What makes devoted shooting men swap their breeks for breeches and go hunting? Caroline Bankes speaks to the men who shoot and hunt
To shoot and hunt is something that more and more men are taking up. Putting down their gun in favour of the thrill of the hunt, men are no longer staying at home while their wives belt across the countryside. Caroline Bankes investigates what it is that makes men shoot and hunt, and sometimes forsake their breeks for breeches altogether.
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THE MEN WHO SHOOT AND HUNT
A lot of my shooting friends thought I was having a mid-life crisis,” recalls Richard Barrow of his decision to shoot and hunt in his late thirties. Fed up with hearing his wife return from the hunting field raving about the huge hedges she’d jumped, he decided it was time to take up the reins again. “I’d see her disappearing on a Saturday morning, and then arrive home at dusk full of the joys of the hunting day. I thought, ‘I want some of that’,” he says.
Richard runs the quarry on the family’s farm and rode till he was 14, at which point – like many teenage boys – he found a quick clean of his gun far more appealing than brushing and washing down a pony.
Encouraged by his wife, Georgie, he started to shoot and hunt again three years ago, initially on one of her hunters. Unfortunately for Richard, the horses were best friends and wouldn’t be parted, so, despite his jangling nerves, he had no choice but to be up the front. “My wife is normally one stride behind the field master, so I had to be one stride behind her and whatever they go over, I had to, too,” he remembers.
Hacking home after his first day out with the Heythrop, a lady trotted up beside him and asked him how he felt after clearing one particularly massive hedge. “Did that beat shooting a high pheasant?” she asked. “I think it may have,” he admitted.
There are caveats to his new-found shoot and hunt enthusiasm – no tack cleaning, plaiting or mucking out. He does clean his boots and scrapes the mud off his grandfather’s old hunting coat but that’s as far as the horse and kit management goes. His wife gets his mount, Winston – a big-boned bay schoolmaster that is utterly reliable – fit for the season.
The Barrows hunt all over the country, combining weekend visits to friends with a day’s hunting, packing up horses and children on a Friday. Last year they went out with the South Dorset, Beaufort, South Shropshire, Quorn, Belvoir, Middleton, Tynedale and all their local packs: the Heythrop, North Cotswold, Cotswold and VWH. “It’s a bit like shooting, great to see more of the country, meet different people. One half-term we went to Northumberland and Yorkshire, and had a tour of the north, hunting with the Tynedale and Middleton,” says Richard.
SHOOT AND HUNT: LURED BACK INTO THE SADDLE
Each shoot and hunt convert has his own road to Damascus. For James Chamberlain it was the day his weimaraner dropped a half-dead fox at his feet. “It was during the foot-and-mouth epidemic,” he recalls. “The fox had been shot through the pelvis several days previously and was still very much alive. It made me think hunting is the answer for vermin control.”
Like many mid-life men who are coaxed to shoot and hunt he was lured back into the saddle by his children. Fed up of being towed about on a lead rein, he started joining them on hirelings. He was in his early forties, hadn’t ridden since childhood and had virtually no hunting experience or knowledge. He became addicted, bought his own horses, and after a stint as vice-chairman of the Cotswold Foxhounds, joined the mastership three seasons ago.
He will shoot and hunt but hunting is his all-abiding passion. “I feel as though I’ve lived in the Cotswolds all my life and not really seen the countryside until I went hunting. I really like shooting, but I love hunting, there isn’t a comparison,” he says, admitting he is rather a “born-again hunter”.
As one of four Masters, Chamberlain has 200 landowners to look after, some of whom are entertained on the hunt’s shoot. The mixed woodland 500-acre shoot was offered to the hunt three seasons ago. About a thousand birds are put down with all the keepering done by the hunt staff and supporters.
“We shoot on non-hunting days, it’s very low-key, we will do about five days a year and the record bag is 65 birds,” says Chamberlain. “It helps to prove to other shoot owners you can shoot and hunt on the same land, you can have the hunt through three days before a shoot and still have birds that fly well.”
Gloucestershire farmer Mike Hawker is another whose children rekindled his love of hunting. “I hadn’t touched a horse for 16 years but the minute my daughter got a pony it brought back all the old memories,” he says. He has had 10 seasons with the Beaufort after starting to shoot and hunt in his early forties.
“As much as I love shooting, it wasn’t as exciting and dangerous as hunting,” he admits, and says he enjoys the sport far more now than as a child.”You really appreciate the countryside when you shoot and hunt, seeing other people’s farms, the social aspect and the relaxation. I certainly get far more out of it now than I used to.”
In the winter, when farming becomes more routine, Mike rides most days. “It keeps me fit,” he says. He still has a gun in his local shoot but it is hunting that is his real obsession: “Out hunting you are always challenging yourself. It is a huge adrenalin rush and there is always the excitement of the unknown. It makes me feel how lucky and privileged I am to live in such beautiful countryside.”
For former keeper, Frank Speir, it is the fieldcraft of hunting that lured him to shoot and hunt. Born and bred on a shooting estate, he was a keeper at Ashcombe in Dorset, before it was bought by Madonna and Guy Ritchie. He took up hunting again, with the Warwickshire, when reintroduced to the sport by his then girlfriend (now wife) Alix McConnel, whose mother was secretary of the hunt for over 20 years.
