As the beaters pushed into the spinney, the first fieldfares broke the azure of a sky washed bright by recent snowfall. Our host had warned us to expect early partridges and the guns were on their mettle. Yet somehow I missed the bird flying over the gun two pegs to my left. And judging by the quick double report, so had he.
Another minute passed, my neighbour had another two shots and I still hadn’t seen a bird. After his sixth cartridge I stopped worrying about my contact lenses. It wasn’t my eyes that were at fault, it was his bird recognition. Our friend, kitted out in the most respectable of tweeds, was having a poke at the fieldfares. Fortunately, he was a poor shot as well as a lousy naturalist and missed them clean.
This little episode would once have caused genuine outrage. How could a grown man, on a proper driven shoot, be directing his fire at songbirds? The culprit would have been ridiculed and sent home. Now, we raise our eyes and accept it as part of the dramatic decline in fieldcraft over the past 30 years. The guns that cannot mark birds or keep a running tally. The “jays” that are woodpeckers. The chap sitting glued on No 8 peg while the birds stream 50yd to his right. The shoot captains who solemnly place the guns on their allotted pegs, though the wind’s now a Force 6 from the wrong quarter, leaving six guns to watch the entire drive go over the two end guns. The keepers who keep the pegs in the same place throughout the season, so we can all enjoy the spectacle of late-season pheasants flying the opposite direction. The “no woodcock or ground game rule” introduced because the host does not trust his guns to shoot safely or selectively.
It was not always so. As children in the Seventies, we aspired to be sportsmen-naturalists. The more fortunate were taught fieldcraft by a keeper. The less well connected were tutored by catapults and airguns. If you wanted to clobber a pigeon or rabbit, you had to get very close – and avoid detection if the quarry wasn’t exactly on your ground. Poaching is impossible without guile.
The progression from cattie and .177 to .410 was slow and steady and matched your shooting ability. We had to creep within easy range because we were usually terrible shots. There were few clay-pigeon clubs and fewer shooting schools. The only way to learn was to fire at quarry until they eventually fell dead and a 20yd pigeon was a much better bet than a 40-yarder.
Profligacy with cartridges was generally unwise, too, if they were bought with your own pocket money, earned by plucking game for a Royal Marines brigadier. Not that there was much chance of blazing away. Although I’d be out thrice a week during the season and at least twice a week in spring and summer, I didn’t raise my gun to a driven bird until I was in my mid twenties. Like every other shooting boy of my age, I hunted pigeon, rabbits and wildfowl.
That’s not easy now. While the Scots still enjoy their legal right to shoot on Crown foreshore, it has been taken from the English and Welsh. You have to belong to a wildfowling club. Rough-shooting is very scarce anywhere in the South. Farms once walked by four friends with spaniels have now been glossed up into full-tweed, driven-game affairs. Pigeon-shooting is increasingly under the control of professional guides. The opportunities for young shots to learn their craft, unsupervised once they reach 15, are now limited.
But they still exist for young guns truly passionate about their sport. Most wildfowling clubs would welcome them. And thousands of farmers would allow a couple of keen lads to go ferreting on their land. Yet so many young shots seem to become bored so quickly. They have been raised to expect instant pleasure, whether it’s the latest computer game or shooting clays and driven game. Some of the older entrants to the sport, like the fieldfare saluter mentioned earlier, are not much better. They want game-shooting express – don the tweeds, grab the gun, shoot the game, head home. The longtailed tits working the hazels, the weasel snaking along a drystone wall are unremarked and often unnoticed.
Our head gamekeepers have been our closest observers of the changes in shooting. Lindsay Waddell, chairman of the National Gamekeepers’ Organisation, thinks it’s down to most of the “current crop of guns having not come from a country environment with any sort of a tutor. A generation or three ago many young men spent time with a gamekeeper and it was he, along with their father or grandfather, who taught them their fieldcraft and gun-safety skills. With the drift of the population working in the rural sector most of that has now gone. It is surprising and sad just how many of those who now live in the country know little about it, having come into it from the town.”
