A good shoot day host who knows how to leave the guns feeling happy throughout is a highly skilled fellow, as John Walker explains.
How to be a good shoot day host? Like any gathering of friends at a party, a shoot day needs a host, and what should a shoot day be if not a gathering of friends having a party? The visiting team may field its own host in the shape of its regular shoot captain but let us concentrate on hosts put up by the home team, the land owner or shoot tenant. Like a bidet, people aspire to have one about the place in the belief that it adds class, but not everyone knows precisely how to use them. So it is with a shoot day host.
Whereas the keeper is quite properly regarded by all as the ‘Lord of Hosts’, a god in his own particular kingdom, the meeter and greeter is more likely to be defined as ‘Mine Host’. His approach should not be unlike the avuncular chap who runs the pub, with a cheery word for all and an eye for how his team are delivering. He needs to be a tweedy master of ceremonies, equally at home exchanging humorous bon mots with a passing beater as discussing oil futures with a gun in the line.
On the face of it, it is a difficult trick to perform, but there are people out there who have mastered the art and are pearls beyond price, so what are the rules of engagement that make a good shoot day host?
1. A good shoot day host knows the ground
One of the best shoot day hosts of my acquaintance is a belted earl, whose lunch is only bettered by his intimate knowledge of his land, his understanding of where his birds may be and where they may fly in any given condition of weather, calendar or time of day. Admittedly he has better than six decades of learning, so a good shoot day host with lesser provenance should make it his business to discover in every particular how the shoot works. Generally, landowners are the best shoot day hosts as they share with the guns the same desire to wring the full potential from the day.
2. A good shoot day host knows the home team
As with impressive knowledge of the ground, so the good host knows and is known to the home team, so beware the person who, for whatever reason, appears to have been parachuted in for the day. He may own the adjoining estate, go cycling with the owner, or know how to open a bottle of Champagne with a Cossack sabre, but unless he knows the team, he will be next to useless and the degree of his uselessness will swiftly become apparent.
Shoot days only work if everyone from the keeper downwards knows the plot. A host who doesn’t know the people is likely not to know how the intricate jigsaw puzzle of keeper, beaters, stops, flag men, pickers-up, game cart driver and the lady who drives the kitchen fit together. A good shoot day host standing behind the line is also the keeper’s eyes and ears as the drives progress, so when faced with a parachutist who barely knows his team, expect the worst and hope for the best.
3. A good shoot day host knows the visiting team
The relationship between those selling the shooting and the team of visiting guns investing in their day can be a fragile one. Good shoot day hosts have the ability to understand and manage the expectations of both and have, where possible, prepared themselves, as forewarned is forearmed and never more so than when the guns begin to get fractious. Regular teams are mostly known to their regular shoot day hosts, but with today’s technology, use of search engines on a list of eight named newcomers can be surprisingly fruitful and give clues. Even the dullest-witted shoot day host should realise that if a visiting team is being led by a person who has represented his country on the clays or regularly turns up in the list of the 50 best game shots, chances are that he will not surround himself with duffers. Research is never wasted.
4. A good shoot day host knows the order of things
Assuming the introductory preliminaries have been concluded, the visiting guns met and greeted, the first formal opportunity for shoot day hosts to shine and stamp their mark on the day will be the safety briefing. Knowing what is projected to happen, in what order and how it will be delivered shows the manner of the host. The best briefing I have ever heard was delivered in three minutes by the owner of a Scottish estate, before his castle, in a blizzard. It was without doubt the most erudite and above all, witty, heads up for the day in prospect and left guns, guests and host in paroxysms of laughter, but it covered all the bases. Less good was a 35-minute family history delivered with military precision by a host, the relevance of which was then, and remained, forever unclear. The day was as bad as the briefing.
5. A good shoot day host knows the objectives
Buying shooting from people who are not necessarily one’s bosom buddies needs high degrees of social skill and negotiation. One of the most annoying things to be perpetrated by any host is to organise and operate the day entirely to their own satisfaction with no obvious thought for, or consultation with, the guns. Not being consulted about shooting through, lack of attention to the comfort needs of lady guns or guests, a penchant for pandering to the requirements of beaters or pickers-up rather than the guns, pulling drives and general lack of flexibility does not make for a relaxed environment or happy day. It is entirely up to the host and keeper, working in concert, to manage the delivery of the bag that has been agreed, and explain if it hasn’t.