“I have been lucky enough to shoot on most of the best shoots in the country, be it grouse, pheasant or partridge. Shooting you stand in a line and you are testing your ability and skill. It’s great fun but not fieldcraft, which is why I love pigeon-shooting,” he says. Frank helps lay the trails and whips-in when required. He always has a completely different day from his wife. “I would never be as passionate about hunting if I had to be behind a field master all day. If I wasn’t on the flight deck I wouldn’t enjoy it as much,” he says. It is the pleasure of watching hounds work that gives him the biggest buzz: “It’s the nearest thing to nature.”
SHOOT AND HUNT: THE HUNTING BAN
It was the prospect of the hunting ban that made Warwickshire farmer Mark Warner start to shoot and hunt in his late thirties. He’d been put off riding aged 11 by a biting, kicking loan pony. Guns were far more amenable. For his 12th birthday he was given a .410 and as soon as he could drive he started clay-shooting seriously. He has twice been the county’s English Sporting clay champion, and teaches and runs a small pheasant shoot on the farm.
“I probably would never shoot and hunt if it hadn’t been for the ban,” he says. To his wife’s dismay he bought a horse in the pub, had a few lessons and started hunting with the Warwickshire. “One fellow said I was the worst rider he’d seen,” jokes Mark. But he was soon keeping up with fellow hunting farmers, and in his second season was thrilled to have completed the Warwickshire Hunt’s team chase (last year’s event was held on his farm). And he won’t forget the day he was awarded the Bicester hunt button. “They really meant something to me,” he recalls.
Lord Portsmouth is another to shoot and hunt who was drawn to the sport by the prospect of a ban. He had hunted as a child but it wasn’t until just after his 50th birthday, after a gap of 33 years, that he got back in the saddle.
“I was shooting a lot at that time and running a shoot at home. I felt that shooters, along with all participants in fieldsports, must stand shoulder to shoulder with the hunting community,” he says. “As a result, from 1997 on I found myself attending every protest that I could – marches, pickets, all-night vigils – you name them, I did them. Over almost all of that time, I found myself with hunting folk – the shooting fraternity being by and large fickle in their support and conspicuous by their absence, except on the big London marches.”
It was the strong sense of the hunt “tribe” that Lord Portsmouth found so appealing, and the year before the ban came into force he borrowed some kit, found a reliable hireling and made his debut with the Hampshire Hunt (HH) at a lawn meet at Farleigh House, his family seat. “I now have two hunters and I am looking forward to my eighth season as a hunter reborn,” he enthuses. His first loyalty is to the HH, but he also enjoys the vales and hill meets of the Portman, has been out with the Beaufort and hopes to do a lot more “visiting”.
In his eyes, a good day’s hunting “is the best fun you can have on a horse”. It is the sense of belonging that he finds so attractive: “To belong to a hunt is to belong to a very special club, to which hunting folk have a fierce, almost partisan attachment,” he believes. However, he says, “There has been a downside to the fact I shoot and hunt: there are many people whose company I enjoyed out shooting and who became friends, whom I hardly ever see these days. Insofar as I have any regret about forsaking shooting for hunting, it would be that.”
SHOOT AND HUNT: THE WRONG SIDE OF 50
The HH hunting field is peppered with men the wrong side of 50 who’ve taken up the sport in the last decade, including Roddy Watt. He and his wife Emmy are the hunt’s new joint secretaries. Bored senseless with dinner-party chatter dominated by hunting, Roddy decided, aged 46, that he must have a go before it was banned. He’d never sat on a horse.
A pretty riding instructor cheered up the lessons in a gloomy school and after a few months it was decided he was ready to go hunting. “It was a bit of bloody-mindedness and anger that people could just ban a pastime which gave people obvious pleasure. It did sound like fun and I genuinely wanted to give it a go before it was was done away with. Then I became rabid.”
Initially he borrowed his wife’s horse, but for seven seasons has been out on his beloved Tara, a 16.3hh part-Clydesdale with perfect manners, whose huge feet make her a bit clumsy. “She’s not very bright, but very sweet and I love her dearly,” says Roddy.
This love has been sorely tested. Roddy has broken his back, thumbs, ribs and foot, ripped ligaments and endured bruises from being trodden on, but he can’t imagine life without Tara or hunting. “I will be devastated when she goes. She’s such a good friend, even though she’s had a good roll on top of me,” he says.
Taking up hunting in later life carries risk; we don’t bounce well in middle age. And, of course, it can be fatal. Rob Pitcher was brought up with gun and rod but discouraged from riding when a family friend died after a fall. But he climbed into the saddle at 26, with a certain degree of joshing about “being scared”.
His first outing saw him “clinging on to the ears of an ex-racehorse, lent by a friend”. Undeterred, he started hunting with the Fernie, and now hunts with the Middleton and has a few days each season with the Derwent.
Now in his forties, Rob still loves to shoot and hunt: “It’s a skilful sport that gives you time in the wonderful countryside and offers a variety of challenges, whether it’s a grouse skimming in front or a tall pheasant. But it’s not a risky sport, unlike hunting, where the risks are high – at least for me! That risk combined with the skill needed to stay on your horse and the joy of following hounds makes a heady cocktail.”
And it’s one that increasing numbers of men are willing to imbibe as they add breeches to their collection of breeks and start to shoot and hunt.