To most country pursuit enthusiasts around the world, having the opportunity of living in Britain and working their dogs on a shooting estate that provides both driven and rough shooting is something they can only dream about as they flick through the glossy pages of Shooting Gazette and The Field. For my good fortune, several years ago I was given just that opportunity and I will be eternally grateful as it opened up a whole new world for me.
For many years both my wife and I had worked abroad in various conflict zones and on aid programs in developing nations. In 2008 we were settled back in Australia on our farm raising beef cattle and breeding, showing and trialling our dogs when my wife was offered a four year posting to London. Contented as I was with farm life, living and shooting in the UK for four years was a chance I was not going to miss and so I and four of our dogs tagged along as “excess baggage” to “good old Blighty”.
We were fortunate to arrive in the UK in early September; a bit late for grouse but just in time for the partridge and pheasant season. As soon as we were settled into our house in London, the four dogs and I moved up to a comfortable cottage near Colveston Manor Estate in Norfolk.
Colveston’s Gamekeeper is retired School Principal, Trevor Rigby whom I had known for many years. Trevor’s stepson Simon Ball is the Shoot Captain at Colveston. Simon is a retired London stockbroker who moved his family up to Norfolk several years ago searching for the quieter life that the English countryside offers.
Trevor and Simon had agreed to me helping out on the shoot for the season in exchange for them teaching me about British driven and rough shooting and for Trevor who is also a Hunter, Pointer, Retriever (HPR) A-Panel Field Trial judge, to coach me and my two German Wirehaired Pointers in the finer points of HPR Field Trialling.
From the glossy shooting magazines one could be forgiven for thinking that life on a UK shoot is all Range Rovers, expensive H&H and Purdey shotguns, tweed shooting jackets and breeks, Sloe Gin at “elevenses” and fat Labradors tethered to gun pegs. And yes, there is definitely some of that but what is not generally explained in those pictorial essays is the enormous amount of hard work that is put in by the gamekeepers and other shoot staff to ensure that there are sufficient numbers of quality birds presented for the Guns to shoot at during the long and more often than not, harsh winter season.
Like many estates and farms in the UK, Colveston is leased out by the owners to a tenant farmer. In this case it is Edwin and Wendy Allingham, who as well as growing lambs, barley and sugar beet, run a delightful B&B in their Georgian Manor House. (www.colveston-manor.co.uk) Two of the most delightfully hospitable and knowledgeable Norfolk country folk you could ever wish to meet. Wendy’s full English breakfasts are scrumptious and filling and her traditional Norfolk roast dinners are simply to die for.
The “shooting rights” which are part of the Colveston land title are leased separately to a shoot syndicate of 10 Guns headed up by Simon. Each Gun pays for the right to shoot on a scheduled number of days during the partridge and pheasant season. The shooting season for partridge runs from 1 Sep to 1 Feb and for pheasant from 1 Oct to 1 Feb.
The Colveston shoot buys in around 2500 pheasants and 250 French partridge poults each year with their bag target being 100 – 120 birds shot on each of the 8 days the syndicate shoots.
Game birds cost approximately £40- £45 each to buy and rear by the time they are “driven” over the Guns on a shoot day. At the end of the shooting season gamekeepers would like about 20% of the introduced birds to have survived shooting and predation to add to the “wild stock” that inhabit their shoots.
Long before the young poults arrive at Colveston, Simon and Trevor and their small but dedicated team of local helpers have been busy with a multitude of diverse shoot chores including: ongoing vermin control programs, repairing and predator proofing rearing pens; thinning out the woods where the birds will roost after they are released from the pens; planting game cover and repairing vehicle and foot bridges and other structures on the shoot to ensure not only firearm but all aspects of safety are covered in their Risk Assessment and Management Plan. (Yes folks, OH&S has well and truly hit the English countryside).
Once the young game birds arrive then the intensive rearing work really begins. The birds need to be fed, watered and monitored for sickness daily. The rearing pens are located in the woods close to the drives where Trevor and Simon want them to roost and stay after they are released. The netting pens are open to the elements and if the weather turns nasty as it is often want to do in England, it is not uncommon for gamekeepers to spend wet, windy nights herding their birds around the pens to keep them warm so as to prevent them from developing hypothermia.
The birds are kept in the pens until they are 3 months old when they are released into the woods and game cover. This is the critical time for the gamekeepers who need to make sure that the birds are kept fat, warm, safe and happy in the drives otherwise they will simply wander off to greener fields.
