Walk on the wild side
Wild bird shooting, whether driven or walked-up, is growing in popularity among sporting connoisseurs, says Richard Negus
Have you ever discovered that you have become fashionable by accident? Wildfowlers shared this experience a few years ago when metropolitan young men intentionally started sporting beards and looking unkempt.
A game shooter’s garb, no longer ancient and malodorous, is now ‘cottagecore’, according to The Guardian’s fashion correspondent Priya Elan, who describes the look as a “romanticised ideal of masculinity”. Reared driven shooting has been en vogue for more than a century. The Edwardians, the bright young things of the 1920s, Madonna and Guy Ritchie, David Beckham, Wills and Kate – for generations the place for the ‘in crowd’ to be seen was at covert-side.
The antithesis to all this glamour has been rough shooting, walked-up or driven days where the bag is made up by native wild game, waders and wildfowl. To achieve a bag at all requires hard toil by the Guns and even more labour from keepers and landowners. Habitat provision and nurture, along with pest control, are everything. Every egg laid, every brood, every chick that grows from bee-sized fluff ball to poult and then to adulthood is an example of triumph over adversity.
Weather is a threat. Cover crops can fail, leaving broods at the mercy of avian predators. An inopportune downpour will kill chicks, if a marauding badger hasn’t got there first. There are no certainties here, and therefore it is harder to sell to a public weaned on buying their shooting on a price-per-bird basis.
Reawakening to the delights of wild bird shooting
Despite these perceived negatives, British Guns are reawakening to the delights of wilder, rougher shooting and this suggests that a number are even starting to view reared driven birds as passé.
Rob Yorke is one of my favourite writers and thinkers on the countryside. He has a theory as to why this is the case. “Michael McCarthy, an environmental correspondent, once wrote glowingly about farmland, managed for shooting wild grey partridges, being a mecca for wildlife. The shooting community is rediscovering this core value in what shooting is about.
“As shooting has become more popular, it has spoiled itself. Shooting is not about what guns demand, or expect, but what the countryside provides as surplus when managed well for wildlife – which includes wild game. Aldo Leopold was a hunter–conservationist whose spirit UK shooting would do well to embody as it embraces wilder, higher-quality hunts of unpredictable, habitat-savvy pheasants in November, or a brace of snapshot January woodcock.”
Rob’s views on land management challenge those on all sides of the shooting and conservation debate. He is, however, regarded by many as not only a speaker of truth but also something of a clairvoyant regarding changes in land management practices.
Charlie Brownlow, a highly regarded sporting agent based in the Scottish Borders, might be expected to be an exponent of a commercial model of shooting but, curiously, he isn’t and his views chime largely with Yorke’s.
“In recent years, the UK has been through a period where ‘quality’ meant the height of the bird. The higher the better was the cry and I suspect this may always be the case to an extent. However, I think there is a shifting idea of ‘quality’ in the shooting world and there is a change afoot towards the less commercial style of shoot. Of course, there are a few people involved in shooting who will always sell the tall birds for tall stories and big bags for brags.”
It is intriguing that Charlie believes that some agents seem to be perpetuating a type of shooting that is becoming ‘old hat’ compared with smaller bag wilder days. I wondered if this was due to the simplicity of charging per bird. Charlie Brownlow is a keen angler and notes that, “as a sea-trout and salmon fisherman, I will happily pay good money for fishing in a beautiful spot in the knowledge that the wild species I am targeting may not play ball. I don’t see why shooting can’t be sold in a similar fashion. Value the experience over the result. Of course, this won’t suit everyone but if the right people are seen to be extolling the virtues of rough/smaller days then the rest will follow. How often do you read articles and interviews with some of our better-known Shots and they barely mention driven shooting when talking about why they love shooting?
“A private ‘wild’ bird shoot offering accommodation, gun bus, food and drink could, to my mind, be able to name its price.”
What is it that makes a wild bird such a different beast to its reared relative, and why would Guns pay top price to pit themselves against such a bird? A wild pheasant, since hatching, knows every branch, twig and leaf of every tree in a remarkably large area. The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT)conducted some research in Lower Austria that showed a hen pheasant and her brood’s territory can cover up to 11 hectares. Merely to survive to adulthood shows a remarkable level of natural vigour and self-preservation. Thus, when stood on a peg on a wild driven day you are at a distinct disadvantage to your quarry.
When walking-up you are now a hunter, no mere customer awaiting your birds to be delivered to you. The grey partridge, meanwhile, is the epitome of wild game. If your host at the morning’s briefing tells you that greys are there to be shot, usually accompanied by the caveat “if you are a good enough”, this indicates a number of things. Firstly, the land over which you are shooting is well managed. A shootable surplus of grey partridge is only possible in places where habitat provision, farming practice and pest control are of the highest order. In an increasingly more conservation-conscious shooting world, provenance is becoming a major driver.
Secondly, shooting is a fashion-led business for many. Look at the advertising for sporting clothing, guns or even dog food. The photography shows attractive people pitting their wits, waterproofs and canine pals against the dramatic backdrop of a wild British countryside. It may be a romantic image but it is also aspirational. Obviously many Guns will scoff at this, noting that they have for years been shooting in this smaller-scale, rougher way. I say rejoice, for you are trendsetters. Finally, the rise in popularity of wilder shooting is because it brings man and nature together to a far greater degree.
In 2015, the British Association for Shooting and Conservation (BASC) undertook a piece of research titled The Personal Value of Shooting. It looks at the social, physical and personal wellbeing that shooting brings to participants. For those involved with wild birds, there is significantly more intimacy with the natural world, be this direct participation in habitat management, pest control or liaison with others involved with the land.
It equally applies to those who simply know that the money that they pay for their shooting is directly funding best-practice conservation. As one respondent to the BASC study commented: “Shooting is connection with seasons and land, with animals and nature, and the natural cycle of predated and predator; eating what I shoot, creating a better ecosystem as a result, and connecting with ancient skills, field and bushcraft, while being active and engaged.” It appears that the closer to nature one gets, the better one feels about life.
Experience, not numbers
This is not to say reared shooting is at an end – it remains an integral part of our sport. Yet the shift in what constitutes ‘quality’ shooting looks set to see wilder sport move from a quirky niche to a full-blown trend. How much more memorable will your shooting day be if the bag not only includes skirling pheasant and bullet-like partridge but also darting snipe, springing teal or jinking woodcock?
How much more enjoyable will it be to dine from a small but varied smorgasbord rather than a one-dimensional gigantic dish? In valuing your sport by experience rather than numbers, will you recapture your hunting gene and enrich your wellbeing? Fashions come and go but I hope that this one will stay on trend for longer than the garish floral shirt that hangs unworn in my wardrobe.