Bring the right hand on!

Jeremy Hob­son of­fers an in­sight into how to be a bet­ter beater.

Shooting Gazette - - This Month - PHO­TOG­RA­PHY: ALAMY AND FARLAP PHO­TOG­RA­PHY

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.

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