It is at this stage that Trevor’s team of HPR’s (and for this year my own dogs) come into their own. They are used to “dog in” the birds from the boundaries and the impenetrable woodland areas of the estate to keep them in the drives. As well as an essential element of game keeping, it is a great opportunity for young gundogs to develop scenting and pointing skills and to improve their fitness prior to the shooting season. The dogging in work really helped develop the hunting and pointing skills and steadiness to flushing birds of my two keen but inexperienced GWPs.
For people involved in UK shooting, the year is broken into only 2 parts – the shooting season and the non-shooting season. The non-shooting season is used ostensibly by Guns to prepare themselves, dogs and equipment for the next shooting season.
As September approaches, the older Guns will start oiling shotguns and stocking up with No. 4, 5 and 6 shot, maybe slipping away for a quick practice on the clay pigeon range (never admitted to of course), airing the mouldy shooting tweeds and wellies that have been banished to the attic trunk since last season, and throwing a few training dummies for the old Lab to get him “match fit” for opening day. Younger Guns and Lady Guns on the other hand may spend an afternoon or two in the “country pursuit” shops of London’s St James, Pall Mall or Kensington acquiring the very latest in shooting fashion and accessories. A tip for shooting newcomers: one must always keep up one’s appearances in the UK, especially when in the company of one’s good chums. Unless of course you have a long shooting pedigree and then your Grandfather’s patched hand-me-down tweeds are worn in the shooting field like a badge of honour.
After a few weeks for the dogs and I to find our feet, all too quickly Colveston’s first shooting day arrived. I for one was full of nervous energy for my two GWPs and I were tasked to join the very experienced estate picking up team comprised of agile Springer Spaniels and brave, hard running Labradors.
Using the Continental HPRs breeds such as GWPs, GSPs, Weimaraners, Spinones etc on driven shoots is still not widely practised in the UK and many an old craggy Gun and Beater’s eye was cast rather disparagingly over the lip of a steaming coffee mug at my dogs that morning. Much the same as a seasoned Land Rover Defender driver looks doubtingly at the chap up from London driving the latest Porsche SUV as they head off across a sodden English meadow to the first drive. My dogs, oblivious to the odd detrimental stare and comment were just eager to get to work but I was definitely feeling a bit of pressure for them to perform well and for us not to let Trevor down.
Like two military strategists, Simon and Trevor had meticulously planned the day’s shooting schedule and their tactics for how each drive was to be conducted. They had staked the Gun’s pegs on the various drives, had organised Beaters and Pickers Up, had repaired and tidied up the Gun’s and Beater’s wagons (converted horse floats towed by 4WD vehicles), and of course had procured the traditional sloe gin and game pasties for “elevenses” (morning tea). Trevor’s wife Barbara is a trained chef and does a wonderful job of producing the most delicious game pasties and other fare.
The Guns and Beaters arrived at around 0815 hours for a 0900 kick off. On the older and large commercial shoots throughout Britain there still remains a distinct but cordial segregation between Guns and shoot staff throughout the days shooting. On Colveston it is a little less formal but as paying clients the Guns are treated with the respect and courtesy that British shooting etiquette requires. Everyone involved knows the rules of the game and goes about their own business in a most professional but friendly manner.
Very much to their credit the British are sticklers for “good form” and on most shoots the day will start with tea or coffee and grilled sausages. At Colveston the breakfast goodies are provided by Wendy from the Manor B&B, courtesy of her ever burning Aga stove.
At around 0830 hours Simon as Shoot Captain gave the welcoming speech and the safety and conduct brief and then had the Guns draw for their pegs for the first drive. On Colveston, Guns move up three pegs on each drive to ensure every Gun gets an opportunity to be in the “hot seat” at some stage of the day.
Guns and dogs were loaded up and we were off to the first drive where Simon placed the Guns on their respective pegs. Guns are able to load as soon as they are on their pegs but are discouraged from taking ground game and wood pigeons until the game birds have commenced breaking from cover over them.
While all of this had been happening, Gamekeeper Trevor had briefed and positioned his team of Beaters. On his command they then moved forward waiving their heavy, brightly coloured plastic flags that “cracked” in the breeze or softly tapping homemade castanets and walking sticks. Some Beaters had their spaniels and other dogs working in close to them to help push the birds out of their hiding places in the denser groundcover.
Quite discreetly, the Picking Up team had moved into position behind the Guns ready to retrieve any “runners” that were wounded during the drive and then to move forward to pick up all of the other birds that had been downed by the Guns. If a Gun has a peg dog, then the Pickers Up will extend the courtesy of allowing the Gun time to have their dog make several retrieves before moving forward to pick up the remainder of the downed birds.
