My dream was finally fulfilled when I won a day of driven bird shooting in England in a small, online auction. It was time to pack my tweed and wellies, and hop on an airplane headed east. I would be spending a day in East Yorkshire, not only participating in a driven Pheasant shoot, but also shooting geese in the morning, and ducks in the evening. And, seeing as I was flying across the Atlantic, I figured a couple days of "shopping" (which is code for visiting gun rooms) in London was in order. So, after some consultation with my host, a plan was formulated, and off I went.
Puttin' on the tweed
My host, Rick, is an American wingshooting and bird dog enthusiast who has lived in England for some time. As part of the offered shoot, Rick generously put me up at his home for the weekend, and loaned me his 12g O/U, as bringing a gun to the UK, while not impossible is difficult. Spending the weekend at Rick's provided the additional pleasure of eating a couple of his delicious home cooked meals (I think he may have been showing off a bit), and snuggling with his sprightly 11 year old Lab Roxie, and his affectionate 4 year old Wire Haired Vizsla Ruby. As the shoot day was schedules to start well before the sun rose, and end after it set, it was a good idea to stay at Rick's house. Another good idea, was my decision to stop over in Manchester on my way to the shoot. I find it easier, and easier to admit these days that I am not young anymore, and sleep has grown in importance to me. Taking a red-eye flight, and then immediately hopping on a train to the counrtyside would have made me a lousy, groggy guest, so I planned a jet lag management stop over enroute. Though I will admit I had a bit of an ulterior motive in stopping over in Manchester. Regular readers of this blog will recall that last summer I was in Manchester attending a youth soccer tournament.While there I found a couple of places to have a good meal; one a nice dinner, the other a nice breakfast. I would be in need of both a dinner, and a breakfast. And so it was decided; One week of travel to Manchester, East Yorkshire,and London.
Me and Rick prior to going duck shooting
Shoot day started off early, well before the sun rose. As we drove to the farm in the darkness, and anticipation, we discussed a more in detail the customs of British game shooting, and the rules, both written and unwritten. Like here at home, safety is the number one concern in the game shooting community. Unlike here at home, game may be shot both before, and after dark. At the barn we met up with a couple members of Rick's shooting syndicate who were also keen to shoot a few geese, and I was soon settled into a sparse hedgerow alongside a field known to be the gathering spot for hungry geese in the morning. Optimistically I sat hoping today would be the day I dropped my first Pink Footed, or Specklebelly Goose. Before long I had an opportunity in the predawn dark at a pair of ducks flying in from behind. However, the ducks were over and gone well before I even registered the whistling of their wings and saw them. The skies were overcast, making the sunrise seem like it was never going to come, and hampering long range vision, but off in the distance we could see and hear geese doing their thing. Problem was they were doing it way down the other end of the very large field, and well out of shotgun range. It wasn't long after a small flock of geese flew in to the far corner of the field that a shot rang out from the opposite hedgerow where the others were sitting. Shortly after the shot a few geese broke from the tree line and headed somewhat my way. The geese were not coming directly over, but were cross right to left out near the edge of shotgun range. I sent two rounds of steel in their direction, with a net result of zero. Oh well. At least I'd gotten to see, hear, and shoot at, a species I'd never encountered before. It was fun anyway, as water fowling tends to be, and honestly this is how so many of my homegrown water fowling adventures end.
With the goose expedition behind us we headed to the barn where we'd have breakfast and I'd meet the rest of the Watton Carrs syndicate. We encountered a small set back at the barn. While Rick had remembered to pack breakfast and lunch, he'd forgotten the pan in which breakfast was to be cooked, so it was off to the farm store for a take out sausage sandwich, which was outstanding, then back to the farm where I'd meet the balance of the syndicate I'd not met at the farm store.
