Picking-up, like shooting, is a vital part of a driven shoot day, but both pickers-up and guns are prone to bad habits, as Steve Gamer reports.
I have read with great interest in this magazine about how pickers-up are expected to behave when picking-up by guns and more especially, guns with dogs. I have picked-up on quite a few well-known West Country shoots, where I have also loaded. It seems to me there are many types of pickers-up and many types of guns, some of which certainly spoil the day for each other. So in the essence of fair play, I have listed the faults and attributes of both sets of players in each discipline.
New guns spend a considerable amount of money visiting shoots where consistently high birds, if connected with, can cause a significant number of runners. These enthusiastic guns tend to wear expensive new country clothing, carry shotguns which equate to a sizeable deposit on a family home, and drive high-end 4x4s which would certainly pay for half an average house in the UK. Yes we all have to start somewhere, but towering birds flying faster than you think on some drives and slower than you think on others… well it’s certainly not good for a newbie’s confidence. Pardon the pun, but aim lower on your first time out, please.
Those new to picking-up
Pickers-up on their first day on a large commercial shoot have a massive task on their hands. Between 250 and 700 birds shared between anything from three to 11 pickers-up is a lot of retrieves. Several birds will be pricked and may well run up 600-foot hills in thick cover, some in the direction a gun is shooting. So do you send your dog through the guns and up the bank the other side, hoping the beaters have moved on? Welfare is uppermost on your mind. Or do you leave it, hoping it will die quickly and be able to be found easily after the drive is over?
Also, do you keep your dog, or dogs, on a lead as other experienced pickers-up have advised? You know your dog was steady when you trained it, but on the coalface it’s very different. Before you can blink, your dog that normally sits quietly and still by your side has gone after said runner. It is picked-up but no, there are tens of other birds falling down around it. The dog spits it out and goes for another one, then another. I have seen this happen plenty of times and not just from picking-up dogs either. Guns’ dogs are just as guilty. So what’s the solution? Go for the easier retrieve until your dog has gained more experience.
Guns who should have gone to Specsavers
Here’s a scenario. A gun who has shot for years, and knows they have the right load for a towering pheasant that’s launched itself from a high Exmoor ridge, pulls the trigger and then shouts: “Picker-up, it’s gone 200 yards right and curled round. Definitely hit it you know.”
Actually the picker-up, who has seen it in flight, has seen it not deviate. A lot of us shoot as well, and load extensively, so you generally know when the bird has lifted, etc. So the dilemma is, do you send your dog on a wild goose chase for a bird that’s not been hit and disappoint the expectant gun, and in the process miss a runner that has been hit? Or… do you explain nicely that he should have gone to Specsavers, not rush his shot, not be greedy or big-headed and go for an unobtainable shot right to left. It calls for a cool head and manners. Mind you, it does not help that it’s the last drive of the day and said gun has had the best part of a bottle of sloe gin and a few glasses of Bollinger. Yep, they are out there: “Oh don’t worry I have a driver.” Mate, what you need is someone to shoot for you as well.
Three types of gun’s dog
Before I pick apart some fellow pickers-up, I have seen plenty of guns with dogs and feel they fall into three categories, some deserving of admiration and praise, some not. The Blue Riband example is the superb Jack of all Trades with a dog sitting quietly and still on the peg, without a massive piece of metal shaped like a boar’s appendage screwed into the ground. He or she can shoot to kill, then send their dogs on a runner during the drive or find birds after the drive is over.
These guns with dogs are a joy to watch and their exemplary behaviour is something everyone should strive to replicate. These guns will also take the picked birds to the game cart and not leave them on the peg. We check to see if the gun was lazy enough to leave them. (Ed. In fairness some shoots do ask guns to leave birds on the peg.)
The next category is the not-so-steady dogs that whine, bark and howl and jump on the peg but can actually retrieve. The intentions are good and there is some promise there, but it’s not all coming together perfectly on the day.
