Wednesday, 20 April 2011

New Blood for Old?

I was interested to see Simon Mulholland writing in his beaters column in the Shooting Gazette recently, making a plea for beaters to be the “voice of shooting”.  God forbid!  If our beaters are anything to go by, it would be a pretty mono-syllabic voice.  Most of those syllables would add up to a profanity or a piss-take.

Before anyone takes this as the perspective of a pampered gun, who has nothing better to do than slag off a hard working beating line; you’re wrong, I’m one of them!  I beat 6 days a week, most weeks, between November and the end of January, putting in over 100 days in the beating line during the season.

 I try to shoot pigeon throughout the year, but as for pheasants, I don’t normally pick up my gun more than ten times in an average year, and after publishing this I’ll probably be pointing my gun at less this coming year.  Call me contrary, but I just don’t see the point.  Driven partridge makes my pulse quicken. I’d dearly love to shoot woodcock in Ireland and hope to do so at least once before a kick the bucket.  The sound of Teal overhead, in the half- light, makes the hairs on the back of neck prickle and will still get me out of bed at stupid o’clock in the morning.

But pheasant?  Why do the British get so worked up about this mediocre bird?  Why are we so happy to spend increasingly huge amounts of money on a type of shooting that in my opinion is for the most part, pretty pedestrian?  I know, I can hear you all clamouring (can three people cause a clamour?) about that spectacular curling bird that you shot last year or the sky high, late season cock that dropped as dead as a stone at your feet.  Pheasants can have their moment as well, but for the most part, they fly about as spectacularly as a house brick.

At the moment there seems to be a backlash in the shooting media about high bird shooting.  We shouldn’t shoot high pheasants because of the unacceptable cartridge to kill ratios and the wanton number of wounded birds.  This to me seems counter-intuitive.  The only memorable pheasants I shot last season were on an invited day at Harewood House, close to Leeds.  Screamers, coming off the top of a drive called Craddock’s Bank.  I got three in a row (second barrel each time mind).  Quite the highest birds I have ever shot.  That stand will stay with me for the rest of my life as a really memorable shooting moment.  It will get filed away with others, like the first woodcock I ever shot, the first game bird taken when I was kid, the time that Lola did a victory lap around the guns with a hare in her mouth, the first time that my kids shared a pigeon hide with me.  When I take stock of all the wonderful moments I have had out in the field, not many involve a pheasant, and those that do, were usually down to the height of the bird. 

Most late season birds will have been shot at before, probably not liked it much and of a mind not to have to go through the whole experience again.  They usually have a strategy;  walk out of the drive if at all possible (preferable), fly so low that only an idiot or a cad would shoot you (pretty good) or as a last resort fly fast and high, set your wings and hope to be back in the release pen before anyone has noticed. Pheasants flying fast are akin to me trying to do the 100 meter; there’s quite a bit of weight to get moving, but once it up and going momentum is a wonderful thing.  Good for 40 meters and then bloody useless!  Read that in pheasant as; takes a bit of getting off the ground (hey guy’s let’s make a lot of noise whilst we’re taking off and warn the guns as well), flies like stink for 20 seconds after which it’s knackered, so it sets wings and glides the rest of the way back to the pen.

I live in the Vale of York, which is flatter than a pint of Southern beer.  We don’t have the topography to show really high pheasants.  We have to make do with copses, hedges and the occasional collapsed beater to get the little buggers to fly with anything like gusto.  Still, we get by with what we have, and what we do have is spectacular partridge land.  Light, easy draining soil.  Not too many hedges that have been grubbed out.  But it’s amazing just how many shoots around us focus on pheasants rather than partridges.  I know they are harder to rear and harder to keep, but come on guys, play to your strengths.  We don’t have the land that allows us to stand guns 50 yards below a flushing point and barring an earthquake of Japanese proportions, we never will have.

So is this a high bird or a low gun?  I suppose that in the end it amounts to the same distance between shooter and target.  Maybe it’s just me, but I get bored of things flying over me in a straight line.  I tend to look at driven pheasant shooting with the perspective of a pigeon shooter, all of which amounts to my perspective that our favourite driven bird one-dimensional.

It’s tradition I hear you say.   Now I’m as traditional as the next man – probably an awful lot more so.  In my book, old is usually good, change is normally bad and just because you can do something, isn’t reason enough for doing it. Our traditions are being eroded around our very eyes by a blizzard of political correctness, health and safety and an appetite for change that quite frankly is insane.  But in some instances sticking to tradition in the face of something blindingly obvious is somewhat less than sensible..........all of which brings me back to the beaters.

I worry for the future of our sport. 

Not the sort of worry that keeps you awake at night......not yet.  But I still worry.  I particularly worry when I look along the beating line and see so few young faces.  I worry that the same old faces are a looking a little bit older than they did last season and I worry about how long it will be before we “need to have that gentle word” with one or two.

