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Midwinter game days – tips to keep warm in harsh conditions

Malcolm Plant tells of his experience of midwinter game days and braving biting winds off the North Sea

I was talking to the owner of a lovely farming and shooting estate in the Wylye Valley in Wiltshire, just to the north of Salisbury. Some wandering-syndicate friends of mine had kindly included me in a day’s partridge shooting at the end of October. The estate shoots partridges from September onwards and then also includes pheasant drives in November and December. Interestingly, when it comes to midwinter game days, the owner said that he doesn’t sell shooting in January, but keeps the end-of-season shooting for his family and friends.

He feels that the number of birds available in January are not sufficient for the estate to provide the quality of shooting that he would like to offer, and the uncertainties of the weather at that time of year compound the difficulty. For these reasons, his family takes their shooting at the season’s end.

Midwinter game days

Cold weather can make the hard work of beating far more comfortable


January cocks

By the last month of the game season, both partridges and pheasants are strong and mature, so long as they are kept well fed. The aerial capability of the pheasant at this time of year, with the assistance of a decent breeze, makes it a challenging quarry to put in the pot.

A high pheasant, curling on the breeze from a wooded hillside, going slightly downhill, flat out with its wings set, requires the complete skill set from the shooter. Read the flightline, set your feet, mount the gun to your cheek with the gun muzzles continually pointing at your quarry, pull ahead of the bird and pull the trigger. All in one continuous coordinated movement, with no hesitations. It’s not easy.

Midwinter game days

Waiting for birds in winter can be a true test of character


Festive days

The tradition of many sports to hold events on Boxing Day is mirrored in game shooting, particularly with family farm shoots where sons and daughters are involved under the watchful eyes of their elders. Often this may be the only game shot on the farm during the year, with three or four walking Guns following the labradors along hedgerows and ditches in search of the odd pheasant or partridge. I have many photographs and emails from parents, with thanks for coaching Johnnie or Julie, and it is rewarding to see a junior proudly holding the result of an early good shot.

For larger DIY game syndicates, shooting over a farm or two, the shoots held between Christmas and New Year can be the high spots of their season. For many years, I belonged to such a group, shooting land close to the North Sea in Yorkshire. We released a few hundred pheasants each year and met once a fortnight to put one or two in the pot. One benefit we had was that the conifer woodland was a favourite stopover for migrating woodcock that arrived from the north in late November and were refuelling before some of them migrated further south. We were careful to follow guidelines on woodcock populations, but did take the occasional bird for the table.

Midwinter game days

Shoots held over the festive season can be a particular highlight

One of the syndicate members had a brace of woodcock for Christmas lunch over many years and was always given first shout if there were woodcock in the day’s bag.

By Christmas this location could be pretty bleak, particularly if the wind came round to the north-east. I remember on one occasion the first snow squall came through at about midday and the U-shaped line of Guns around one end of a wood looked like eight snowmen, static in the landscape.

The shoot captain called the lunch break in the nearest barn and over a flask of hot soup and a sausage roll, we reluctantly but rapidly came to a consensus that close of play should be declared, as horizontal snow drifted past the barn doors. Intrepid, but not that intrepid.

Midwinter game days

Having hand-warmers in your pockets will keep frozen fingers at bay


Dawn ducks

The same farmland provided us with a series of productive flightponds, with a whole variety of ducks commuting in for shelter and plentiful food after their daily visits to the Tees estuary.

Both dawn and dusk flights did occur during the season, but in January I found it a bit challenging to arrive at the ponds half an hour before dawn to draw a peg number for one of the six hides we had constructed around the ponds. No less challenging was finding the way by torchlight, along muddy banks, to the allocated hide without going for an accidental swim in the midwinter water.

But on occasion, the incoming duck flight could be stunning, with a whole variety of ducks dropping in through the brightening gloom as the sun rose over the North Sea.


Winter woollies

At these winter shoots, keeping warm with layers of clothing and a good cap is possible, but your hands are a different proposition. I don’t really like shooting in gloves and even if they are close-fitting enough to provide a feel for the gun and trigger, I find the tightness inhibits the circulation.

In dry weather, the cheap woollen riding gloves with small rubber bobbles on their surface are pretty good, but I haven’t yet found gloves that work for long in cold, wet conditions. Any suggestions for winter shooting gloves would be welcome.

With bare hands, I prefer to use heated hand-warmers in my chest pockets and the best of these are the catalyst-burner type fuelled by lighter petrol. I used to favour the older charcoal-fuelled type, but they could be a bit temperamental depending on the charcoal fuel rods.

While we can dress for the weather, our dogs can’t, so make sure they have a chance to warm up

A pair of spaniels belonging to one of our team of Guns used to put us to shame. Arriving on a frosty morning, they would leap enthusiastically out of the Land Rover, then run immediately to a frozen puddle, break the ice and lie down in the icy water. Lovely. Looking back through my shooting diary, the coldest morning temperature I can find when arriving at a shoot meeting point was -14°C, when I was loading for a client of mine at a renowned North Yorkshire shoot near Helmsley. It was a classic blue sky winter’s day, but on the first drive we were out of the sun in a deep wooded valley. Halfway through the drive, my client shouted: “You’re fumbling!” “No fingers,” I responded, and we both howled with laughter. 

So the Wiltshire strategy for January does have some merits, with the family shoots having the possibility of high curling pheasants on a gentle breeze, albeit in smaller numbers. And with a family and friends day, there is always the possibility of changing dates if the forecast is particularly unhelpful. And hopefully the weather won’t be as challenging as the North Sea coast in a stiff north-easterly.