The trick is to get in first
It’s hard to give up a single day’s shooting in January, admits Jonathan Young. So buy a big diary, fill it up with dates when your spouse is out and be prepared to pay for a hot holiday
Marital problems often surface in January, the traditional month for informing the once beloved that it’s time for a joint visit to a family solicitor.
Christmas is usually cited as the priming powder for divorce, spouses having exhausted the reserves of outward togetherness — a view strengthened by that gift of saucepans or a Terylene tie that expressed all too clearly the degree of tenderness in which the recipient was held.
But in our mud-and-tweed world there’s another reason for New Year dissolution of wedding oaths, one easily solved by the purchase of a diary. Preferably, it should be the Eley one, which has the added benefit of awfully useful ballistical information, but any diary will do so long as it’s large enough to serve as the domestic planner and it’s kept meticulously.
Now all that is needed is an evening alone, when the partner (of either sex) is out at bridge, allowing you to fill in your shooting and hunting dates. and January tends to be a busy month for both. I remember a Dorset farming friend recounting how he was out every day of the month except Sundays. He knew his wife would be unamused as he diligently and furtively inked them into the diary — and indeed the resulting spousal chill was Siberian — but, as he so rightly pleaded in his defence, “there was nothing else arranged on those dates, darling”. Eventually he was forgiven (though only after the promise of a hot holiday).
and this is the secret of successful diary management — you have to get in there first before being committed to grim dinner parties where guests bang on about money and where their beastly broods are being educated.
To irregular sportsmen, such action could have a suggestion of selfishness, to which the keen would argue that there’s plenty of time from the cessation of shooting and the beginning of fishing for indoor activity. We are perfectly willing, outwardly at least, to trot along to smoked-salmon socials in February, March and april so long as we’re given a clear run in January.
For this dark winter month often shows the best of sport. The enormous field, who appeared plaited and primped on the opening meet, has now dwindled to a hard core eager to follow hounds in sleeting rain and hock-high mud. With luck, a snap of frost will have pushed fowl onto foreshore, giving the gunner his chance at wigeon and grey geese. and the pheasants that flew so willingly over the keeper’s neat row of pegs have long joined the game cart, leaving the battlehardened veterans, expert at evasion.
I’ve often puzzled over the concept that pheasants are dim when all too often they outwit the guns – or at least those placing them. We walk to the pegs, the pins still anchored onto their November moorings, and expect the birds to behave accordingly. They seldom do. a January pheasant is going to break back over the beaters, hurtle out the sides of the covert, follow the fingers of skeletal oak and beech reaching for the slate-grey sky along the hanger wood. They are artists in escape, often providing more opportunity for the walking than those standing expectantly on pegs four and five.
I love this form of shooting. Bags are seldom large but a bird hurtling high up and 40yd out, curling as he bends back towards the covert, will be remembered long after those simple overhead shots of November are forgotten in the fog of numbers. and there’s a special pleasure in snap-shooting in the rides, a joy compounded by the additional accuracy bestowed by lack of thinking, that robber of natural shooting instinct. My highest bird of last season was killed cleanly in such circumstances, momentarily quietening an acquaintance addicted to acerbic comment. I killed another three similarly, a feat that even forced a grudging compliment.
January birds aren’t always high, of course. The classic pheasant, at least to us hedgerow moochers, is the long-spurred cock that learned, three seasons ago, that the old limbo mantra — how low can you go — is the secret to survival. I’ve lost count of the number of hoary old devils I’ve tumbled as they maintained a steady altitude of 4ft but 40yd out, to the bemusement of new guns but to the delight of keepers and old hands.
Of course, we still all miss but I’ve noticed most of my friends shoot far better in January. Partly it’s because we’ve had a couple of months of practice but also it’s because the gloves are off. We won’t blow up birds — ruining a pheasant for the table is senseless — but nor are we as selective as earlier in the season when stock needs to harboured for later shooting dates. a decent bird is addressed and, with that ‘shall I, shan’t I?’ switch turned off, it’s surprising how many of us approach the form normally the preserve of professors.
Nothing makes beaters and keepers happier than seeing birds shot well, and the guns’ performance in January usually adds to the en fête atmosphere as the season draws to a close. The big let days have gone, with the attendant worries of whether or not the guns ‘will make the bag’, and the smaller occasions are usually reserved for friends who know a happy foray is measured by friendship and testing sport, not the game cart’s tally.
It’s hard, then, for us to give up even a single day in January. Which is why it’s wise to buy a big 2019 diary now and fill it up quickly next time your spouse is out.
There’s time between the cessation of shooting and the beginning of fishing for indoor activity