Traditionally, in most shoots, there seems to be a natural progression in the CV of a career beater.  You join the gang when you are young, fit and foolish and spend all your time with a stick and spaniel, battling blackthorn and briar.  Then you reach my age – that bit in the middle (at least I bloody hope it’s the middle).  You get a promotion, you get a flag!  You get placed further from the centre of the beating line, further from the beady eye of the keeper.  You’re a flanker.... gone are the days of bleeding for your passion.  Beating at this stage in the grand plan is about cunning – knowing where the birds try to break back, knowing when to speed things up, or slow things down.  It’s about knowing that you can be ahead of the line and you’re not going to get sworn at!  Game sense and field craft – four words that in my opinion are cruelly under-used these days.  Beating becomes a mind game, less brute force, more brain.  Maybe you even get to the heady heights of beat captain.  Hopefully, this is the position in which I will remain for a good many years to come; but I worry about the day when someone says” Hey Rich, just go on stop for the first two drives will you?”  For herein is the next phase of the beating man – too old or infirm to hold your own in the line, yet not quite decrepit enough to spend your time on the game cart tying up birds or driving the beaters wagon.  “Going on stop” heralds the decline of the halcyon days of the beater; from young virile wielder of stick and dog, from strategist and planner, to usher in the twilight days of “stay in one place and make some noise.  Try not to fall asleep!”  You have been supplanted by younger, fitter men.  Or have you?

The natural progression of the beater, like that of the house buyer, moving up the ladder to bigger and better things, requires a healthy supply of new blood at the bottom.  Without new blood, ready and willing to throw themselves into the thickest of thick cover, everything stagnates.  Those that should be pitting wits against the wiliest of late season cocks are still bashing bushes with a stick. And those who should be moving on to gentler, less physically demanding aspects of the beating line are still in the thick of things, being sworn at, for being too slow.

We don’t make it easy for ourselves.  How many times have you heard the conversation in the beaters hut....”Bloody kids of today..... No enthusiasm, no passion, no manners.  Rather sit in front of the telly......”  Kids seem to be the common enemy – either in gangs of hoodies or foul-mouthed yobs kicking around street corners.  Not many of us have a good word for them. 

I suspect the same conversation has been going on in a similar form, for generations. But without kids, our sport will wither and die.  We need them to fill the ranks of the beating line, as well as to take their place in the line of guns, for we exist in equilibrium.  Driven shooting needs guns and beaters in equal measure, for without either side, all you are doing is standing in a field looking bloody stupid!

We know this! We pay lip service to it!  But do we make our sport welcoming to kids?  The shooting side of things has pretty much got its act together.... The BASC Young Shots initiative has worked wonders in making kids feel included in what can be a pretty “clubby” sport.  I struggle to think of another sport where there is more unwritten etiquette than driven shooting.  A potential minefield for newcomers of all ages!

If the guns have made positive moves towards the inclusion of the young in their aspect of our sport, the beating line hasn’t been so forthcoming. I know that it is hard for the mid-week shoot.  One of the most common phrases I hear during the season is “well, it’s hard to find beaters during the week, so we’ll have to make do with what we have.”  Yes, it’s difficult to find competent people who have the time on their hands, the want to participate and the physical fitness to fill the beating line during the week., but on a Saturday, we have the pick of the crop.  Schoolwork and adolescent hormones get in the way. Yet, we still don’t see too many young faces.  I think it’s a shame.  In fact I think it’s more than a shame, I think it’s bloody stupid and short-sighted.  Despite our most fervent hopes, we are not going to live forever, we are not going to remain at our present levels of fitness and we are not going to be able to enjoy our sport in our older years, if we don’t address this fundamental issue. I for one am not looking forward to being put on stop, but also in my heart of hearts I don’t want to come back from beating looking like I actually have been beaten..........

Last year I was lucky enough to get invited on a small day at a local shoot by one of the keepers that I knock about with.  “Don’t expect much” he said.  “It’s rough and ready and you should see the beating team........  If we’re lucky we should see some partridge, but don’t hold your breath.” Well, a day out is always good whatever the outcome, so I gladly accepted his invitation.  One of my other friends had been invited as well; so on the morning of the shoot, we met in the yard for a chat and surveyed the scene.  Mick the keeper certainly hadn’t been wrong in his assessment of the beating team.  They arrived in two cars – Chav’d up, bad boy exhausts, pumping beats.  To a man, they all emerged in Burberry shell suits; even the terrier had a Burberry bandana.  I don’t think one of them was over eighteen years old.  “Bloody hell” says my mate, nearly choking on his coffee, “I wouldn’t let those fuckers anywhere near my land!” If the truth be told I thought the same thing, but I kept my mouth shut.  

How wrong could you be.....? These guys were amazing.  They had one scabby terrier between them, no Spaniels or Labradors in sight, yet they beat with an enthusiasm and a joy and a competence, that I have never seen before or since.  Not one bit of cover was left unmolested – they were like a beating frenzy.  Quite simply they were the most enthusiastic set of beaters I have ever seen. At the end of the day we had twenty partridge in the bag – brilliant.  I’d be proud to have any one of those guys in my beating line, although from a traditional perspective they may cause a few raised eyebrows. 

Good!  It’s about time we ruffled some feathers.  Tradition is a wonderful thing that should be respected, but not at the expense of common sense and reason.

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