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A humane kill is what we should be aiming for

A humane kill, together with the requirement to minimise wounding, is something that should be at the forefront of all Shots’ minds, says Alasdair Mitchell

Shot pheasants

Do your best to ensure that all shot birds are accounted for

I once invited the late Willy Poole, that great countryman and writer, for a day’s pheasant shooting. He declined. He claimed his eyesight was no longer what it was, with the result that he had been wounding too many birds of late. Our conversation took place when we were following the local foxhounds on our quad bikes.

I think deer stalking is humane. A 1999 study found that just 2% of red deer escape after being shot. The advent of shooting sticks, range finders, telescopic sights and tracking dogs may all have a role to play. By contrast, Victorian stalking books are littered with accounts of chasing wounded deer across the hills. How times have changed. For the better, in that regard.

A rifle fires a single projectile with great precision. Unlike a rifle, a shotgun is a scatter-gun. A humane kill with a shotgun entails launching a suitably dense cloud of shot, with the requisite velocity and energy, to intercept a fast-moving target. It is no surprise that the wounding rate for shotgunning is far higher than that for rifle shooting. But how high is too high?

The question could equally be asked about driven pheasants. The traditional side-by-side game gun, which reached its current form more than 100 years ago, was never designed to shoot the sort of very high pheasants that have become something of a recent fad. You wouldn’t expect to use a Ford Model T on a motorway, would you?

Not surprisingly, high bird specialists favour weighty, long-barrelled over-and-unders, blasting heavy loads of large shot though tight chokes. I have wondered why they don’t abandon all pretence and use recoil-absorbing semi-autos. The saving grace of high-bird shoots is that they have large teams of pickers-up situated well behind the line. Nobody actually has to shoot at a high bird; it’s a recreational choice, influenced by your conscience and confidence. But if your kills-to-cartridges ratio is, say, one in six, how many of those five seemingly ineffectual shots were clean misses? Accepting the limitations of your skill and ammunition are key to minimising wounding rates.

A study of waterfowl hunting in Illinois, USA, published this year in the journal Wildlife Biology, is thought-provoking. The researchers evaluated 37 years of waterfowl harvest data overlapping the transition to non-lead ammunition. It shows that the proportion of ducks and geese that were reportedly hit but escaped actually dropped after lead was banned.

It is probable that most of those Illinois hunters turned to steel after lead was banned. Before the ban, many were sceptical about steel. I have an inkling that the subsequent decline in wounding may have been due to hunters taking greater care to shoot within reasonable range.

It is said that Winston Churchill, attending a rough shoot, emptied his service revolver on a distant hare, to no effect. When asked why, Churchill said he simply wanted to let the hare know that it was taking part in the day’s proceedings. How many of us have succumbed to similar sentiments, at some point? I know I have.