Bring the right hand on!
Jeremy Hobson offers an insight into how to be a better beater.
What’s the difference between a good beater and a great one? History can tell us a lot. by Jeremy Hobson.
While you might not think so on some driven shoots, beating is so much more than just walking through a wood tapping a stick against a tree. In his book, Ten Years
of Game-keeping, published in 1909, Owen Jones had plenty to say on the matter – and not all of it good.
‘I have known men who had beaten all their lives, yet were absolutely hopeless so far as gumption was concerned; some of them men with fifty years’ experience of beating, whom I would rather pay to stay away than have for nothing,’ wrote Jones, before then going on to recall that, ‘I counted it good work on the part of one man (whom, of course, I employed only when I was very short of beaters) if he kept in the right drive. When he started near the outside of a beat, and finished anywhere near the middle, his companions were wont to congratulate him.’
Can beating really be that difficult? And what makes a good beater, anyway? Liam Bell, gamekeeper, chairman of the National Gamekeepers’ Oraganisation and author of
On Your Shoot, published in 2015, says, ‘A good beater is someone who puts your shoot first, a person who listens, never complains, and is always smiling’ – but warns that finding such paragons might not be an easy task.
At one time, many moons ago, the whole beating team was made up of estate workers. Most, if not all, knew each woodland track and ride; every field by its name; the single trees, ponds, gateways and many other useful landmarks, familiarity with which saves time and tends to prevent misunderstanding and mistakes.
Michael Pakenham, shoot captain and host at the Longwood Estate in Hampshire, tells me that, in his opinion, “You can’t have a good day if you don’t have good beaters and a keeper who briefs them clearly. I am lucky here as my keeper comes from a very large family and every adult, male or female, is expected to turn out every day. This means I always have a first-class line-up. Obviously some of the team come from outside and visiting keepers help out at times.
“The day is run like a military operation and every beater has the same place in the line every day. We have four radios in the line…this is vital as no one can get lost, they know exactly what they are doing and, with the radio, control of the whole line is easy. I know some people hate using radios and obviously it depends on the size of the shoot, but nothing has the potential to mess up a drive more than beaters who don’t know the ground.”
A regular team of beaters certainly helps. Problems might further occur when a team is made up of the guns’ family and friends – enthusiasm is often more evident than an ability to keep in line or in understanding the need to keep dogs back, or even standing still whenever a flush takes place.
“Many days are ruined by bad beaters,” said a particular syndicate member of my acquaintance who, for obvious reasons, asked to remain nameless. So what constitutes a good team of beaters?
The best would follow instructions carefully and to the letter and, particularly on partridge days, understand that relative silence is important.
“You can’t have a good day if you don’t have good beaters and a keeper who briefs them clearly.”
Apart from the cracking of flags and radio communication (and possibly a bit of quiet banter down the line – beating is supposed to be fun, after all) there should be no raucous calling and unnecessary noise.
After a drive is done, beaters with dogs can prove essential with helping with the picking-up. Those without dogs shouldn’t sully the scent. Noel M. Sedgwick (‘Towerbird’), one-time editor of Shooting
Times, gave an example in an article written in the 1950s: ‘Four guns, one with a promising young dog, and several beaters converged on the spot where a fifth gun (the one who had downed the partridge) was walking about in the rough, looking for the bird. As I watched, one wise man among the beaters halted the rest, and I heard his command to them: “Stand still, all of you; give the dog a chance; do you want to spoil scent?”’
The bird was picked-up dead by one of the guns but, as Sedgwick remarked, ‘Had that partridge been a runner, and scent not too good, the dog’s chance of getting onto the line would have been a poor one, for human feet had trampled in circles all round and about the fall.’
More generally, a good beater needs to understand exactly how one flank of the line may need to wait before setting off; how one side may push across a drive to cater for a cross-wind; how the line may have to stop to let a flush of birds go; how one section may encounter thicker cover so those on easier going need to stop – or move more slowly – with regard to getting the birds where they are wanted.
Treat beaters with respect
British gamekeeper Ian Farndale-brown has begun his third season in Spain where he has been developing a prestigious partridge shoot. Previously, there’d been no driven game shooting in the area and, as Ian told me, “Educating the beaters was a big task. Apart from obvious language difficulties, the whole concept of driving birds was alien. On the first day several teams developed with their own ideas, mostly to chase any partridge seen, irrespective of where it was, or in which direction they chased it, some attempted to add them to the bag before they took to the air and few grasped the concept of stopping when a flush took place.
“We weeded out the least compliant and developed key people who were briefed in the basic plan. A full day was run, without guns [and with] a briefing, in Spanish. Then a few trial drives explaining the imaginary gun line, how the flanks gather and steer the birds. It worked well and our next driven day to guns was a success compared to the frustrations of the first.”
The attempts to encourage beaters into the way of thinking preferred by a new keeper are generally less extreme than those experienced by Ian in Spain. Liam Bell tells me that, in his experience, while taking on an existing team when you start a new job has its challenges, “You tend to find the better beaters stay, adjust to new ways and new drives, and help the new man as much as they can, and the less amenable ones tend move on of their own accord”.
Good beaters can be encouraged by being looked after – and I don’t necessarily mean financial remuneration. Food and drink of the right sort may help. From
Sporting Notes and Sketches (1895) comes this: ‘It is a shame to see the way the beaters, who have all the work to do, are treated in some places – very often they have nothing more satisfying to work on than a piece of stale bread and a hunk of rank cheese.’
Not so for some, though. “Good hospitality is very important,” says Ian Farndale-brown. Michael Pakenham agrees: “If possible, we always have our elevenses together and pasties and cake are always provided, some by my boss and others by some of the beaters.”
Let’s end as we began, with a quote from Owen Jones on what, in his view, should be the correlation between gun and beater: ‘“I likes to see a man a-shootin’ as if ’e know’d what ’e was got at – not lookin’ as if ’e thought ’e was huntin’ or playing at golfs,” said one of my beaters. And I always like to see a man beating as if he were thinking of what he is doing – not strolling about, apparently for the benefit of his health.’
Respecting and taking care of your beaters is crucial to the harmony of a well-run shoot.