Personally, on an expensive driven day I would rather concentrate on my shooting than have to keep an eye on my dogs. I suppose these guns do not spend 50-60 days a year working picking-up dogs where birds are falling all over the place. Steadiness is at a premium, as most honest pickers-up and gundog people will tell you. On a small syndicate shoot maybe it’s not so difficult to achieve, but on a day with 200 pheasants and partridges per drive falling to ground, it’s not so easy.
Finally, there are the guns whose dogs almost replicate some of the bad pickers-ups’ dogs out there; they run in everywhere, spit birds out and eat them. We must have all seen that happen? And the guns who give them a glancing kick in the ribs to shut them up, and yes that happens. I have seen a well-known gundog judge put a really hard kick into his dog’s ribs at a trial I was competing in, out of sight of the judges and stewards, but not fellow competitors. It happens.
I can see the guns’ frustration when he or she has four or five dogs running around all over the place during the drive. Some handlers have many seasons under their belts but some are newcomers. Indeed, other pickers-up are not immune either. We go out, as we love to see our hopefully well-trained dogs work. Yes they make mistakes, but there is nothing more annoying than watching your dog make a great retrieve only for the bird to be ripped out of its mouth by a dog that has run 300 yards from its handler. Or sending your dog on a runner only to see a pack of dogs join the chase.
Some pickers-up like to show the keeper how good they are by the number of birds they dump by the game cart at the end of the drive. Most keepers are not stupid; they have a good idea where birds have been shot and where they land.
I learned a lesson on a big duck day, when a guy ran six springers. They were unhinged Dyson vacuum cleaners, sucking up everything. I sat my two cockers up and let him get on with it. He had four carrier loads and nearly died bringing them back. When he asked for help, everyone laughed: you stole them, you carry them. So, when asked this season by our headkeeper after a drive: “How did you do?” I replied: “Not bad, considering I went into the drive with one good lab and ended up with two more labs, three cockers and three springers.”
What’s the solution?
So how do we end up all enjoying our days out? Well, firstly the majority of guns say good morning at the start of the day and thanks to all the beaters and pickers-up at the end. Unfortunately, a sizeable number do neither. Some walk past you like you are not there, are rude in the extreme and are not good sportsmen. I include the odd syndicate member in that as well.
Yes, they pay a serious amount of money to shoot and most have a serious amount of money to shoot two to three times a week. A good accountant helps, but money does not make a man, manners do. Also, some pickers-up feel that beaters are below them. This is an attitude that makes me sick and leads to a very dim view of pickers-up by some beaters. Pickers-up can also have the same perception about some guns.
Do not believe all those rustic views that a picker-up should be hundreds of yards behind a gun. You need to see the flight of a shot bird, whether it’s dead or not, and mark its location, etc. Some pickers-up will be further back, which is when the shout of “mark”, “hen bird” or “cock bird” will indicate to those further back what to expect.
I believe the picker-up who is covering behind a gun or guns with or without dogs must firstly be prepared to duck quickly, then point out to a gun that safe handling is paramount and then indicate where they are standing. The keeper or shoot captain will tell them this before the first drive, but it does not hurt to reinforce the message, especially to a new gun.
It’s good to talk
Before the drive starts, mention everything to the guns, including where you are and the fact you will send your dogs through a line to pick-up a runner that’s gone forward, as it is a welfare issue. You must always speak to a gun with a dog and ask them what they expect. Do they want birds left around the peg? Will they send their dog during the drive. Do they want birds left further back? Finally, point out that if they pick birds up, they should either carry them back or tell a picker-up where they will be left. We probably won’t like having to walk back 200 yards to do so, but the birds at least will be picked and counted.
Without guns being prepared to pay a lot of money there would be no opportunity to work our dogs or to go beating. Conversely, without beaters and pickers-up, guns would not enjoy the shooting they do now.
Stop putting moans on paper, says he who has just written this, and explain your concerns on shoot day. Start the dialogue – after all, we all want a good day out in the countryside shaped by our predecessors. If the comments I hear from the American guns I load for are anything to go by, this should be our pride and joy.
This article on picking-up etiquette first appeared in the May 2016 issue of Shooting Gazette