Off Season at the Game Shoot

I was expecting to write about putting up the game pens for the shoot I beat at, as that was what I was told we would be doing today. I had also received a text this morning instructing me to bring my gun (which I decided against, given my abysmal performance with an open choke on the last beaters’ day), which intrigued me.

I should have realised plans were going to change when I left the house, as within ten seconds – before being able to even get into my car – my hood had blown down off my head and my relatively decent-looking hair was tangled beyond recognition. When I arrived at the shoot lodge, I discovered that not only was it starting to rain, but that later that day the wind speed was expecting to be as high as 80mph.

So much for putting up the pens. Which, in all honesty, I was quite disappointed with, because not only was I looking forward to being outdoors and getting exercise and helping with the shoot out of season, but I was also secretly waiting to prove to the guys that I could pull my weight! The four other beaters there with me were just as gutted, but to be completely fair there was no point trying to build new pens in the wind, as the risk of them being damaged before even being secured was too high, and the expense would only mount up. After deliberating for ten minutes about what we should do, we settled upon moving and re-securing the runs (or ‘arks’ as I heard them called a couple of times).

At first I had no clue what they were talking about – of all eight of us there (the gamekeeper, shoot captain, one of the pickers and the five beaters) I was the only one who hadn’t done at least three seasons, so my confusion was justifiable! We walked to the top of one of the drives and I realised what they were talking about. Lined up along one of the hedges were eight Toblerone-shaped pens, originally built in small wood panels covered with chicken wire and corrugated iron, then fastened together with smaller sections of wire.

It didn’t seem so daunting until I realised what the job actually required. We had to cut through the securing wires to separate the panels, in order to then move them about seven metres forwards – presumably to free up space for the new pens that would be built on another day when the wind speed had dropped. But rather than dividing every individual panel (approximately one metre long by two metres high), we tried to move two or four at a time.

It doesn’t sound like too big a deal, until you realise that on some of these panels, the wood had started to rot, on others the chicken wire had started to fall off, on all of them the grass had grown over and was holding some panels to the ground, and on two ‘arks’ there were extra pieces of wood and corrugated iron that were screwed in place during last year to cover holes, so we had to carry six panels instead. Add the increasing cross wind that pushed us off course repeatedly, and it was difficult! And of course, due to the A-frame shape, muggins here was the only one small enough to slide into the acute angle between the panels and the ground on the inside to snip through the lower pieces of wire holding them together. Cue the cold knees as a result of the damp grass.

By the fifth run, we were all starting to feel the burn in our legs and arms as we fastened the new cable ties around the panels again to reform the run. We agreed that this would be the last time we could reuse these particular runs as they seemed to be less sturdy the more we moved them! I also felt a small pang of heartbreak as I noticed some unhatched eggs in some of the runs; unfortunately, due to the wind and the quantity of people, we couldn’t help but tread on some. Three runs later and it was time for lunch. Although the wind still had a chill and a high speed, the rain had gone and the sun had poked out from behind the blanket of cloud.

As we sat enjoying some ham rolls and sharing bags of crisps kindly provided by the shoot captain’s wife (yes, the very same lady that ran off with the car keys and stranded us on beaters’ day), I discovered why we had been instructed to bring our guns. In return for our work that morning, we were being permitted to spend a couple of hours pigeon shooting on a drive of our choice. Having left my gun at home, I borrowed a 12 bore Lanber from my friend and fellow beater.

Now, please don’t judge, but for somebody who has been involved with shooting for so long, it is rather concerning that I had never been pigeon shooting before. And it is a completely different experience from game. We weren’t decoying, as we had not been told why we needed our guns in the first place so had no decoys available, but it turned out that the shoot is hosting a group of French guns tomorrow and the shoot captain wanted some real pigeons to decoy with then. Not that that mattered to us.

Myself and two others headed to the same drive; the man I borrowed the gun from stayed close to me and shouted out when he saw a pigeon fly over, seeing as I hadn’t ever shot like this before. It is remarkably difficult to see them through the trees actually, I never realised! It didn’t help that we probably spent periods of between 10-30 minutes without seeing a single one, so when the odd one did appear, I wasn’t prepared and took too long looking for it. I don’t think it helped that, not knowing we would be shooting pigeons, I had turned up in ‘work’ gear rather than camouflage clothing, so even though I had dark trousers and a black fleece on, I wasn’t able to break up my shape enough to fool them into coming close enough!

I did manage to wing four or five from a distance, clipped them enough to change their flight path, but due to the dropping temperature and my despondency increasing with each missed shot, I called it a day after two hours and headed back to the car. Not a bad idea, considering that as I was making my way across the open field, I was forcing my way through the wind and felt a few drops of water on my face.

My confidence with game – pheasants or otherwise – has been knocked severely recently, most likely because of the terrible shooting I had on the last beaters’ day. As much as I may say to myself ‘move on’ or ‘don’t let it get to you’, that is far easier said than done, and the only thing I can do at the moment is make sure that I don’t let it affect my clay shooting!

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