The keeper’s view
Headkeeper David Whitby examines the issues surrounding high bird shooting.
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?