What makes a good game shoot? It is the birds, the welcome, perhaps even the transport? We asked the experts for their opinions.
We’ve all been to a new game shoot and our friends have asked us what it was like afterwards. In many ways this is a position of some influence. What you say will have an impact on the way that game shoot is viewed by the people who respect your opinion.
How do you judge it? What do you mark it on? Perhaps you and your friends already have a system of game shoot rating, but even then how do you bridge the gap between your experience and the perspective of someone who wasn’t there?
This is very tricky ground and in such a traditional arena as the world of driven game shooting the whole concept of marking can leave a bit of a sour taste. But if it’s good enough for all the enthusiastic entrants to Strictly Come Dancing every autumn then why can’t we have a bit of fun with the way we experience new game shoots?
We asked a team of expert game shooters to have a think about the things that are most important to them when they visit a new game shoot (or an old one for that matter) and here are the most common themes we discovered. Interestingly, there were some conflicts.
For instance, some guns prefer to travel in their own vehicle around a game shoot, meanwhile others love the communal fun of the gunbus. Also some guns hate shooting through while others love it. It’s a minefield but here are our findings…
1 Arrival and welcome
It’s important to have a visible host on arrival, and preferably someone with a sense of humour. Shoot day morning is a stressful time for any host but part of the skill is hiding the pressure and greeting everyone with a big smile and a joke or two.
A bacon sandwich and a coffee on arrival can be restorative, especially if you have driven a long way, which we often have. And a functional game shoot room makes a big difference. It doesn’t have to be in a castle but if it’s raining and cold a cowshed with a hole in the roof is disappointing.
A warm cowshed with a few bales and some friendly faces on the other hand can be perfect.
It is also really important to have the opportunity to meet the gamekeeper at the beginning of the day. Again he will no doubt be under a lot of pressure at this point, but it really helps if you know who the keeper is throughout the day. It can be odd when the first time you meet the keeper is when you say thank you and goodbye.
This will trickle down from the top, as in any organisation, and there are days when it all clicks, as well as some when it doesn’t. Obviously we want to shoot with good friends, or at least friends of good friends, and this can be a crucial factor in how we enjoy the day.
But also friendly and enthusiastic beaters and pickers-up really brighten the day. It doesn’t take much on either side. A big smile and a “good morning, how are you?” opens the communication and reminds everyone it’s supposed to be fun. Yes you might be disappointed with your own shooting or the quality of the birds but that’s no excuse for surliness on shoot day.
One of our experts also had this to say about joining a team of strangers: “I don’t like joining any team to make up eight. Sometimes it is OK, but usually you have the odd plonker or two, which I can do without. Go as a team or not at all.”
3 Quality of shooting
It may seem obvious but this is rather important. No doubt every one has been on a day’s shooting when the birds weren’t there but everyone had a fantastic time anyway. In that instance the atmosphere and no doubt a dose of black humour saved the day.
But generally we go shooting because we want to shoot some good birds and we want them to be spread up and down the line. One correspondent said: “They don’t need to be ridiculously high but we want to be pleased to hit rather than disappointed to miss.”
It’s probably no coincidence that the days which spring most easily to mind are those when the birds flew as well as possible and our own shooting matched their performance. There is a tremendous satisfaction in shooting well when in the hot seat.
4 Drives and pegs
Factors which were important to our panel were shooting for a full day i.e. four to five drives minimum and they must last more than 10 minutes.
Yes it might be possible to achieve the bag on one drive, but a day’s shooting is about the ebb and flow of moving around the farm or the estate and enjoying the contrast between the excitement of shooting, the chance to chat between drives and the anticipation on the peg.
And even if there aren’t many birds in a drive we would rather spend a few minutes in solitude on the peg waiting while the theatre of blanking-in goes on. At least we get the opportunity to enjoy the no doubt stunning British countryside in the meantime. And flexibility of pegging to suit prevailing conditions demonstrates a game shoot which is in control of its faculties.
