HAVE A HOLLY, JOLLY SHOOT DAY
How to make the most of your sporting outings this Christmas.
Making sure friends and family get the most from Christmas time shooting. By Roderick Emery.
“Why don’t we focus on something other than the bag and make it a species day instead?”
At the risk of being labelled “Mr Scrooge” the first thing to recognise about the Christmas shoot is that it is not a freebee.
Light-hearted and jolly it may well be but, like the rest of Christmas with its presents and its stockings and its various abundances, it is not without its costs. Just because the house is filled to bursting with children and dogs and grandparents does not mean that the beaters should be expected to work for nothing.
“Who’s for a lovely walk and some bramble-bashing then?” might sound like a jolly sensible idea to you and the rest of the potential shooters, but it may be a zebra of a very different stripe to the nineyear-old who has only recently embarked upon the construction of an inter-galactic Lego battlecruiser and wishes for nothing more strenuous than a morning’s alien destructing. So there must be a trade-off. The labourer is worthy of his or her hire and those on the bramble-bashing end of proceedings must be properly rewarded. Even if it only involves a free run at the DVD collection before supper (or sole control of the Quality Street tin afterwards).
In an effort to reduce, perhaps, one of the most significant sources of tension on the day, could we not leave out altogether the issue of numbers? I don’t imagine that your Christmas shoot is going to be governed by the size of the bag any more than mine is, but why don’t we focus on something else entirely and make it a species day instead?
One of the things that concerns me when I see youngsters shooting, is their lack of knowledge of anything beyond pheasants and partridges, and some of them are not too sharp about the distinction between the two. I remember, some years ago now, a fellow gun after a drive unloading into the game cart a teal and a mallard — the result of an early right-andleft — a pheasant, both species of partridge, a snipe and a woodcock, pigeon, jay, magpie plus a grey squirrel. And he could have had a rabbit and a hare too if we had been shooting ground game.
Divide the ground into two areas. Divide Guns and beaters into two teams. Set off in opposite directions with a view to reconvening at a convenient point later in the day and see what can be accumulated. I know that some will say that this is a high-risk strategy and that any number of rare things might be ruthlessly enfiladed but that is, to some extent, the point. It reinforces necessary self-control among the Guns and promotes teamwork because those who do recognise things can alert others to their opportunities.
There is an argument for doing away with the game element altogether and basing the Christmas outing on clays instead. This allows more people to be involved in a suitably controlled environment. Some of the younger clan members can be given a go with the 28 bore and perhaps some of those ladies there assembled, who might otherwise be disinclined to participate, can be persuaded to have a go.
I know of a senior grandmother who was induced to have a try under similar circumstances and, having comprehensively powdered the first handful of clays in fine style, called for pairs forthwith and carried on without so much as a pause for breath. She doesn’t now shoot 50 days a year with a sweet pair of Boss 16 bores, because that would be a fairy tale, wouldn’t it, but she does take a peg from time to time when not picking-up and she doesn’t miss a lot.
I realise that suggesting that girls might not routinely want to shoot is just the sort of casual sexism we are trying to stamp out but the same suggestion goes for anyone who might like to have a go. This is the perfect opportunity, especially if there are some coloured clays in the box and someone has a few packs of the thunderflash thingies to make the whole thing more exciting. There should be silly hats and loud suits and a complete tangle of ludicrous dogs into the bargain.
I would be the last person to suggest that any aspect of game shooting should be treated flippantly or without the degree of respect it properly deserves. That does not mean, however, that it has to be undertaken with unrelenting seriousness. Laughter is a key element of a successful shoot day. We do not laugh at people and we do not laugh at the game. We laugh with people about things.
The driver of the Gunbus on a shoot I attended with friends said that he’d never heard a team of Guns singing between drives before. We may not be the Three Tenors, nor the Four Tops for that matter, but if we can’t manage a chorus or two whatever have things come to?
I don’t doubt that there will be yet another huge meal involved during the course of the day and this is another opportunity to expand the horizons of the young in particular. “You shot it, you pluck it, you eat it,” ought to be a rule in any sporting household and here again is the chance for the inexperienced or the reluctant to get involved.
Plucking is, I grant you, a long and tedious process. Experts with plucking machines can rattle through a brace of pheasants in a couple of minutes but, by hand, it will take me an hour. Partridges take half that – and, yes, I can do a pigeon no time at all but not without some spillage and considerable clearing up afterwards. I can, on the other hand, with a sharp knife and a pair of game shears, skin and joint a bird and have its remains in a bag in five minutes or less. As can most people. As should most people.
I have found that the youngsters, especially, are more than happy to dress and eat game as long as it doesn’t take too much time. So a post-shoot masterclass in pheasant dismantling is never a bad idea. I doubt that faisan á la Normande will ever completely replace the Potnoodle in the undergraduate recipe book but a partridge curry that goes from fridge to table in 30 minutes and feeds the housemates into the bargain can’t be a bad thing. And the post-christmas shoot feast should be game based.
We are all aware of the surplus game issue and while this is not the place to labour the point, shooting feasts should put the quarry front and centre. Our Continental cousins are much better at this than we are as they prepare the bag together with much merriment and tootling of bugles and horns and a good deal booze. We are, generally speaking, sound on the booze front but we are, in my view, remiss where the bugles and horns are concerned and this should be remedied.
I actually have three hunting horns. I don’t have a curly-wurly one but I have two brass ones and an actual horn. I expect the same it true of a lot of country homes. They don’t get as many outings as they should. If you don’t have your own, most junk shops will probably provide one. We passed one round the dinner table once and after lots of red faces, bulging eyes and useless rude noises, one of the girls proceeded to give a flawless rendering of The Last Post which reduced several guests to tears.
Christmas is a tradition and yet it is, I don’t doubt, slightly different in almost every household in the land. In sporting households there is a part of the Christmas tradition which is the Christmas shoot and that, I venture, will be slightly different wherever it takes place too. But variety is the spice of life and being slightly different is what characterises us as individuals, families, clans and tribes.
However you celebrate the festive period and whatever makes your Christmas sport special, have a very happy day and savour what is always a precious time.
The four-legged members of the shoot party will want to get their share of the day.