Do shooters ‘go soft’ as they age?
Whatever our sport, there will come a point when our focus shirts, says Will Pocklington
Flicking through the dog-eared pages of an old shooting diary is a pleasant way to spend a spare half an hour. The further back the stories go, the better. Only recently I found a small, hardback volume from my youth. Its entries, mostly relating to pigeon shooting exploits, are sporadic and vary in detail. The usual points — crop type, location, weather, gun, cartridges, company, bag — are all covered, but most interesting are the nuggets of information that allude to a mindset that is constantly being shaped by experience.
Over time, scribbled observations about my quarry’s behaviour replace or supplement those on bag size and cartridge choice or how well I shot. It got me thinking, how does our attitude towards fieldsports change as time goes by?
When we set out on our journey in any pursuit, it’s the unknown — the yet to be experienced — that many of us find so alluring. Then, for a while, simply partaking in that pursuit is enough. But as our experience of an activity grows and we mature, the thing that draws us back above all else — what we take the greatest interest in or pleasure from — tends to alter. Whether we’ve dirtied our barrels, wet the net or chambered more than one round becomes less important. Escapism, a time to reconnect — that’s what matters.
Some call it ‘going soft’, especially where your desire to pull the trigger might be perceived to be waning. But I suspect the reality is that, with a greater sense of perspective and understanding of a subject, our focus point shifts quite naturally. We come to appreciate that the allure of our sports is down to no one factor, but to many of them. After all, the final moments in which we physically engage with bird, beast or fish are just fragments of a much larger and more complex picture.
Often we become captivated by the quarry itself. Many a shooter, hunter or angler has gone on to develop a deep affinity with a species they first came across with the weight of a rod, rifle or shotgun between their hands.
Goose addict Sir Peter Scott is a case in point. A renowned authority on wildfowl and pioneer of the modern-day conservation movement, Scott was an avid wildfowler for much of his life, with a penchant for punt-gunning and chasing geese. There is little doubt the foreshore forays of his youth served as a prelude to what would come later. A chapter entitled ‘The Magic Spell’ towards the back of Scott’s book Wild Chorus talks of the incurable habits of a ‘goose addict’. Not by coincidence, it is preceded by pages peppered with shooting anecdotes.
Today, lots of us choose to watch our subjects through the lens of a camera just as often as we do through a scope or down the top rib of a 12-bore. Some turn to art — the easel and the foundry — as they look to immortalise special sights and encounters. Others involve themselves in research projects or forums to better their understanding of a species’ ecology, its requirements and long-term prospects.
To connect with an animal in such a way satisfies a deeply ingrained itch for intimacy that can only otherwise be scratched by hunting.
Then there’s mentoring; so many old hands spend much of their time introducing newcomers and novices to the pursuit of fur, feather and fin. And they admit to deriving as much or more pleasure from doing so than from heading out on their own. The satisfaction of passing on a passion is undeniable, but I think nostalgia also plays a part. It is nostalgia, isn’t it, that fuels our desire to recreate the moments of raw elation that came with the ‘firsts’ of our own sporting careers? The same moments we so often hanker after years later.
Who can’t remember the first time a rabbit bundled itself into a purse-net they had laid, or that feeling of kneeling beside their very first deer, or the tumbling silhouette of their first teal shot under the light of the moon on a winter’s evening?
Of course, there are those who go in search of more ‘firsts’ further down the line. Trout might lead to tigerfish, muntjac to moose, pheasants to francolin… First a beech wood in the Home Counties; later a hide in an Argentine sunflower field. New landscapes, cultures, wildlife, guides. For some, such adventures are their change of focus.
The way our mindsets develop with time varies from one individual to the next. It’s a process influenced by several factors, not least our personalities and circumstances. The timing and extent of this change is certainly not determinable by a number; of age or of days spent doing something. I would wager, though, that nearly all of us experience it. Some of us become more cautious as we age, or we at least think more about the consequences of what we do. After all, before you truly learn a lesson you must make a mistake; grassing a brace of fallow half a mile from the car at last light with no all-terrain vehicle at hand, for example, is likely only to happen once. We may learn to be more patient. Or decisive. In the meantime our responsibilities influence our decisions, which in turn makes us adopt a different mindset. Perhaps a bedtime the right side of midnight begins to take precedence for the rabbit lamper; a quick set-up and pack away becomes more important for the pigeon shooter. Family and work commitments take priority — often begrudgingly in the case of the latter.
Our attitude towards change in general is key. Are we stuck in our ways or happy to move with the times? Do we embrace new ideas and technology? Stubbornness and ignorance don’t always dissipate as time wears on.
The elephant in the room is our physical fitness and health. Perhaps we take that for granted in our early days. Work, family, finances… we can generally find some allowance in a hectic schedule to entertain what is really a basic and primeval urge. The human body is less flexible, though. It can force us to think differently.
If there’s one cruel player that can stop sportsmen lacing up their boots, braving harsh weather and immersing themselves in such a magically multifarious world, it is their health. At least when that happens, we still have the memories — and the older you get, the more colourful they become.