On Trevor’s command the Beaters slowly moved forward in extended line, taking care not to push the birds too hard less they “leak” out the sides of the drive or fly too soon away from the Guns.
The Guns shooting habits are monitored by the Shoot Captain. A “sporting” Gun would not dream of engaging a bird that was lower than 45 degrees and usually only at a height in excess of 25 metres. If a Gun breeches safety or shooting etiquette then the Shoot Captain will take them to task and in matters relating to the safety of other Guns or Beaters may politely ask the Gun in question to “slip” his gun and withdraw from the remainder of the days shooting. Firearm safety is taken very seriously in the UK and rightly so.
While the birds are being flushed and shot at, one or more of the Beaters will be using a counter to keep a record of the number of shots fired. A ratio of 3 shots per bird killed is the benchmark that is sought to be attained on the flatter terrain of Norfolk – anything better than that is regarded highly. The shot count is recorded just in case at the end of the day the Guns complain about insufficient birds being presented over them. Sometimes there will be lots of birds presented but few killed due to poor shooting or adverse weather conditions. On other days, the birds just may not be in the drives and there are insufficient birds able to be driven over the Guns. That is a chance everyone takes when purchasing driven shooting days.
At the end of each drive the very effective Picking Up team (sometimes disrupted by less well trained dogs owned by the Guns) moves in to pick up the shot birds. It is very important that all birds are found for a couple of reasons. Firstly the humane dispatching of game is the keystone of participating in any shooting sport, secondly each bird that is missed is one less off the tally sheet and one less that goes to the game dealer for revenue to be re-injected into the shoot. Thirdly, birds left behind become easy feeds for the predators that the shoot is trying so hard to eradicate.
My two dogs with their Retrieving Trial experience from Australia were superb in picking up fast fleeing “runners” and executed several retrieves in excess of 200 metres over all types of terrain and streams – much to the pleasant surprise of my picking up team colleagues and many of the Guns and Beaters.
After two drives, “Elevenses” was taken. Traditionally Sloe Gin is sipped and the ever popular game pasties are enjoyed by the Guns and the Beaters. Sloes are a plum like fruit that are pricked and soaked in a solution of Gin and sugar to make a sweet purple concoction which has been associated with British shooting for decades, if not centuries.
Another two drives and lunch was taken – again in separate groups. On large shoots, the Guns may retire to the Estate Manor or a shooting lodge for a lunch of roast or game casserole, wine and port. The Beaters often have to settle for less salubrious digs for a “pack up” lunch washed down with a warm Lager. At Colveston the Guns and Beaters bring their own lunches and share a barn stall with straw bales arranged in two co-located but separate circles. During lunchtime Simon and Trevor circulate around the Beaters and Pickers Up and slip them their “pay packets”. On most shoots Beaters are usually paid around £25 for the day and Pickers Up £35. The extra money for the Pickers Up paid because they supply their invaluable, well trained dogs and their own vehicles and fuel to get about the shoot.
Another three drives after lunch saw the day conclude at about 3pm – remembering it is dark in England in Autumn/Winter by 4pm.
At the end of the day the Guns changed out of their “Wellies” for dress shoes and replaced shooting jackets with v-neck sweaters (often with game bird logos on the left breast), the birds were tallied and entered into the Shoot record book, sums were done to calculate the shot to bird ratio, shoot cards were filled out and handed to the Guns and a brace of birds were selected in turn by the Guns and then the Beaters and Pickers Up.
At this time the Guns discreetly tip the Gamekeeper for his efforts (usually somewhere between £25-£50 depending on the bag limit) in presenting quality birds throughout the day before retiring for afternoon tea. It is also customary for the Guns to personally thank the Beaters and Pickers Up for their efforts and assistance during the day.
The following day, Trevor and I were out on the shoot again “hoovering” the drives with our dogs to make sure any shot or injured birds that may have been missed the day before were recovered and added to the tally. On Colveston this usually takes 4-6 hrs and entails the Gamekeepers walking anywhere up to 15km in muddy fields and briar filled woods. Gundog enthusiasts would see this for the excellent training opportunity that it is for further educating young or inexperienced dogs.
The next day the cycle of feeding the birds in the drives, dogging in, improving rides through the woods and game cover for the birds to sun themselves in, placing out hay bales for the birds to scratch around in and repairing gates and bridges that may have been damaged on the shooting day began once again.
Life on a shoot is not an easy life but it is a very enjoyable one for those with the outdoor spirit.
If you are ever offered a similar opportunity I strongly recommend you seize it with both hands. Working on a shooting estate is a truly satisfying and most educational experience.