop me far away. The steam started to rise from my head as I developed the biggest blush ever known to mankind. Like  everyone that shoots, I have an extensive list of excuses for when I miss and excuse number 56 is: “Do not forget to put cartridges in your gun. ” This took place years ago and yet I can still clearly see the look of despair on the handler’s face and the look of disgust from the dog as it was cast back into the wind. I felt as small as the snipe that were probably laughing their little feathered socks off. It wasn’t many days after I returned home when I got an application form in the post from the RSPB with a note suggesting I should give up shooting and become a twitcher.

Driven shooting nightmare

However, without any shadow of a doubt my most acutely embarrassing day is still so deeply engrained in my mind that if I were to have an MRI scan the doctors would be able to see the disaster unfold in high definition. I had been asked to shoot on a walked up novice retriever field trial and for the first 30 minutes it was fantastic.

dog with hares

The day started well for Nick, bagging two hares both with his first barrel

I had the first two shots of the trial and killed two hares, both with my first barrel, and I was feeling on top form, unfortunately it was all about to go downhill very fast. The weather was closing in and it was decided to turn the trial into a mini driven day as most of the game had moved into the more sheltered strips of woodland. I make no bones about it, I am rubbish at driven shooting, give me a snap or reflex shot in a tangle of woodland or a fast crossing bird and I will have a good go at it, but give me a bird that comes sailing over my head or a one that I have been watching heading towards me and I may as well throw a handful of sand at it.

trialling dogs

People who trial their dogs put in a huge amount of time and effort to get them ready

People that trial their dogs put a fantastic amount of time and effort in getting their dogs ready and it is the responsibility of the Guns to make sure they get enough retrieves to give them every chance to succeed. On this occasion I let them down badly. From the very first drive it went wrong. I was positioned next to the gallery and I could feel the pressure building to the point where I was willing every pheasant that took to the wing to fly in any direction than anywhere near me, but fate was cruel and sod’s law reared its ugly head and bird after bird headed in my direction and I missed shot after shot. The more I missed the more I could hear mutterings coming from the gallery and the more they muttered the more I missed – it was a downward spiral to the shooting equivalent of hell. It all came to a head as the beaters pushed through a small belt of trees, the birds were getting very hard to come by and I once again found myself right next to the waiting handlers and dogs. I was wearing a pair of electronic ear muffs and those of you that have worn these will know that they are really efficient at cutting out the noise of a shotgun, but equally they pick up speech very well, in fact they magnify the human voice. I am sure I heard someone say: “Oh no, not him again” and I couldn’t quite make out if the wind had got up or the sighs of desperation had increased, but I do know I was a quivering wreck. I took a deep breath and managed to make contact with a couple of real screamers. I was feeling a lot better until someone came up to me at the end of the trial and patted me on the back and said “about time”!

I vowed never to shoot on another trial and I suspect there are handlers up and down the country that will be grateful for that decision. I also vowed to always use passive ear defenders to help prevent any further erosion of my confidence.