In Britain shooting organizations take many forms. One of the most common forms is that of a shoot syndicate. Loosely translated, it's a private, organized club. Rick is a member of the Watton Carrs syndicate in East Yorkshire. The syndicate leases the sporting rights to a 2500 acre working farm. Leasing the sporting right gives them exclusive permission to shoot on the property. In the spring the syndicate buys, and releases roughly 700 pheasant on the property. Unlike the standard here in the States where pheasant are released just prior to shooting, the syndicate initially rears the birds in open topped pens, with small exits along the bottom which allow the birds out, but prevents larger predators in. The club sets out numerous feeders in the surrounding wood lots, as well, and soon the birds disperse and take up residence all over the farm. Once released these birds very quickly become quite wild, and strong fliers. The Watton Carrs syndicate is a small, DIY syndicate which does not employ beaters to drive the birds over the line of guns. Rather they work on a stand 1-walk 1 basis. This means in a typical 6 drive day every member will alternate between shooting on 3 drives, and beating on 3 drives, everyone working together to try to achieve the syndicate's goal of a 50 bird day. To do this smoothly everyone is assigned to either the red team, or the black team, which alternate between beating and shooting on every drive. This being the set up would allow me to see how a shoot is run in it's entirety my first time shooting in Britain.
The driven bird portion of the day was spectacular in every sense. We met up with the rest of the syndicate members on the southern portion of the farm property, a short drive from the main farm. This was where the first 3 drives would be held. Prior to shooting the shoot captain gathered all the members, guests, dogs, and anyone else in attendance and held a quick introduction and safety brief. Members were assigned to a team, and pegs were drawn. Pegs are numbered 1-9, from left to right. While some syndicates have hard fast peg marked by a numbered stake pounded into the ground, Watton Carrs uses a bit more flexibility, and the shoot captain on each team shifts the approximate position of each peg left or right depending on the wind to insure the best shooting possible. After each drive, all the members shift 3 places to the right. I drew #9 in the morning, so I would shoot in the #3 position on my second drive, and the #6 position on my last drive. As it turns out, the # 9 peg on the first drive, Neil's Pen, was a walking gun position. As a walking gun I would walk the field edge, about 25 yards out, parallel to the woods towards the guns, about 10 yards behind the beaters. The job of a walking gun is to take care of any bird that tried to come out the side of the woods and escape back behind the line of beaters. This would actually work out quite well as an introduction to driven shooting for a number of reasons. First, it was very much how we hunt in our uplands, it would also allow me to be within ear shot of Rick (we were assigned to different teams) who could coach me, as he beat, through my first drive, and it would allow me to watch the # 8 gun who was well down the field.
The pre-shoot brief
It didn't take long for birds to start popping into the sky out of the woods, and before long a big cock pheasant came out the side and curled back towards the hedgerow bordering the neighboring farm. This bird presented well, was a sporting L-R crosser, and was mine. Except for it wasn't, as with I failed to fully disengage the safety, and watched it fly off. My first British flub. I didn't have to wait too long for redemption, when another big cock pheasant tried to make a similar escape, but with a drastically different result, and I had shot my first driven bird in the UK. The remained of the drive was more of the same, with birds trying to make a back door or side door escape. Some were far, fast, and high, and lived to see another day, but an unlucky hen pheasant made the mistake of trying to fly right over me at a bit of altitude. She presented in the typical overhead British fashion, and I killed her with barrels nearly vertical, swinging through, and pulling the trigger a moment after blacking her out with the muzzle. I will admit, I was quite proud of that shot. After the whistle signaling the end of the drive we all walked the area picking up birds that hadn't been picked up by the many Cockers, Labs, Vizsla's and Spinone's in attendance. It was then that I cased the borrowed 12g, replaced it with a stout stick, and took my place in the beating line.
The next drive was called New Road Woods, and the beating proved to be as much fun as the shooting. Armed with sticks the line moved forward towards the guns making as much noise as possible to push out the birds. The stick, I learned, is not meant for thrashing the underbrush, but for tapping on trees, and blow downs to make more noise. Unlike hunting our uplands, where dogs force tight holding birds into flight, sometimes nearly underfoot, these birds were getting out well in front of the beaters,a behavior no doubt learned by the weeks of syndicate shooting and beating. In fact I heard the report of the guns out front long before I saw the first bird going out. Like the first drive, after about 15 minutes of hooping and hollering, and a bit of gun fire, the final whistle sounded, and the bird collection began.
