words by John Roll Pickering
You are going to shoot game. Perhaps it is something that you have not done before, though you may have shot wildfowl, pests or clay pigeons. This aritcle gives you all the information you need about what equipment you should take and what may happen at the shoot. When you have read it you will be ready to take part in one of life’s most rewarding and enjoyable sports.
The invitation may be either written or oral. However it is received – by post, telephone, email, as a part of a formal or an informal conversation – it must be treated with a high priority.
Check your calendar and respond to your host as soon as possible. If you are not able to give a definite reply at once you should say so, and give a deadline when you can. Shoot days give the impression of being relaxed and informal but the reality is that they are run with precision and organised like military manoevres. Many arrangements hang on spaces at shoots being filled so it is important (as well as polite) not to leave things in the air any longer than is absolutely necessary.
Once you have accepted, the date is set in stone and should not be cancelled for any but the most urgent of situations. If you later receive a second invitation for the same date or one that might render the first impossible you must decline the second, however much better it may be. If you mess a host around in such a way you will soon acquire an unwelcome reputation and be removed from many a list of potential guests.
Similar considerations apply if you have arranged the shoot yourself, perhaps through a Sporting Agency.
Before you set out for any activity you need to know certain things about it. The questions relevant to a day’s shooting are probably:
▶ Where is it?
▶ What are the timings?
▶ Is it walking or driven?
▶ May I bring my dog and/or a follower?
▶ What are the transport arrangements on the shoot?
▶ Will lunch be provided or should I bring my own?
▶ Is the distance such that I will need to stay locally – in which case is there a suitable local hotel?
▶ What is the likely bag – how many cartridges will I need? A safe number of caryridges to bring is the same as the expected bag + another box. Running out of cartridges is a faux pas.
▶ What birds are we shooting and how will the birds fly? You may want to select a particular shot size to match the expected quarry and need non-toxic shot if duck are to be shot.
▶ How much cash is needed (to tip the keeper) and to pay for lunch in an inn?
▶ If you have been invited as a paying guest or as a part of a roving syndicate, what are the payment terms? [Be aware that there is unlikely to be a refund in case of late cancellation.]
Finding the rendezvous point can be a problem since the actual spot, often a farm or house, may not be on a numbered road or one that is shown in a road atlas. You may wish to consult a larger scale map but today most of us have access to internet sites which can provide maps and suggest routes. SatNavs can also help
You should be certain about all of these matters some time before the day. If you are in any doubt the person who invited you or made the arrangements ought to be able to obtain the answers for you.
A good host will include all this information in the invitation and its follow-up.
Not long before the actual day you begin the physical preparations. Here is a sample list of what may be required:
Breeks or full shooting suit
A collar and tie (for a man) is normally seen as a mark of respect for the quarry
Cash for tip and bets on the bag
Game bag or loops for belt
Cash for tip and bets on the bag
If taking a dog
Towel (if you use one)
Lead and spare peg
Here is a film about sensible shoot clothing:
Practice at a shooting school or shooting ground
If you have not shot for some time it will do no harm to practise, either at a clay club or shooting school. If you will be shooting a new sort of target, perhaps driven grouse or high pheasants, the shooting school can arrange to simulate them for you. Lessons at shooting schools can be expensive but this is a wise investment of time and money.
A ‘Licence to Kill Game’ is no longer needed in any part of the United Kingdom. The UK does not have a system of formal hunting licences like the rest of Europe – instead it has draconian gun laws, which restricts guns and ammunition. If you are going shooting in Northern Ireland, a separate approval from the local police is necessary. This may take some weeks to arrange.
It is sensible to have public liability insurance cover. Most shooting people have this as a membership benefit from GunsOnPegs, the British Association for Shooting and Conservation, the Clay Pigeon Shooting Association or the Countryside Alliance or other body. Carrying evidence of such insurance can do no harm. As you will be taking your gun outside its normal zone it would be wise to have your Shotgun Certificate with you or at least a photocopy of it, since a policeman may seize a shotgun if the owner cannot show a certificate.
