Getting the best out of your beaters on a shoot
The beating line can make or break a shoot day and Liam Bell believes good leadership is the key
Running a line and managing a beating team is an art. It’s difficult to get right and easy to get wrong. There is a certain amount of pressure on the keeper. While the beaters are no doubt doing their best and, in most cases, know what they are doing, it is the keeper who has to make the difficult decisions and who should be in charge.
When you are in charge, the single most important thing you can ask your beaters to do on a shoot day is to turn up on time. Start times vary and while most shoots get under way at around 9.30am to 10am, it doesn’t always mean the beating team starts at the same time. You might want them to go out earlier to push
a piece of cover out before the Guns get there, or to get them lined out in good time if there is a bit of a walk. To avoid confusion, you need to make sure they know the start times well in advance and that no one is going to wait for them if they are late.
Keep it simple
Most of us use a horn or whistle to start a drive and the same to signal to the Guns that a drive has finished. It keeps things simple. However, which beaters you will want to move when the drive starts will very much depend on where they are in the line — and which flank they are on if they are split into more than one team.
Beating a wood or cover crop for pheasants should be more of a slow march than a race to the end; a steady push toward a flushing point at the end of the drive, with pauses when the birds flush to allow the Guns to reload and the drive to calm down. A cloud of birds can look impressive, but won’t add many to the bag. A steady stream of birds, with pauses for reloading and reflection, is far better.
There will be times when parts of the line have finished bringing ground in and will be stood tapping, directing birds being moved by others towards the front of the drive. At other times, you have to ask the line to stand still to give the birds time to run on ahead. There are stops and starts for many reasons, but it is usually fine as long as everyone does what they are asked and does things immediately.
With the exception of the tapping of sticks, the whistling of dogs and the passing on of instructions, I prefer my line to be quiet. That’s not to say there won’t be some joking and leg-pulling at the beginning and end of the drives, but it needs to be quiet so people can hear instructions and get a feel for what is going on, without my having to shout and repeat myself. A quiet beating line sounds more professional than a noisy one, too, and little things like this are noticed by the Guns.
Driving partridges is quite different. The beaters are a lot further apart, you are usually taking in a lot more ground and you need to keep pressuring the birds and moving them forward or they will turn and break back over your heads.
Flags make the beaters more visible and the cracking they make helps to move birds forward, but there will be times when you will have to ask people to keep their flags down and keep quiet. If the birds are flushing and going in the right direction — and the ones nearest the beating line are lifting others as they go and you start to get a rolling, progressing sort of drive — it is best to wait it out until things quieten down.
As the season progresses, the birds will either sit tighter and be hard to move, or be off and running at the first sight of a beater or flagman or ‘stop’. Much will depend on the ground cover, but again the speed of the line needs controlling. You will want to strike a happy medium between allowing the team time to beat out the cover without leaving any birds behind and the need to keep the birds that are running ahead moving in the right direction. Letting off the pressure allows the birds time to think and work out where the Guns are and how to avoid them.
I don’t mind having dogs in the line as long as they and their handlers know what they are doing. A steady dog that sits to the whistle or stops hunting and returns to its handler immediately it is called is really useful. A wild, free-hunting dog is no use to anyone and can easily ruin a drive, or two if they are close together. Insist handlers have leads in case something occurs, or the dog hots up and stops listening, and ask owners of any aggressive or argumentative dogs to leave them at home.
We ask that all but a few of our most trusted dogs are put on leads or walked to heel in maize crops as it is so tempting for the dogs with birds running on ahead. As there is less cover than in a wood thick with brambles, the birds don’t take much spooking and flushing. This is one of the reasons why a lot of those who shoot only from game crops don’t allow dogs in the beating line. Picking-up, yes, but in the beating line, no.
From a keeper’s perspective, as long as everyone is trying their best, joining in and having a go, we are usually quite easy to please. Having said that, a keeper will be annoyed by someone who doesn’t listen or who won’t be told. Or, worse still, someone who starts issuing instructions to others, ignoring the directions given by yourself or one of the more senior people managing an end of the line. You only need to have one person behave like this and it can upset and disrupt the whole team.
If you are short of beaters, it is easy to fall into the trap of retaining someone like this because they turn up, or because they are local, or they are a friend of one of the other beaters. In reality, their presence does more harm than good.
Turning away someone who behaves like this isn’t easy, but it is always for the greater good. From our point of view, it is better to be a person down than have someone in the line upsetting things.