6. A good shoot day host knows the protocol of picking-up
An enthusiastic and proficient team of pickers-up adds much to the shooting experience and nothing gives more pleasure at the end of a drive than the sight of a lady in tweed working a gaggle of sundry mutts, going about their task of hoovering up the fallen harvest. For most guns, the end of the drive is the preferred moment to pick-up, runners excluded, but if it is the norm to allow picking-up through the drive then the host should make this clear. If guns have their own hounds at heel and wish to work them, it is entirely the host’s job to ensure this happens and not watch the regulars working the ground to their exclusion. Guns can get very grumpy if not allowed to demonstrate the skills of their own dogs and as the old Russian proverb has it: “If you are a host to your guest, be a host to his dog also”.
7. A good shoot day host knows when to peg or not
The biggest imponderable and greatest skill in game shooting is in getting the quarry to fly in the preferred direction, over the line and hopefully, over all the guns. Thus, when approaching a drive where the wind is likely to be less than helpful, for example blowing a full gale along the line, the good host will be faced with an interesting dilemma. To religiously place the guns on pre-positioned pegs with a reasonable chance that half of them will see nothing worth shooting as the birds exit through the side, or to assess where the guns might be placed to better advantage. The good host will consult the keeper and if brave enough, will put the guns where they might stand a fighting chance of seeing a bird worth saluting and even move them around during the drive, for a gun starved of sport will be an unhappy gun.
8. A good shoot day host knows score
Unless lucky enough to be a guest or own your own shoot, chances are that you and your chums will have bought shooting on a commercial basis. This will be in the form of a contract that defines a potential and attainable bag size. The buyer agrees to bring a team of guns and the seller agrees to use best endeavours to put enough feather in the air to secure enough birds in the bag. As experienced shooters know, this is not a given, but depends upon preparation by the keeper, prevailing weather, the competence of the guns and pure luck. The host is the catalyst during the day and should have readily to hand a well prepared catalogue of reasons and excuses for why things may not be going according to plan, but more than anything, should never attempt to disguise the truth. Regular shooters can tell to within a very small percentage how many birds are in the bag and they are not stupid, so best not treat them as though they are. Guns have long memories and never forget when their host has treated them kindly, or not.
9. A good shoot day host know how to keeping cool
A good shoot day host should have the knowledge of a small encyclopaedia, the stamina of a mountain goat (though no other attributes of this animal), the experience to monitor the performance of the teams on either side of the line, the tact of a diplomat, the skin of a rhinoceros and the flexibility of a gymnast. More than anything, a good host should, when faced with an unexpected or potentially disastrous turns of events, remain glacially cool, as his body language, long and animated conversations with his home team and preponderance to furtive looks and panic will communicate themselves to the guns in short order. A good host can get a keeper out of trouble and rescue a day by the simple expedient of maintaining sangfroid, whatever is breaking over them.
10. A good shoot day host keeps smiling
Marvel at the ability of a host embarking, as it might be, on his 100th day of the season, to maintain a happy look and a ready smile. Their first rule appears to be that if you want your guests to enjoy the experience of shooting on your ground then try to look as though you are enjoying it too, and a happy host can make an average day a happy one. However tired and jaded a host might be as another season draws to its close, the best of them won’t greet the guns as if Armageddon is imminent. They will already have coped with guns arriving late, whose bitch has just come into season, who might wish to use their own vehicles because they are full of wives, dogs, weaponry and other accoutrements and a whole myriad of other things that were not in the script.
And how not to be a good shoot day host…
A host who arrives late for the bidding hour looking much like Tracey Emin’s unmade bed, smelling of garlic or alcohol, with a penchant for goosing guests of either sex, and occasionally placing guns facing the wrong direction on the wrong drive should not last long in the role. Unfortunately, some do. A good host is a paragon of virtue, someone who knows the ground, is on better than nodding terms with the keeper, recognises all the beaters by sight and at least half by name and understands the mechanics and nuances of picking-up. In other words, a knowledgeable and hospitable cove with whom, under other circumstances, one might choose to spend a relaxed hour over a cleansing ale in one’s local and who never forgets that their primary responsibility is providing the guns and their guests with a pleasurable experience. Being a good host is not easy, but the secret of being a good one is always to remember that your shoot’s most valuable asset is how it is perceived by its customers, and that’s the job.
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