Be sure that you arrive on time. Being early may disrupt some moves involving the shoot host and the keeper. Being late will cause delay and annoyance.
When you arrive greet the host, fellow Guns, beaters and pickers-up if they are around, gamekeepers and anyone else you meet. Don’t be shy. Use spare time on arrival to get ready. Put on your coat and boots, put your gun in its sleeve and arrange your cartridges. It is handy to have at least as many cartridges as you will need for a drive about you, either in your coat pocket or on a belt, in case your cartridge bag is to be left in a vehicle. If you leave your bag in the vehicle, and you leave your vehicle, check when you will see it again to fill up with cartridges.
Every shoot should begin with a briefing. It usually takes place after a welcoming cup of coffee. It may start with a jocular remark such as, “Anyone not here, speak out”, but it is a serious matter. Here you will learn what is going to happen on the day. Any local rules such as signals to load and unload will be explained. You will be told what signals the start and end of a drive – a whistle, horn or shout. You may be told that you are ‘live on peg’, which means you can start shooting the moment you reach your peg on a drive. You may be told what to do with caryridges at the end of the drive. You will be reminded about safety. If you are not walking everywhere transport will be detailed. You may share vehicles or there might be a ‘gun bus’ for you all.
An important feature of every briefing is a reminder of what quarry may be shot and what may not – even though they are lawful targets. Local conservation issues, a wish not to trigger a drive prematurely or safety concerns may each rule out tempting targets that come your way. Listen out for “nothing on the ground’ or ‘no ground game’, which means no rabbits, hares or foxes. ‘No pigeons before game birds’ helps not spook gamebirds prematurely. If you have questions now is the time to ask them. It is better to be certain than to commit an error.
There may be a draw for the best guess of numbers of birds and numbers of cartridges. Entry to this draw ranges from pennies to £10 or £20 so make sure you have the correct denomination with you.
Draw for numbers
There will be a draw for peg numbers. There are many permutations and combinations with these. You may number from the left or from the right (‘numbering from the left’ means peg number one will be on the left of the drive as you look at the birds, and number eight on the right). You may go up one, two or three places after each drive. Elsewhere, odd numbers may go up and evens go down or vice versa. You may be given a card with an apparently random sequence of numbers. Even some people whose day jobs involve enormous responsibility such as captains of industry and senior officers in the armed forces are amongst those who manage to find this aspect confusing. It is hardly surprising that those who forget their peg number also tend to lose their cards.
People at the shoot
As well as the Guns many other people and groups and involved in a shooting day. Here is a brief summary of some you may meet. Feel free to talk to any or all of them:
The gamekeeper or keeper has been working for months in preparation for the season and this day. He or she will have reared the birds, controlled vermin, cut woodlands, laid out the drives and made many other preparations for your entertainment. There may be underkeepers or beat keepers, depending on the scale of the shoot.
On the day itself the keeper usually marshals the beaters while the shoot captain directs the gun team, known as ‘the guns‘.
The beaters are responsible for driving birds towards the guns, under the keeper’s instructions. Most are armed with sticks to beat the bushes and trees but some, acting as flankers may carry flags in order to direct birds. Others may act as stops, perhaps at the end of a hedgerow, preventing quarry from going in a particular direction. In many cases beaters are paid for their work although at some shoots this role is fulfilled by the spouses and children of the guns or even by some of the guns themselves in a shoot-and-beat arrangement.
Standing with or behind the line of guns will be found the pickers-up. These dog handlers may be paid or amateurs. Their responsibility is to find and collect wounded game or game that has fallen some distance from the guns. It is a fine thing to watch a skilled dog handler with one or more dogs in action.
