Why walked-up days are hard to beat
If you managed to cleverly combine the Christmas and New Year bank holidays with your annual holiday quota, the festive break could have been quite a long one. In the past, during the Christmas break, I would have involved myself with a lot of beagling, following foot packs, hunting hares, and also following the local foxhounds.
Nowadays, with the new legislation and the potential for confusion, I’d rather be certain that I’m staying on the right side of the law, bearing in mind the fact that firearms could be revoked if you were found to be involved in illegal activities – unknowingly or not!
So, for a change, at the end of the year I was out with the shotgun, a comfortably weighted 20-bore, as the days were to be spent going on what was more akin to an armed ramble, or a sporting dog walk. It seems to me to be much more rewarding when you have to toil harder for the shot, and it galvanises you to make it count, too. Two of the days were on new ground, which always makes it more exciting, as well as a little nerve-racking – will you be accepted by the other Guns? Will they believe you’ve been sporting in your choice of shot, and respected the game as well as followed their perceived shoot-day etiquette?
The first day, the day before Christmas Eve, started with a simple, but firm, safety brief: “No ground game and ensure there’s sky all around any legal quarry.” The intention was for the gathered group to split into two smaller teams, to try to surround and drive the handful of redlegged partridge and pheasants to the standing team of Guns, which included the landowner and his two sons. It had been agreed that there was to be a lot more walking and less use of the vehicles, in order to reduce damage to the trackways, but also so that more ground could be brought into each drive. There was a good smattering of dogs in the walking/beating team,
‘There was a good smattering of dogs in the walking team, ranging from the old black Lab, to cocker spaniels, and a scruffy terrier for good measure’
ranging from the bland old black Labrador, to an English springer, cocker spaniels, and a scruffy terrier for good measure.
To make matters worse for us, but better for the birds, there was a lot of ground cover in the form of green manure drilled into the stubbles; along with the flourishing rape fields it was going make for a lot of zig-zagging. So, for the first manoeuvre the team of six standing Guns walked a field of rape and a headland of standing wheat across into a small mixed woodland, which had hosted a handful of feeders all year. The beating team took a wide berth to encompass the remaining flanks with the odd partridge, occasional hare and a single woodcock flushing forwards as we began to close in on the wood. The wood had a good strip of Bright Seeds Pheasant and Finch alongside it, which was the spot that the majority of the pheasants flushed from.
The other piece of cover they were always going to like was the Lonicera boundary hedge on the northern edge, planted there to break the chilling winds and offer some shelter for the wildlife. The hoppers in the small piece of wood had been fenced to reduce the pressure from the roe and fallow deer, but you could see where the muntjac had pushed under to the springs. As the beaters’ left flank moved in, birds began to flush, offering a sporting shot to one of the standing Guns and another to the left-hand beater, who had been encouraged to move further out so that as the birds caught the wind he could intercept them on their way to their home hedgerow.
The next drive was a very thick, almost derelict wood made up of ancient yews and old elder. Along one flank there was again a good mixed cover crop and some canary grass rows. Another pincer movement afforded some good birds, with both pheasant and red-legged partridge breaking from the cover and woodland, along with a bounding roe and a wily fox. After that we walked a longer cover crop strip back towards the yard, which roused some partridge, including a grey. Once back at the vehicles, the ‘shooting party’ stopped for a drink and some nibbles. An enviable discussion was then had about the technicalities of making Battenberg cakes!
The farmland we were ‘armed rambling’ across had previously been planted to shoot over, so all the smaller woods could be flushed back to one central wood where there had been an old release pen. The intention, it seemed to me, was that this would soon be reinstated and a few red legs released into the cover strips ready for next season.
The last three drives used the topography of the ground well, again showing birds that tirelessly climbed and spread across the Gun line as well as curling back, heading for known destinations.
Come the end of the day, the dogs had worked hard, flushing and retrieving; they had probably covered 50 or 60km, as we had walked 11km as beaters, criss-crossing the countryside. For an informal day with a little work of topping up feeders and creating habitat to hold game, the final tally was 18 brace of pheasants, a brace of partridge, a woodpigeon and a jay, and all without a single breach of legislation.
Most of the day was spent on foot to preserve trackways and cover more ground
A pincer movement was adopted by the beaters to flush pheasants and partridge from the woodland cover