Reading Between the lines
What criteria should one use when deciding on whether or not to take a day’s shooting on an untried estate?
What does a shoot have to prove to you before you’ll consider buying a let day there - is it all necessarily about the birds in the sky? by Jeremy Hobson.
Unless they are actively involved in running such a thing, most guns only ever see a shoot in winter – and have but a basic knowledge of what happens in the summer to ensure a perfect day’s shooting. It is, however, the work put in by the gamekeeper and others during from when one season ends and another begins that makes or breaks a shoot – and results in newcomers possibly wanting to take another day.
Predator control; work on the rearing field and in the release pens; the care of seasonally planted game crops and, of course, ongoing habitat management are all essential in ensuring that the shoot continues to thrive and improve. But how do even experienced guns ‘read between the lines’ in order to improve the likelihood of an excellent day’s sport when deciding whether to join a syndicate or taking a day somewhere new?
Advertising tells you what the estate wants you to know. Personal recommendation and an ongoing reputation tells you so much more. It’s famously said that a reputation is far more easily lost than it is gained. I know of one shoot where the reputation earned over a decade was decimated during the period of time during which the owner decided to let out the sporting rights to a tenant. So much so that paying guns who had previously taken days on a regular basis began to go elsewhere for their sport.
What had changed? As an outsider looking in, probably very little. The keeper remained as diligent as ever; the birds were there on a shooting day (at the beginning of the season, at least) and the drives were as they always had been. There was, however, an increase in the sale of commercial days – there’s very definitely a finite limit as to how many days’ shooting any estate can successfully host. In addition, the tenant – according to some of those who shot there – wasn’t well versed in social and organisational skills.
The word ‘disjointed’ springs to mind – as do the words of E.C. Keith who, writing in 1937, pointed out that there needs to be close co-operation between host and gamekeeper in order that a day can succeed: “That it was to be a good day I knew… The owner and the head keeper were both experts; they had managed the shoot jointly for many years, and it would have been a clever man who could have improved on their methods.”
So, apart from an obvious understanding of how best to provide an excellent day’s sport on the part of host and keeper, what, in are guns looking for? Is it the cost of the day, the availability of sporting birds and perfect hospitality? And, if so, in which order? Some might say the food and hospitality is equally as important as the sport and an enjoyable day can be spoilt by mediocre food. Others reckon that it’s the evidence of organisation so unobtrusive one is hardly aware it’s there – at least until thinking back over the day and realising just what quiet efficiency there must have been behind the scenes.
One man who has shot at more places than most is Tim Crowley. When I asked him his opinion, he quite tellingly commented that as a result of his experiences, he didn’t think there were any ‘hard and fast indicators’ of what could prove to be a ‘good shoot’ and that it was more a combination of things.
That aside, what might a gamekeeper responsible for looking after a mainly commercial shoot think? One mentioned that, in his opinion, guns ought to see ‘the enthusiasm and friendliness of all involved with the shoot… the
“Guns ought to see the enthusiasm and friendliness of all involved with the shoot, the planning that went into some of the drives…”
planning that went into some of the drives with regards to cover crops etc.… but mostly the conservation work and the benefits this brings to the countryside and the wildlife on the shoot.’
Another, in similar vein, said: “Wildlife diversity… it shows an empathy to the keepers work.” A third quite simply stated that, in his opinion: “If it’s a good shoot, guns will always come back.”
More than just birds in the air
Whilst all of this is true, it’s important to read between the lines when it comes to noticing what steps are being taken to improve habitat and the like. What’s good for game is also good for biodiversity and conservation – and vice-versa. Take an imaginary yet – to most guns – easily identifiable scenario whereby you are standing at your peg waiting for the first birds to come over. Look around. What can you see – and why is it there? Is it a happy coincidence or a deliberate attempt to improve the shooting – and, perhaps by default, the immediate environment?
Is there, as E.C. Keith noted of a shooting day: “a long covert running along the edge of a hill, and below – a beautiful grass valley with a few trees and a river… on the far side another covert”? Or, as he observed during a visit to another shoot sometime later: “no hills or valleys… merely undulating ground. For the main drive… we were facing a wall of high oaks and ash, mixed with spruce and Scots fir.”
A mixed habitat would appear to be the likely key to success. As one stands on a peg for the first time – possibly having been told at the preshoot briefing that, although ‘live on pegs’, one shouldn’t shoot an early pigeon until the first pheasants appear’ – there’s much to see.
When visiting a new shoot and having been placed on the peg by your host, are you left looking around for a few minutes while the keeper slashes down an overgrown hazel bush in a last-minute attempt to make an extra gun-slot or is, as one would hope, where you are standing part of an ongoing shoot regime? Mind you, having said that, upright, well-kept, well-maintained gun-stands are not, as Tim Crowley mentioned to me, necessarily indicative of a well-run shoot.
I asked John Newton-brown at Firle Shooting, near Lewes in East Sussex, where he organises simulated game shooting days that are as close to the real thing as you could imagine, “What do your guns, as they stand on a peg waiting for action, see around them?”
His reply was telling: “They [are] surrounded by the stunning escarpments, slopes, valleys, grazing and arable land, and scenery of the beautiful South Downs. I point out anything that I think they may find interesting, such as the buzzards, the odd red kite. I like to make them feel that they are part of the countryside and not just there to shoot.”
It would be good to think that most of those who shoot have a good general ornithological knowledge and can identify and appreciate a well-run sporting estate by its wealth and variety of flora and fauna – even to the extent that an unexpected sighting might take precedence over the main aim (no pun intended) of the day. As one gun told a keepering acquaintance when congratulating him on a particular drive: “That was superb; they were the best birds I’ve ever seen – and I had two goldcrests in front of me before the drive had started. They were fantastic to see.”
Flora and fauna do, of course, live on the shoot all year round. Whilst it might, during the shooting season, appear somewhat barren, a woodland ride is, throughout the seasons, the perfect home to many. No wonder then, that in whatever capacity one is involved in a shoot, there is so much to think about.
Roger Draycott, head of advisory at the GWCT, recently wrote encouraging ‘guns to be more conscientious consumers’ and talked of the ‘significant benefits for wildlife’ to be found on a well-run sporting estate. Mr. Draycott further pointed out that: “The reality is that most shoots are well run with a high level of environmental care in place.” As he pointed out: “They have to be, otherwise the shoots would not be successful, especially in the long term.”
So, there’s undoubtedly a lot of reading between the lines to be done when considering a shoot for the first time. Hopefully, if all is as it should be, your host will, at the end of the day, be able to say – as this one did: “Guests that visit our shoot always seem to have a great day and can’t wait to come back… this does make me smile as we must be getting something right.”
Who wouldn’t sing the praises of a shoot on which everyone mucks in to ensure their patch can be held to the highest standards?