The keeper’s view

Head­keeper David Whitby ex­am­ines the is­sues sur­round­ing high bird shoot­ing.

Shooting Gazette - - Gamekeeping -

There is noth­ing wrong with a high bird. I re­mem­ber the days of countless low, fat, chicken-like pheas­ants pushed over Guns who would be scowled at or end up tak­ing home an ined­i­ble brace if they shot so low that they de­stroyed the meat. Over the years we have im­proved our stock birds and our drives; con­tours are used to give a more sport­ing shot, val­leys, downs and hills tak­ing prece­dence over tra­di­tional flat tillage and wood­land to­pog­ra­phy.

Where I have a prob­lem is when birds are too high. I fully re­alise that what is too high for one may not be for an­other but we do need some pa­ram­e­ters.

First, let us look at the tool for the job — I don’t mean the per­son shoot­ing, or at least not al­ways; more the shot­gun it­self. I do not claim to be an ex­pert on bal­lis­tics, shot­guns, pat­terns or loads. How­ever, what I can say is that, with shot­guns at least, the un­der­ly­ing prin­ci­ple has been the same for a cen­tury or two, a load of be­tween 200 to 400 lead pel­lets fired at a quarry. Yes, pow­der is much faster burn­ing, chokes far more so­phis­ti­cated, shot­guns much im­proved, but the ba­sic prin­ci­ple of send­ing out a killing pat­tern is as it al­ways has been.

Se­condly, as re­spon­si­ble sports­men, what are our aims when game shoot­ing, what are we at­tempt­ing to achieve, or en­sure ev­ery time we take part in field­sports — be it wild­fowl­ing, driven game or walked-up shoot­ing, pi­geon de­coy­ing, pest and preda­tor con­trol? First and fore­most is safety. We are pre­sum­ably all in agree­ment there is no grey area here. We are all equally ca­pa­ble of it, all equally re­spon­si­ble for it, and it is sim­ply non-ne­go­tiable. The sec­ond in line is quarry wel­fare, or at least that is what I was al­ways taught. Per­haps the words ‘quarry re­spect’ are more ap­pli­ca­ble; if we had pheas­ant wel­fare truly at heart, I sup­pose we would hardly be shoot­ing them.

My be­lief was al­ways that as Guns we nei­ther shot at a bird too close, re­sult­ing in spoilt meat, nor too far, re­sult­ing in an in­ad­e­quate

killing pat­tern and in­creased wound­ing. Quite sim­ply we are at­tempt­ing a clean kill re­sult­ing in an edi­ble car­cass. The im­por­tant ques­tion here is: what is too far?

A bird be­yond our reach

The old yard­stick was al­ways 40 yards max­i­mum for any­thing with a shot­gun. I lis­tened to a keeper some time back giv­ing a talk. He showed a pho­to­graph of an aqueduct that was 40 yards high and stated he did not ex­pect Guns to shoot at any­thing that was not above it. When in a dis­cus­sion with the same man some years ago about the in­ci­dence of wound­ing, he stated that the only time they re­ally had a lot of wounded birds was if the team of Guns were good. I be­lieve his av­er­age ra­tio for the sea­son is around 14 shots per bird killed. This, along with a per­cent­age of re­leased birds shot ly­ing some­where in the 20s, tells me that these birds are surely too high for an ef­fec­tive clean killing pat­tern.

I see no point in re­ly­ing upon throw­ing vast amount of lead in the di­rec­tion of strato­spheric pheas­ants if for the most part it is only a lucky pel­let in a pat­tern the size of a bus that will kill cleanly. There are, how­ever, many peo­ple who would ap­pear to en­joy do­ing just that.

Per­haps now we have an­other ques­tion to ask: what ra­tio of car­tridge-to-kills is ac­cept­able, one to three, four, five? There are drives or in­deed days when the wheels sim­ply come off, just as there are days of premier per­for­mances, but what is ac­cept­able as an av­er­age?

I don’t ski, but I gather that be­gin­ners start down on the nurs­ery slopes and ad­vance as their skill im­proves. This is surely a sen­si­ble phi­los­o­phy for game shoot­ing to adopt if that word ‘re­spect’ is to mean any­thing. I know that many of us can never be leg­endary shots, but to go on a high bird shoot be­fore cut­ting our teeth on a half-de­cent wood­land shoot is point­less, cruel and dis­re­spect­ful.

If a ra­tio of one to two or three is not achiev­able, then why look for some­thing harder?

Let us go back to the re­turns on the high bird shoot — or in­deed any shoot — and ask our­selves, what con­sti­tutes a good shot? Is it a fast re­flex ac­tion, tak­ing birds as they pass a small break in the over­head canopy, at a dis­tance that gives a tight killing pat­tern, as less spread re­quires more ac­cu­racy?

Or is it the Gun who reaches up and in front of a watch­ing line to take a 45-yard bird? Is it the Gun who brings down a bird at a ridicu­lous height, wing tip­pled or gut shot to land and run into the next parish as his fel­low Guns all shout out “well done”?

We of­ten speak of peo­ple’s ‘high shot’ ex­am­ples while ig­nor­ing the real aim of con­sis­tency, the Gun who kills cleanly out in front, whose av­er­age car­tridge-to-kill ra­tio is per­haps one to two or bet­ter. That is surely the Gun to be ad­mired, the Gun who knows his lim­i­ta­tions and re­lies upon a good pat­tern, rather than a lucky pel­let.

Clean kills please

Fi­nally, let us look at the pos­si­ble out­comes re­sult­ing from the trig­ger be­ing pulled. We ob­vi­ously have a clean miss, clean kill or wound­ing. We may then split this last into wounded and re­trieved, or wounded and lost. Surely it is well past time that we looked at the is­sue of wound­ing, mon­i­tored a cross-sec­tion of shoots and ad­dressed un­ac­cept­able is­sues.

What per­cent­age of birds are clean killed, wounded and re­trieved or wounded and lost? A past BASC train­ing of­fi­cer has stated that 40 per cent of birds are wounded and that 76 per cent of Guns are un­able to ac­cu­rately gauge dis­tance. Is this cor­rect? If our pres­sure groups or GWCT know the true fig­ures they are not dis­clos­ing them, but surely if some­thing is un­ac­cept­ably wrong we have a duty to ad­dress it. Sport­ingly high birds yes, ridicu­lously high birds never.

“Shot­guns are much im­proved but the ba­sic prin­ci­ple of send­ing out a killing pat­tern is as it al­ways has been.”

Should only Guns who are sure they can hit high birds cleanly be the ones rais­ing their bar­rels to them?

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