Roy Green, sporting business manager of the Buccleuch estates, echoes Waddell. “In general, fieldcraft has gone the way of the dodo – and not only fieldcraft but general appreciation of the countryside. As more people take to the pegs, because of time constraints they lack a basic understanding of the countryside and what goes into managing it.”
Green, however, thinks the decline is also due to a new attitude among some guns. “There are those that are only concerned about cartridge-to-kill ratios, who measure the success of not only the day but their whole season against this criterion. Put them on the high drives and they stop shooting because it raises their cartridge ratio! These are the people who fail to spot the dipper nipping up a burn or the slots of a roe as you walk to the pegs. Others are interested only in the size of the bag at the end of a day and fail to recognise the fantastic surroundings they’ve been in.”
Another headkeeper, at a famous estate, tells how often he now sees “people with counters, especially in the big commercial shoots. They can tell you what your kill to cartridge ratio is on each drive, but what the hell happened to a day’s sport? They shoot at birds at extreme range with full choke 42gm cartridges and go home after a day’s shooting totally exhausted, with a headache and most of the fillings loose in their teeth – and they then go back next week and do it all again!”
Now, we all like to shoot the occasional archangel but “the high-bird cult is to this generation what ‘big bags’ were to Victorians,” according to Jonathan Irby, general manager of the West London Shooting School. “And we are all guilty of praising the person who shoots the highest bird when perhaps we should pay more attention to the person who shoots everything cleanly and knows his and his equipment’s limits. But fashions change and perhaps we might hope that the next cult revolves around sustainability and, where it’s possible, wild birds.”
Alan Jarrett, a past chairman of BASC, also considers that “generally, the pleasure of fieldcraft has been replaced by the pleasure of accuracy. That’s what’s led to the high-bird cult. The world we live in spoils people, so they want and expect instant results, and the only way to achieve that is to pay for it – and even then there will be a lot of disappointed people around.” Jarrett is right to stress the loss of pleasure in shooting. Rather than condemn some new shots for viewing gamebirds as “targets”, we should stress the immense satisfaction in being a sportsman-naturalist.
Partly, that means sorting out the natural history side first. We buy our children guns but you don’t see too many of them carrying binoculars. They should be able to recognise most common farmland and garden birds as well as every butterfly on the buddleia, and distinguish an ash from an oak. We should also encourage them to see the other side of the shoot by asking them to join the beating line. This is hardly a hardship, especially when they go home with £20 in their pocket and have had an “illegal” can of beer at lunch-time.
Of course, many shooting men still have superb fieldcraft. Wildfowlers, stalkers and pigeon-shooters either acquire it or they don’t have any shooting. Green says, “Nothing beats sitting in a pigeon hide for long hours as a youngster, looking at and examining every bird that flies within your field of view while waiting for that shot at the elusive woody.” One of our finest shots agrees: “Pigeon- and corvid-shooting are the best possible ways of learning bird fieldcraft; crows have eyes like hawks and your fieldcraft has to be excellent to make a bag. What surprises me is that more parents do not take keen children out pigeon-shooting with professional guides, or just find some pigeon-shooting for themselves. What do 80% of all the really consistently brilliant modern shots have in common? They all shoot 1,000 to 5,000 pigeon a year.”
Green also urges us to do more rabbit-stalking with air rifles. “The good old BSA Airsporter could be guaranteed to kill a rabbit if shot in the head at 25yd, but you had to get within 25yd in the first place. To do so you had to learn to read that rabbit’s reactions when you crept upwind along the hedge-side; you learnt to stop and freeze when it raised its head and to only move again when it started to feed or dropped its head. I often ask people why they are not capable of getting closer when they tell me, with some annoyance I may add, that they ‘missed a fox or a deer at 200yd the other day’.”
Many of us were lucky enough to have been raised at a time when you could acquire such fieldcraft as naturally as breathing. That is not the case now. We have to find ways to impart it to those taking up shooting, whatever their age. If we don’t, we are depriving them of 70% of the sport’s pleasure and, worse, encouraging game to be viewed merely as targets with feathers.