Friday, September 30, 2011
Traditions In Orange and Tweed
The last pick up crept by us on the icy gravel road, as we donned our blaze hats and vests over faded camo, and prepped our firearms. The woods had been blanketed in snow several times since the muzzleloader season had opened two weeks prior. That same snow which had provided so many clues for our tracking attempts would now muffle the foot falls of our last -day- desperation- drive to root out a big buck. And despite our efforts being down to the wire a little excitement seemed to build. Adding to the excitement might have been the inclusion of English Jack to our days festivities. Jack was a Londoner who played rugby with us here in the states. Jack had returned to England, but was back amongst us on a little vacation. As Jack is shooting man, he was keen to see what our deer driving was all about. So arrangements were made and here English Jack stood before us, ready to experience some American style deer stalking. And English Jack was looking real English.
In his tweed breaks with matching cap, fancy French wellies, v-neck sweater and dress shirt, Jack looked quite well heeled. Juxtaposed among us, he surely looked like the adult supervision we probably should have had. But more importantly Jack managed to do something that may have never, ever, happened before. He got us all, a bunch of over- the- hill- never-growing- up rugby forwards to shut up. And then, after a brief pause, at a barely audible volume so as to hide the identity of the speaker.
"That actually looks pretty good." could be heard, barely a mumble.
But moments like these never last too long, and there were deer to frighten, so Jack was explained the nature of our laws, his cap swapped for a blaze Orange hat, his jumper (that's sweater in English) for a blaze vest, and we were off into the woods.
Later that evening, after returning home empty handed again, I found myself thinking about Jack's outfit, our camo, the traditions of both countries, and how they merged that day.
In both the US, and the UK the sport of chasing deer with the intent of shooting and consuming them have a long history, and tradition. In the US we hunt deer, while our brethren in the UK stalk deer; "hunting" being the sport of following hounds from horseback. But verbiage aside, the two pursuits are pretty much the same. To get a better understanding of the sporting world in Britain, I reached out to Sten, The Suburban Bushwacker, who is an outdoors blogger from suburban London. Sten explained that tweed shooting outfits are worn almost exclusively by only a small segment of deer stalking enthusiasts, Real Tree being the choice among the majority. So while tweed may be the benchmark most American recognize, it seems our camo tradition has extended to the woods and fields across the pond. Conversely, it was explained that blaze orange is seldom seen in the countryside, with England, Scotland and Wales having excellent firearms safety records.
With the absence of blaze orange in the English landscape, I was quick to assume that land use laws played a part in it being unnecessary. Unlike in the US, all the land belongs to somebody, and as such, permission is required to legally pursue any type of game. With this, land owners, and others using the land have a good idea who is using the land, and when; contributing factors to the excellent safety record. While much of the land in the US is privately held, many states have open land use laws which allow hunters legal trespass for the purpose of taking game. Couple this with our tradition of having public lands open to hunting, something unheard of in Britain, and it's easy to see why so many states require the use of blaze orange. The two situations however, may be unrelated. While our land use laws most certainly led to our blaze orange tradition, theirs may have nothing to do with the lack of.
Similar to many US state, particularly in the western part of the country, permission to gain access to land is usually just a matter of knocking on a land owners door. Unlike here in the US, landowners hold more responsibility for the herd on their land, and strive to maintain a balance between the health of the herd, and the carrying capacity of the land; a task left to state game managers here. Of course some traditions are sown more deeply in both countries, and a portion of any bag is always offered to the land owner; A practice I adhere to, as do most people I know. Sten tells me of one farmer he is familiar with who has had to buy an additional freezer for all the venison his successful stalkers are bringing him. Sounds like a good arrangement to me. Sten did point out that relationships between farmer and shooter vary, and that when one is in with a farmer, then they are in. This leads me to believe that in Britain, one courts farmers and land owners in the same way my father and I do in Connecticut, where permission is needed to shoot deer; with offerings. Warm loaves of bread, and freshly baked pies accompanied us on our trips, and after fostering a relationship, lobsters were often delivered as well. Naturally, the UK isn't without their commercial operations, either. Like many of the big ranches in Texas, big estates in Scotland also offer pay to play access. Unlike Texas, where hunters pay by the antler size, these estates charge for the venison the stalker wishes to keep in addition to a trophy fee.
Land access laws in the UK affect how one pursues small game and waterfowl too. Most American sportsmen have seen images of the tweed clad shooting parties firing hundreds of shells at pheasant driven high over them. For the right price you, too, could join them for a shoot, but throughout the countryside smaller, D-I-Y shoots gather for days with less impressive bags, but no less enjoyable outings. Along the same line, rabbits, and pigeons are considered pests which harm crops and pasture land, while an abundance of fox wreak havoc on live stock. Farmers want, and need them controlled. Many times permission to shoot these species is happily granted. In contrast to small game hunting here in the US, these species are seldom seen in the same light. Fox are usually shot by predator hunting specialists, or trapped, while rabbits are shot while being pursued by beagles, though I've taken my share as part of a mixed bag while ruffed grouse and woodcock hunting. Driven pheasant, while it occurs in small circles here is rare. The pheasant, however, has cast a spell over many American shooters, and is probably Americas favorite game bird. The shooting of them is most likely to take place behind a gun dog, the retriever quickly growing among the pheasant hunter ranks, or in an organized drive of shooters walking a field in a line.
Waterfowling in the US shares some similarities, but the differences are apparent. Land use laws being what they are, much of the geese shot in both countries are shot over privately held fields. In some cases they are decoyed, while in others they are taken by pass-shooting. The differences, again come down to land use. In the UK, waterfowl clubs lease the sporting rights to much of the coastline for their members to use, while here in the US much of the coastline, and adjacent marsh land are public, allowing waterfowlers access to lots of shooting opportunities.
Though there are both differences, and similarities, one thing that cannot be denied is the dedication of sportsmen and women on both sides of the Atlantic. And with Real Tree growing in popularity over there, I've also seen an increase in the use of some very proper shooting gear here. Organizations like The Vintagers work to bridge the gap with their enthusiasm for double guns and tweed. Cartridge bags, and tweed shooting vests are making their way onto the sporting clays course, and ardent grouse and woodcock hunters have learned the value of a pair of Wellingtons, too. And while it might seem that only their shooting culture is flowing this way, it should be pointed out that in a land know for building world class double guns, that Browning is very popular brand in Britain.
If you'd like to Learn a bit more about the shooting culture in Britain, and maybe even help draw our two shooting worlds a little closer, there are a few places I'd recommend starting. Sten has a wonderful blog called The Suburban Bushwacker, full of hunting and fishing stories, as well as gear reviews. His blog can be found at: http://suburbanbushwacker.blogspot.com/ Also, Shootinguk is a great resource, providing a glimpse of Britain’s various field sports. The companion website to four of Britain’s sporting magazines: Shooting Times, Shooting Gazette, The Field, and Sporting Gun, this website is full of articles, shooting advice, recipes, and more. It can be found at:
Lastly, Fieldsports Britain is a weekly web based TV show highlighting all aspects of outdoor recreation. Fieldsports Britain can be viewed at their website: http://www.fieldsportschannel.tv/index.php
or on YouTube by searching for Fieldsports Channel.
This is a piece I'd written during the summer. I had hoped to get it published somewhere, but had no luck, so here it is now.