Some guns may have brought a follower with them. This may be their child, friend, husband, parent, partner or spouse. Some will stand or sit and watch or hold a dog. Others may actively assist the gun by marking any birds that he shoots and holding cartridges ready for a rapid reload, although guns must be careful that this does not result in them shooting more than their fair share of the bag when others are without an assistant. It is the gun’s responsibility to see that the follower does not wander away from the peg or get lost. It is also the gun’s responsibility to make sue the follower has suitable clothing and hearing protection.
If a large bag is expected, a gun may also have a loader, holding a second shotgun that you will bring for them. The loader may also be an instructor. On some of the bigger shoots, a gun may have a loader AND an instructor. If you can shoot but are new to driven game shooting, there is no shame in asking your host (well in advance) if the shoot can arrange for a loader in order to advise you on what and what not to shoot.
Here is a film about a gun, Ross Neville, at one of the UK’s premier shoots with his friend and instructor, Heugo Heard:
In this arrangement, the guns form a line, often with beaters between the guns, which then walks forward, perhaps across moorland for grouse or over stubbles for partridges. As you will be walking with your gun loaded make sure that it points at a safe angle, well away from the line, at all times. It is important to remain in a line, so keep looking left and right to make sure you are. Because of safety issues, shoots may ask you to walk with the gun open, with cartridges in the gun.
When quarry is flushed the line halts and shots may be fired, usually forwards. Great care must be taken if the targets go towards the line for, although a shot to the rear or high into the air would be safe, a shot near the line would definitely not be so. If the target looks as if it may approach or cross through the line, guns should be removed from the shoulder and pointed towards the sky until the gun has turned right around. A shot should not be fired within 45° of the line.
The walk does not resume until anything shot has been gathered and stowed. A slightly different procedure is followed when pointers are used.
Here’s a film about shooting snipe over pointers in Ireland:
When taking part in a driven shoot, the guns are placed at a stand or peg usually marked with a number. On a grouse moor this is usually in a ‘butt’, as the small enclosures are called.
The line of stands may be straight or may curve with the ground or around the edge of a covert. Here, too, there is a safety prohibition on shooting within 45° of the line between your own stand and that of your neighbour.
In a grouse butt there may be posts to mark the limits of your swing. Also, you should not shoot at a flying target unless you can see the sky behind it.
You should go directly to your own peg and not stop to gossip on the way. There may be pickers up or stops near you and you should note their positions. At some shoots you are instructed to load and be ready as soon as you have reached your stand. At others, a signal tells you when you may load your gun. This is made clear during the initial briefing.
On a driven day it is usual for guns to be unloaded and carried in a sleeve except when standing on a peg or acting as a walking gun.
You may stand on your peg with gun up or down. Look at what other guns are doing. On some shoots, for example in Devon, guns may only be down.
On some shoots it is de rigueur that everyone is silent during a drive. At others the beaters may shout a warning that birds are on their way, often the word ‘forward!’. A neighbouring gun may call ‘yours!’ if he does not intend to shoot at a bird that is coming between your respective airspaces. A gun that does a lot of shouting may not be asked again.
Beware of ‘poaching’, that is shooting a bird that is flying well for another Gun.
Turn off your mobile phone. You will not be popular if you devote more attention to an electronic device than you do to the drive. Fines for use of mobile phones range from a few pounds to the offeding telephone being tossed in the air and another gun asked to shoot it.
Here is an introduction to grouse shooting:
Gun in action
A bird is coming towards you and will present a sporting shot. Do not attempt to shoot a bird that is impossibly high since, at best, you may wound it, condemning it to a lingering death. The rule is: shoot what you know you can shoot, do not shoot what you now you cannot shoot. Nor should you shoot low driven birds since the shot is unrpoting, and you may ‘pillowcase’ them, or blast them to pieces, rendering them unfit for the table. Remember, you are not there to massacre wildlife. You are there to enjoy sport and to provide food for human consumption.
At any drive, one or more of the Guns may be directed to walk with the beaters. The task here is to shoot birds that are flying away from the direction of the drive. Birds going forwards should be left since they present a better target to the standing guns. A walking Gun on strange ground may be given an escort.
