George Digweed: Clay pigeon shooting legend
George Digweed looks every inch the traditional family butcher and if fate had not intervened, he would be running the family butchering business which was established in Hastings in 1860. Instead, he and his shotgun were gifted an almost mythical power to make the air stand still both in competition and in the field.
George has won a record 15 world titles at English and FITASC sporting clays, the first of which was taken as long ago as 1988. On 12 August at his East Sussex home, where the sunlight glints on a cascade of silver trophies, he fields my questions with signature candour. What makes you such a good shot, George? After a moment’s reflection he says, “Talent-wise, I don’t think I would be any better than 150 other people out there. But in a competition scenario, I probably put a lot more mental effort in. Shooting is easy: you’ve got a gun and you’ve got a cart-ridge. If you put that cartridge in the gun, and you shoot straight at a target, you will hit it. Every single time. But if you don’t focus,” he cautions, “mistakes will happen.”
He took the tried and tested route into shooting. Carrying an unloaded .410, he shadowed his grandfather, “a great countryman”, for a year before he was allowed to fire a cartridge. With evident gratitude, George says: “I was taught the hard way. And I’ll never forget my first duck.” Permitted to have a shot at the mallard and teal flighting off a pond en route for the guns and coming over him at 35yd to 40yd, he was ready for action. “A mallard came straight over the top of me and I killed it with my .410. I ran over and picked it up and nobody believed that I’d shot it. They all said, ‘Oh no, you wouldn’t have shot that with a .410…’ It just made me more determined to do it again.
“I wanted to learn. And learn quickly, and from the best,” he says. “With no formal lessons, I looked at the best shots of the era and tried to take something from each one to create my own style.” He aimed to emulate Phillip Fussell, the sportsman he still reveres as “one of the best shots in the country, a complete gentleman and a great character”.
Offers of sponsorship clinched his career move into shooting, and George travels the world representing his sponsor companies. This year, nine months’ globe-trotting began in Morocco and will end in Australia.
How does he maintain his legendary focus? “It was a desire to win to start with. Probably now it’s a desire to stay at the top. I’m tremendously competitive,” he admits. “Anyone who says it’s for the taking part…”
Above all, is he competing against himself? “Very much so,” he confirms. “You always want to do your best. And my ultimate goal is to win a world championship in four different decades.” Three down and one to go; a fabulous achievement. But the lay public is sometimes guilty of taking world-class heroics in any sport for granted. “Success brings its own pressures,” George shrugs. “You are only as good as your last result.” As we speak, his last result had entered the record books after 1,000 competitors had shot over four days for the European sporting FITASC championship at Orville. George won.
Away from competition, George runs four game-shoots with Kate, his wife and business partner. “I enjoy the challenge of showing good birds. The buzz of will they or won’t they go where I want to take them is even better than the buzz of competition,” he says. “You risk everything to gain a little. We do a total of almost a hundred days, and in the course of a season I will turn to Kate perhaps five times to say: ‘That’s why we do it…’ and those five days make it all worthwhile.”
Integrity is George’s watchword. “To be a sportsman, you’ve got to be a conservationist. The recession will probably be good for the sport because shoots that don’t necessarily do the job properly will fall by the wayside,” he says. “The conservation of wild duck is a big passion of mine and I’ve got a good teal pond that costs me a fortune. We only shoot it four or five times a year, and we only drive ’em off, we would never flight it in.”
George uses his authority to protect the sport he loves: “problems should be out in the open,” he says, demanding transparent honesty. A current beef is that local controls fail to keep pace with change; the unchecked growth in wild boar numbers is one example. “It’s turned into the Wild West around here. The boar will be persecuted back into extinction.” To Westminster his message is: “Make sure you uphold the pledge that the 2012 Olympics will leave a substantial legacy to the UK’s shooters of the future.
“Outside of work, all I want to do is have a laugh,” says George who enjoys the company of fellow sportsmen who speak a common language. “I am privileged in that I meet top sportsmen and interesting people in other spheres.” Golf and cricket, often played to fund-raise for two cancer charities, temporarily eclipse shooting when he is off duty; an MBE has recognised this contribution. “I play a reasonable standard of cricket,” he says. “I score a few runs and take quite a lot of wickets. I play for the local village – and anybody else that will have me!”
George’s instinct to encourage novice shooters bodes well for a coaching career in the future as his friend Rob Key, Kent County cricket captain, will testify. “Rob hasn’t been shooting many times,” says George, “yet I took him out the other day and he shot 75 pigeon. The transfer of hand-eye co-ordination within sport is very noticeable. Yesterday I played golf with ex-England rugby internationals, and they all time the ball beautifully.”
We close our conversation on a seasonal note. “Grouse tomorrow,” says George cheerily. “Holwick – and they’ve got a few, so it should be fun.”