A couple of the panel mentioned the importance of spacing pegs out properly. The old guideline was 40 yards between pegs and this seems sensible. Too close and it’s almost impossible to tell whose bird it is, leading to all sorts of problems.
Too far away and some cracking birds will slip through the line. And finally on this subject there were strong feelings about back guns. “I hate back guns,” was one response. Fairly unequivocal.
One of our correspondents said: “I like to be able to see where I am going. Much more fun than being in a gun bus with Perspex windows you cannot see out of.”
Meanwhile another said: “Staying on the estate grounds and not rushing around public roads or shooting over public roads makes it very special.” Of course this is not always possible but everyone agreed it was important that the transport on the day works, with perhaps the opportunity to laugh at someone who gets their Range Rover stuck…
This was a controversial area for our panel in some respects. Two different statements: “Lunch is key. Not shooting through.” And: “I like to shoot through so good long elevenses are important to break the day.” It seems that this remains a divisive issue and we are not here to make judgement on right or wrong, but which ever way round it’s done if it’s good then it works, as one of our epicurean contributors remarked: “Lunch and wine at the end of the day for me… and this is a big part of the day so the food should be well cooked and there should be no cheap wine.”
Another said: “I know it sounds a bit odd, but I think you judge the quality of the game shoot on many things, but you always remember the glass of plonk at the end with your meal, well I do anyway!”
7 Management and respect
With the rise and rise of commercial shooting one panel member said: “I like to know how interested the game shoot is in wildlife and conservation, beyond just filling hoppers with wheat.”
Meanwhile the rest of the group placed a lot of emphasis on: “Respect for and proper treatment of shot game, from the field to the chiller.”
We also like to see: “A sense of efficiency, are things neat and tidy? It suggests that the planning and execution of the day will be good.”
Beyond that a good explanation of the drives on the way to the peg and the efficiency of the beating team are also important.
The adeptness of the host and keepering team on issues such as problem solving, a willingness to help with enquiries, flexibility to change and efficiency before, during and after the day are all factors which will lead to teams enjoying the day and making a prompt booking for next year.
8 Filthy lucre
In the world of commercial shooting all teams seek a friendly and traditional approach. We might be paying for the day but we don’t want to be reminded of that. In fact what we are paying for is to feel like a welcome guest at an Edwardian shooting party.
Of course the bill still has to be paid and more often than not a long time in advance so all that remains is a desire to: “Not be charged for a handful of birds over the bag.” If we shoot 300 on a 200 bird day then fair enough, as long as the communication has been there and the day has been managed accordingly.
But 10 per cent leeway either way remains a popular concept. Beyond that we seek value for money and this can only be judged by benchmarking against similar game shoots.
One final comment from one of the panel: “No fines – I don’t much like huge fines for white pheasants etc.”
There was little discord on this. All guns with dogs love to see the pickers-up working, but not under their dogs’ noses at the end of the drive, or even worse during the drive. “Everyone wants to see pickers-up who are sympathetic to those with dogs and prioritise picking pricked birds rather than the ones around the guns’ feet.”
10 Send ‘em home happy
This is an important full-stop to our wonderful day’s shooting and we still enjoy being presented with a brace of birds by the keeper as we express our appreciation of the hard work put in by the home team.
Whether the day has met all expectations or not it’s great to have a chat with the keeper and see it from a different perspective and to have a cheerful farewell from the host. That way as you pootle down the country lane, race along the M6 or snooze in the passenger seat the dominant emotion is pure happiness.
And on the gamekeeper’s wish list…
Guns who kill birds cleanly out in front.
Guns who put a second barrel into a wounded bird and not just move on to the next one.
Guns who know their limitations and do not shoot at anything beyond their capabilities.
Guns who mark down wounded birds and link with pickers-up at the drive’s end.
Guns who sleeve their shotgun at the whistle then spend time collecting their dead and watching the pickers-up.
Guns who enjoy the complete spectrum on offer and enjoy the whole day, not just the shooting.
Guns who thank beaters, pickers-up and keepers at the day’s end.