The bigger the shoot, the less respect the Guns seem to have for the quarry once they've pulled the trigger, says a concerned picker-up
Picking-up is about one thing — finding shot birds. The joy I get from finding one bird that would otherwise be lost gives me more pleasure than shooting even the highest of pheasants.
Over the years I have managed to climb the picking-up tree, from a small syndicate with one dog to picking-up three or four times a week on some very large estates. What has become increasingly apparent is that there seems to be a direct correlation between the number of birds shot and the lack of reverence given to the birds once the trigger has been pulled.
The different types of shoot
At the bottom of this mythical tree, we have the tiny syndicates; the walk one, stand one type. The amount of effort the team puts into picking each and every bird is amazing. Often everyone and their dog will hunt a patch of cover for that one bird that everyone saw crumple but nobody seems able to find. The shouts of “get on”, “high lost” and “find it” are almost at fever pitch as the dogs dive in and out of cover. The Gun looks on in anticipation, waiting for that exuberant and triumphant shout of “I’ve found it”. There will only be two outcomes — either it is found and the person who picked it walks out of the cover proud as punch, or everyone keeps looking until every patch of ground has been checked and double checked.
Further up the tree, we have the small commercial shoots offering let days. Here the birds have a price on their heads. This is where we start to see teams of paid pickers-up who have more than one dog. They are positioned strategically throughout the drive, ready to send their dogs to intercept runners as soon as they hit the ground.
At the end of the drive the dogs burst on to the field to pick the birds lying in front of them. It is like a conveyor belt of dogs and birds as each one returns with its retrieve before being cast out again. Once the field is clear, they concentrate on the margins and hedgerows, searching for the bird they had marked earlier or taking direction from a Gun who insists they have a bird down “over there somewhere”.
These pickers-up are no less intent on finding every bird than those on the small syndicate because this is their job. It is what they are here to do and they take pride in the fact that, if they haven’t picked it, it is because it’s not there. Their determination to pick every last bird often means they miss elevenses, are late for lunch or are the last ones to return after the day has finished.
The keeper and shoot owner know that finding those last few birds can make the difference between making the bag or having to do another drive and one extra bird a drive covers the cost of any picker-up many times over. Unfortunately, due to time constraints, pickers-up are often hurried before their task is completed and birds do get left unpicked.
Then we have what I used to think of as the top of the picking-up tree, the big days, the unlimited days, the shoots where records are there to be broken. We still have teams of pickers-up who are getting paid but their role has changed. No longer are they placed strategically to be able to intercept the runners or mark the birds as they fall. Now they are placed so far back that the Guns are tiny specks in the distance, or worse still they are made to stay in their trucks until the drive is over.
Picking runners becomes impossible, either because you are so far back that you can’t see them, or they make the hedge before even the most driven of dogs could get to them in time. I have yet to meet a picker-up who is able to get a runner while he and his dogs are tucked up in their truck.
Their only role now is to sweep the field in front of them. There is no time to look in the margins and hedgerows, or if there is, they are not allowed to because their dog might peg a tired bird. The fact there might be dozens of dead or pricked birds in those hedges is deemed irrelevant. It doesn’t matter how many birds you have seen land in the field next door, you are not allowed in there because they may use that drive later.
The excuse that the beaters will find the birds as they push it through is nonsense because not all beaters have a dog. Anyone who has been involved in shooting knows that a bird which is lightly pricked can be in the next county before lunch.
When shoots are trying to hit large bags or break records or simply want to give the Guns as much shooting as possible, it becomes a numbers game. If they shoot 200 birds on a drive and 90 per cent of those fall in the field behind the Guns, why bother looking for the 20 birds in the margins or hedgerow when they can hurry on to the next drive and shoot another 200?
As a picker-up it is heartbreaking to know that you are leaving so many birds behind. That is why you are there, to pick all the dead and wounded game. It is what you have always done as you have worked your way up the picking-up tree, yet when you arrive at the top, the rules suddenly change and now 90 per cent is good enough.
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I have been involved with shooting for most of my life and, like many, I have had to defend the sport from antis and ignorance, but in either case, it has always felt easy to do. I am sure we all have the same arguments ready to trip off our tongue the minute we are challenged. But how can we defend a sport in which we do not even bother to look for the birds we have shot?
As a shooting community we are quick to extol the benefits of shooting to all those who will listen, but just as quick to brush information like this under the carpet. We should work together to ensure that a few shoots at the very top of the tree don’t ruin it for everyone.