Here’s the rhyme to remember:
Beaters and a flushing line
In woodlands, some of the beaters may put out a flushing line, or they may indicate a natural flushing point, such as the corner of woodland. This marks the point where the birds will cease running along the ground and should take off in order to fly over the line of waiting guns.
The end of the drive
At the end of the drive the keeper will make a signal, usually on a whistle or a horn, telling Guns to unload and re-sleeve their weapons. If not instructed to do so, it is polite for guns to pick up spent cartridges. If there is a receptacle they should be taken there. If there is not, a neat pile close to the peg will help whoever is later sent to gather them.
You may pick up game that is near you and carry it to the game cart. The efforts of pickers-up and their dogs need be concentrated on the birds which are more difficult to find. If you can do so, indicate to a picker-up where your unpicked birds have fallen. Pickers-up admire guns who have mentally ‘marked’ all of their birds. There may be an opportunity to assist the shoot by carrying game to the cart and helping to match the birds into braces (or twos).
There may a pause between drives, in which case this is the chance for conversation. This is also the time to replenish your stock of cartridges. Although there may be a longish stop, the gun(s) who are to walk at the next drive may be called away early to accompany the beaters, in which case they may have to forego any offered refreshments.
If you are putting your gun into a vehicle always re-check that it is unloaded and be seen by your fellow travellers to do so. In any case, be ready to move off when instructed and aware of any directions for the next drive.
Some shoots ‘shoot through’ and eat lunch at the end of the day. Others stop for lunch.
You may have brought your own (and, on a walked-up shoot, carried it) or it may be provided on site. You may go into a barn or a house or to a local inn. The last two will cause a change of footwear. You will certainly wish to shed wet outer clothes.
Either way, gun security is a concern while you are eating. You may wish to take your sleeved shotgun into the house or barn with you. If you are going to go out again after lunch or will be driving home, do not be tempted to overindulge. Be ready to move off again in good time.
The end of the day
At the end of the day the shooting party returns to its start point and kit is disassembled for the homeward journey. The keeper will count the bag and notify the shoot captain, perhaps adding the number of shots fired to achieve the score. You may be given a card with the details written on it. The total bag may also be laid out in a display as is the European custom. This is another opportunity to assist.
Layout and count
Next, the keeper offers to give a brace of birds, either still in feather or sometimes dressed, to each gun. This is the chance for the Gun to express his thanks both verbally and with a tip. The size of the tip is a personal matter, usually reflecting your enjoyment of both the quality and the quantity of the sport. If asked, the shoot captain will be pleased to give guidance on the amount, perhaps as “£XX per hundred or part thereof”.
Here is a film about tipping:
Guns should also thank the host, the shoot captain, whoever drove them around, the caterer and anyone else who has contributed to the success of the day.
Before you drive away further refreshments may be offered and it is now that the result of any sweepstake, perhaps on the size of the bag or the number of shots fired, is announced. If taking part be sure to know what it is that you have been invited to estimate.
Before you leave be sure to say farewell to all the other Guns, the Shoot Captain and any other hosts and members of the party. Sloping off quietly is not acceptable.
You may be tired but there are several important tasks to be done before you can relax. After unloading the car your grace birds should be hung in a cool place that is both cat-proof and fox-proof (your dogs being too well-mannered to take further interest in them). A shed or garage may suffice. In some cases the birds will have been given to you already dressed and wrapped and on a tray in which case they only need to be placed in the fridge or freezer.
If your dog has accompanied you it must be checked for injuries and any burrs removed. It must be fed and watered and given rest. Next your gun needs a thorough cleaning before it is returned to safe storage.
With these jobs done you may begin to look after your own comforts, a bath, a change of clothes and a meal. You may also wish to enter the details of the day in your own diary, gamebook or game register.
Within the next couple of days you should send a hand written thank you to your host, whatever the nature of the day. He may well wish to show a portfolio of such letters to the gamekeeper who worked so hard to ensure that the day went well.
© John Roll Pickering 2019