In spite of the fact we still have one more shoot day lined up for tomorrow, today the shoot I beat at held its final beaters’ day of the season.
We arrived at around 8:15 for bacon rolls and sausages to start the morning – just like any other beating day, except for two main differences: the first, that the vast majority of us had turned up in our best tweed, ignoring the fact that we would have to beat half the drives and preferring to revel in the idea that this day was all about us. Secondly, we were allowed to sit in the main room of the lodge (the one with the wood burner to keep us all nice and toasty, and the long dining table equipped with fruit juices and cutlery ready for the afternoon meal) rather than the back one we are all used to waiting in. Some of us couldn’t quite kick the old habits though, and even when I pointed out to a small group of guys hanging out in our normal haunt that today WE were the guns, the response was simply a chuckled “it doesn’t feel right!”.
Of course, the shoot captain couldn’t start the day without the inevitable ‘talk’: I still marvel at how he thought it necessary to explain to experienced shooters and beaters – which all of us are – that we were not permitted to shoot any ground game or birds that were too low, but the next comment was the one that kept us all on our toes. “No hens – unless they are good ones” – essentially meaning that, unless they were close to 100 yards high and would make excellent sport, hen pheasants were off limits, and a fine would be imposed if anyone shot one. He then took the sweepstake. Given that most of us had severely underestimated the total of birds and cartridges on our last day just after Christmas, a lot of us scrawled down higher numbers, determined to win the lucrative pot.
While this was being done, I showed some eager observers my new gun; how could they not want to see it, when I had made such a huge deal over the fact it would be my first time shooting with it today?! Those who saw it commented how lovely the wood is, how short the stock is, and noticed that even though the barrels are 29.5 inches long it seems much shorter. We proceeded to divide ourselves into two teams, stored away our guns and cartridges, and jumped into two wagons. Of course, it would be only logical that the person who hadn’t even shot her new gun yet would be on the team that lost the coin toss to shoot the first drive, so the agonising wait was drawn out just that little bit longer!
Although the mist clung to the trees in the early hours of the day, the drives all went well. For the other shooters anyway … I had perhaps two partridge and four or five pheasants over me on my first drive, and although I feathered a cock bird and may have pricked a woodcock, I was not yet synchronised enough with my new gun to do any real damage. It comes up beautifully, the stock feels the perfect length and the rise on the comb feels so much better than my previous gun. But I was experimenting with different loads and shot sizes to see which would be best through my fixed skeet chokes; 32g 4s, 30g 5s and 32g 6s.
My second drive went better. I was close to the wood, which worked in my favour as the birds that came along the tree line were slightly lower than if I had been standing below on the bank, where the other guns had lined up almost parallel to me. It was on this drive that I hit my (sad to say) only bird of the day with a 32g 4; a cock pheasant, which crashed through the trees and onto the ground on the other side of the fence. I didn’t have time to see if it was picked as I turned my gun onto another pheasant that came hurtling towards me; I saw the gentleman below and to my right lift his gun to it as well. I thought “nope, that’s my bird!” and just as I went to pull the trigger, the shoot captain screamed “HEN!”. I lowered my gun, but the man behind me took it out with both barrels. The bird couldn’t have been more than forty yards above him, so even though he killed it I chuckled to myself, knowing that amongst our beating friends there would be no mercy in the aftermath of downing a ‘forbidden’ bird.
As we gathered for lunch, I spoke with a picker who told me her dog – a cute 4 year old black lab called Pippa – had managed to get to my cock bird. That was me for the day, I was happy, and even though I had another drive that afternoon to try and make up my numbers, I wasn’t particularly fussed if I didn’t hit anything else. After all, I had had four pheasants and two partridge on the last beaters’ day, when other guns hadn’t hit a thing.
The shoot captain came up to us as soup was being passed around and asked “who shot that hen?”. The gun in question looked sheepishly at me, and I ratted him out, pointing at him as the captain looked around. Of course it was all in jest, and no real fine was imposed – the picker who had found the bird joked that it was a ‘bag of bones’, probably sick, and that the gun had done the decent thing and put it out of its misery. We all laughed, and returned to the wagons half an hour or so later, suitably stuffed with sandwiches, homemade sausage rolls, tomato or vegetable soup, crisps and jam donuts. Oh, and sloegasms. Let us not forget the sloegasms …
Two drives later, we all piled in to return to the lodge for our afternoon meal. That was when the real drama happened. One of the wagons got off quickly; it is usually the beaters’ wagon anyway, so there was no fussing over storage of guns or bags as that was to be done by us in our wagon instead. The shoot captain was driving ours, and normally leaves his keys in the car while we shoot if he can see it from where he stands with the guns. Except this time, his wife, who often beats with us, had taken them from the ignition. Not too much of a problem you would think, as she would normally go with him – but today, in her rush to get back to go and pick her daughter up from school, she had jumped in the shoot Land Rover with one of the pickers and taken the keys with her. We were stranded; no-one on the wagon had any signal to call her, and the other wagon, driven by another beater who had one of the walkie talkie radios, was too far out of range.
After wandering away from the wagon at different angles, myself and another gun managed to get a single bar of signal each. He called the captain’s wife, and I called the picker. Neither answered. I tried again, and the picker eventually responded; after hearing what had happened, he got the keys and told me he was on his way. Five minutes later the roar of the Land Rover approached, and ten minutes after that we were all sat comfortably around the dining table, warming up in the glow of the fire and laughing about the situation we had just experienced.
After stuffing ourselves again – this time with melt-in-the-mouth lamb, cauliflower cheese, peas, green beans, carrots, parsnips, roast potatoes and Yorkshire puddings (you can have them with other meats, it’s not a crime!), a variety of alcohol from the cupboard in the corner (I had red wine, I don’t know which one it was but it was great!) and homemade apple strudel with a choice of custard or cream – the winner of the sweepstake was announced. Sadly not me.
It was about 16:45 by this point, but a long day of beating and shooting followed by a first class meal added up to a strong desire to indulge in what I like to call a ‘foodnap’; a nap that one feels is necessary after a meal. I seem to want them more the older I get. We said our various goodbyes, wished those we would not see tomorrow a good year, and went on our way. My only regret today is my abysmal shooting. I could -should – have had far more birds than I did. In this case, it wasn’t the gun, or the cartridges, but rather the shocking shooter behind it! But it isn’t just the shooting, it is the company too. The people I beat (and in this case shot) with are a wonderful group of people and I feel truly blessed to be involved with such a friendly shoot and wonderful sport.