The Field

Young in the field

The antics of fictional hero William Brown inspired Jonathan Young as a boy. But as the digital age takes hold, how do we encourage our young into the field?

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Asked to name a classic shooting book, few would pick Richmal Crompton’s Just William, the story of a feral schoolboy and his gang, the Outlaws. Yet reading it, aged eight, began my shooting career.

William, Ginger, douglas and Henry are on the warpath, determined to bash the rival gang led by the ghastly Hubert Lane. Like all proper warriors, they are heavily armed, festooned with an array of weaponry including wooden swords, catapults and an airgun. Now I possessed most of this childhood armoury and was pretty adept with a catty lethally loaded with marbles. But I lacked an airgun and, keen to emulate William, my boyish heart yearned for one.

Acquiring such a treasure took guile. Parents never bought stuff on demand and pocket money being sporadic meant the only opportunit­ies to access the paternal vault came with birthdays and Christmas. A simple request was too blunt and might be forgotten, children then being widely ignored by adults, so a strategy was required.

The nearest city had a sports shop, the sort once common on high streets that had a gun department among the plethora of football, hockey and tennis kit. It would, I reasoned, be feasible to steer the father into this emporium while the mother was hat buying or whatever mothers did in town.

One saturday the opportunit­y arose. We walked into the sports shop and there was the dream gun. Not a Holland & Holland nor a Purdey but a Gat air pistol, capable of firing pellets, corks and some wickedly sharp darts. Not quite enough to fell a stag, I felt, but certainly deadly on most game roaming the back garden.

I was dismissed on an errand while father remained in the shop – a good sign – and awaited Christmas day. Bouncing down to inspect the presents piled under the tree, I checked out mine for anything resembling a pistol. Nothing did. My parcel was a long box almost certainly containing some tedious board game that the aged ones considered “improving”.

All was revealed after the long haul through church, drinks party, lunch and Queen’s speech. It wasn’t a board game or a pistol. The father, a marksman with Leeenfield and Bren gun, had opted for a .177 Webley Junior air-rifle and my shooting career commenced.

That copy of Just William sits behind me now, a testament to the power of books to stimulate the imaginatio­n in a way that no tablet could ever equal. Alongside it are scores of titles that are considered sporting classics: sir Peter scott’s Morning Flight; Gough Thomas’s gun books; Hugh Falkus’s Sea Trout Fishing; Lea Macnally’s Highland Year; Archie Coats’s Pigeon Shooting; Peter Moxon’s Gundogs: Training and Field Trials; and, of course, BB’S Tide’s Ending.

I’ve been fortunate enough to have talked to all of these legendary writers and met most of them. I’ll never forget sir Peter pouring tea as he asked me about my last foray on the Wash or Major Coats dropping yet enough right-and-left over the decoys. All of them were modest about their achievemen­ts and none would have dreamt of calling himself an expert. They knew too much to do that. each had spent many decades in the field acquiring knowledge that only convinced them they had so much more to learn.

To me they had god-like status but there were many other countrymen who had vast experience but not the ability to put it in writing. A local from the cider bar taught me ferreting while a nefarious character (unknown to parents) showed me how to work my lurcher. Most of them are now plying rod, dog and gun in Fields elysian but I wonder what they would make of some of the ‘experts’ now shouting for attention on digital media? There would, I think, be a distinct sucking of pipes. No one would argue against the promotion of our sports by those who appeal to a younger set, whose addiction to iphones is far graver than de Quincey’s for opium. Yet digital ‘likes’ and ‘followers’ do not confer authority; that is earned by years in the field, such as those completed by a head keeper I met recently in Yorkshire.

He wasn’t old – late twenties, early thirties – but he’d driven grouse over the butts on a moor lashed by the tail of a tropical storm and spent endless hours providing water for the birds during the long drought. Light-hearted but commanding respect from his team, here was an ideal role model for young sportsmen. How, though, would they meet him and his ilk? The old gameshooti­ng volumes opined airily of young men summering with the family keeper but that path was only ever open to a fortunate few. Recruiting young is a challenge for all outdoor sports, including mainstream activities such as tennis and golf, and we are no different. We need to take active steps.

The fieldsport­s organisati­ons are working hard on this, especially BASC. Its Young shots programme includes this month a series of introducto­ry wildfowlin­g days for as little as £20. And throughout the country there are scores of clay grounds offering tuition for modest fees, shoots needing beaters, angling clubs with bargain rates for juniors and hunts ready to welcome the young at meets with slabs of ginger cake.

But someone has to make arrangemen­ts. We cannot return to the feral era of our past when, like William Brown, children roamed wild with catty and airgun. But we can start the young down the route to becoming a true fieldsport­man. All it takes is a phone call to produce one Christmas present that may benefit the receiver for a lifetime.

Recruiting young is a challenge for all outdoor sports; we need to take active steps

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