This first week of February is always a difficult one. Half of me welcomes the respite following a typically manic January, but that is tinged with regret that the season is at an end. There is a lot of admin to get through and time to focus on work, which is almost sidelined during the shooting season.

February does give one time to savour the season just gone and look back at days enjoyed out in the fresh air on some lovely estates and farms in the company of others with the same goal in mind – to enjoy themselves.

We managed to put on 99 days this season all around the country and over a range of disciplines. Surprisingly we ended up doing 37 driven days, which I had not expected at the start of the season as I thought everyone was reigning in the number of days due to the exorbitant cost of shooting.
and so it ends 1

Weather woes

The theme for our driven days was ‘weather’. We kicked things off with a cold, wet, force 9 day on the Glorious Twelfth.

It was a very good, challenging day but a logistical nightmare given the friends and partners along for a jolly. The next weather phenomenon was the unbearable heatwave at the beginning of September, which prompted some loose interpretations of our dress code when we took a more relaxed approach for those sweltering days.

I don’t whether it was luck or sheer brilliance on my behalf, but we did seem to have a lot of driven days with wonderful winds. I remember driving down to Somerset on the morning of storm Ciarán and wondering why on earth I hadn’t cancelled the day, having listened to the weather disaster reports on the radio.

It was by then too late to do anything about it, so we cracked on. Although we did get very wet the day was incredible as the birds had little or no say where they went but all went upwards, and thankfully the guns shot very well. It turned out to be one of the best early days of the season.

In the Christmas week we had another extraordinarily gusty day closer home in Gloucestershire, when the birds were flying so well that the keeper just let each drive go. He reckoned it was one of the best days he’s had in 15 years. Sadly I was just a spectator, but both my kids were shooting (courtesy of their grandfather) and it was a joy to watch the two of them getting stuck in. It was a day never to forget for all.

In the spirit of full disclosure, given the number of days the Rough Rovers shoot, inevitably not everything goes to plan. We had one day that was described by one of our most even-tempered and experienced members as “a terrible day. The worst I have ever experienced anywhere, ever.”

Ironically wind also played its part on this one and we had already had two fantastic days there already, so I had recommended the day to the team. The shoot owner, in his greed, decided to put on an extra day, two days before one I had booked back in May.

It’s not a big shoot and with strong winds on the Thursday the pheasants were blown all over the place and were never going to get back by Saturday. I recognised only two of the beaters and many of the remainder were enthusiastic but inexperienced kids (all under twelve).

We ended up shooting six drives and I called an early end to the final one as it was late in the day and the team had had enough. Most of them had had at least three blank drives. It was painful. Plus, I had to confront the shoot owner, who went tomato red when I asked him why he had shot two days before our day. (I had found out when chatting to a beater, out for the day with her kids.)

We did manage to straighten things out financially and he apologised profusely for letting us down. However, there were eight guns who are very unlikely to go back. I have yet to decide whether we are going back next season.

We did 12 mini-driven days, which are all around the 50-80 bird mark. They were extremely popular and seemed to suit many people’s budget for the season. These days can be a little tricky as teams are usually shooting the boundary and small drives, and there are simply not as many birds. It means that you need to shoot well and make the most of your opportunities.

There is one place we go where we are treated to some astonishing birds, and as long as no one starts pillow-casing birds the owner is happy to shoot five drives irrespective of how many are shot. I did find that with the mini-driven days a few people became frustrated and started booking bigger days, especially once prices started to drop in December.

I was incredibly pleased with how our boundary, walked-up and wild bird days went. Due to the bird prices a lot of people had opted to book a couple of smaller days in place of a modest-sized driven day. This meant that we had quite a few guns giving walked-up a try for the first time or going back to it, evoking nostalgic memories of their youth when shooting with their fathers.

Our walked-up grouse days are extremely popular and always oversubscribed despite being quite hard going. One of my favourite moments last season was when a young enthusiastic ex-Special Forces member was ‘out yomped’ on the moor by me and 65-year-old Techno Dave. Some good did come of it as it prompted him to get fitter. I saw him just after Christmas and he had lost nearly two stone since mid-September.

Not a numbers game

I think what people learn to appreciate more on these days is that it is not and should never be about numbers. Sometimes you put the work in, pushing birds up into a copse
or flushing birds for others. At different times others might be working their dogs in some wild bird mix flushing birds towards you. The key is that it’s a team sport and you are responsible for beating, shooting and picking up all at once, rather than being on a peg and focusing mainly on yourself.

There is no question that this is the future of sustainable shooting and at present walked-up shooting avoids the unwanted attention of those who seek to regulate and license bigger driven shoots – something that is inevitable and quite frankly a good thing in my book.

On the isle

Our two most popular venues for the boundary days are up in Anglesey, which I have written about a lot, and a relatively new shoot in Worcestershire. The common factor is the variation in species. In Wales everything is completely wild; even the odd pheasant you come across has been knocking around for a year or two. This year I have witnessed several people shooting their first snipe, woodcock or teal. A mixed bag always makes a day more exciting and given our lot’s enthusiasm for field-to-fork, eating you can guarantee some gastronomic delight will be brought out the following week for elevenses.

One thing that does seem to catch out those new to the walked-up format is the shooting. Many believe it is easy and a bit unsporting compared with a driven day. This could not be further from the truth and I have to say that I have had many a text from despairing keepers at lunchtime wondering how on earth the team expects to get anywhere near their very modest bag.

As I have said, it’s really not about numbers even on a small day. There is a lot to consider when shooting on a walked-up day compared with a driven day. If you are lucky enough to get a bird up or over you, the first thing is to see it, then identify it, check where everybody else is, make sure it’s a safe shot, set yourself for the shot, figure out where to shoot the bird and then pull the trig… Oh, it’s gone! Or someone else has shot it for you.

Over the past couple of years we have seen a growing number of members keen to work their dogs and this year we had several out for the first time. This is wonderful to see and there really is nothing like shooting over your own dog, plus it dramatically increases your opportunities in the field.

Knowing that quite a few dogs were ready this season we took on some rough ground on one of our regular shoots in Somerset. We walked the boundaries, rough ground and margins set aside, wild bird mixes, copses and woods. It’s teams of four and we only shoot for the pot. They were a huge success and a real reward for those who had invested so much time training their dogs themselves. Hopefully we can find some new grounds to do more of these days next season.

Coming years

What I would love to see change over the next few years for us as a sport and industry is to address the issue of getting young people involved in shooting. The cost of shooting is restrictive and as I saw last season even those with healthy pensions severely cut back or stopped shooting.

I would like to see all commercial shoots invest in some subsidised shooting for younger enthusiasts as well as a beaters’ day each year. Even if they are just small walked-up days. We have booked two ‘parent and child’ days with a couple of shoots that have offered their early ‘stir up’ days at a discounted rate.

I hope you all enjoy the off season. I shall be trying to get better at fishing and will follow up on the permissions I have for a bit of stalking and controlling rabbits, pigeons and squirrels – my nemesis.