Between the second and third drive we stopped for "elevenses". Elevenses is a British tradition of having a pick-me -up and a warm-me-up before lunch. The tailgates of two SUVs functioned as the buffet where we helped ourselves to beef pies, cake, and cheese. To wash it all down was a selection of port, brandy, Irish liquor, and Champagne. Unlike here, where alcohol and guns are overwhelmingly thought to not mix, a short drink often served, and enjoyed responsibly. Indulging is allowed at elevenses. Over indulging, however, is not.
The next drive after elevenses was a drive called Wetlands. On this drive I was on the #3 peg, standing in the line, out is a well manicured grass field. From my peg I could see the small pond between the stone wall that marked the field edge, and the wood line that served as bird cover. This drive proved to be more challenging, with faster, higher flying birds. The pheasant would break from the distant tree line, and gaining altitude would come through a break in the thin line of trees that followed the stone wall. As soon as the birds cleared the hedge, and looking like they were coming straight over I'd begin my gun mount, and pretty much every bird found fit to curl to the right, putting the wind directly up their rear, right as my face hit the stock, forcing me to quickly readjust my line and swing, and shoot behind them, as they flew over my neighbor down the line. The wind had picked up considerable. So much so that it was impossible to converse from peg to peg, and caused the baffles of my ear muffs to keep closing. One cock pheasant, however, made the mistake of not curling, and flying over high between me and the neighbor to my left, and I again enjoyed the satisfaction of folding a good bird in flight. A bit later I had a chance to toss lead at a bird through the backdoor as it escaped past the line, and watched it rock in the air, and begin a rapid, yet controlled descent. Sadly this bird had enough momentum to carry it to the treeline, which was the property line, behind us. After the final whistle about 8 of us, with a couple of dogs walked the property line, yet failed to come up with the bird.
The line of guns at the Wetlands drive
Shoot captain, Tom, with his Cockers
My final drive as a gun would be the South Wood drive, and I was plum in the middle on peg #6. On this drive I had a hedgerow to my back as I faced the cover about 100 yards across an open field. Again the birds had the wind behind them, and flew high and fast. This drive provided the added excitement of the birds coming out quickly, one after the other. While on the previous drives I had the luxury of time allowing me to casually pocket spent shells before dropping in new shells. This drive did not. The bird that just flew over head had another, already out of the trees, somewhere behind it. Shells were ejected into the grass to be picked up later, as I fumbled to get new shells into the gun. This drive was fun, and the kind of shooting one doesn't deserve regularly. Anyone who wingshoots regularly has missed shots, and missed opportunities that haunt them. Despite this drive not yielding many killed birds, the 9 gun team only killing 3 birds for 63 shots, there was nothing but smiles on the faces of the team. Nothing about this drive would haunt me. Just the opposite; I'd happily shoot it again, and with the same result.
The line of guns for the South Woods drive were all positioned at the beginning of the beat for the Top Hill drive, which would be our last. So while we waited for the guns to get into position in the next field one of our team members collected our guns, and carried them out to the cars while we prepared to make our final drive by passing around a flask of brown liquid for a well deserved parting shot. Soon we were beating the last hedgerow towards the steady sound of shotgun blasts.
Back at the shoot barn Tom went through the post shoot ritual of reading off the day's tally. On this day, with 18 guns alternating the shooting, we killed 36 pheasant, and 2 woodcock.
Hanging birds, and a happy beater
My day wasn't over yet. there were still ducks to be killed, so after a bit of a break, and some minor equipment changes, we made our way to the small pond at the end of the Wetlands drive to wait for the ducks to start coming in. The duck shooting took a very British form, too. Not restricted to daylight shooting hours, we were shooting ducks in the dark. The silhouettes of ducks, coming from behind us in twos and threes would drop quickly into the pond. Then the sky would lighten momentarily with muzzle flash. In most cases the initial shot at the dropping ducks would be a miss, but the follow up shots on the now flaring ducks would cut down at least one, which Roxy the Lab would happily retrieve. Not sure I'd be able to adjust to shooting in the dark, I found that even I could find away to get the muzzles pointed in the right direction, and killed a Mallard. After about an hour of solid darkness, our small team of 5 guns had killed 5 ducks; 2 Mallards, 2 Eurasian Wigeon, and a Teal. And I'd learned that shooting ducks in the dark was both effective and fun. With a full day of shooting behind us, Rick and I cleaned up, and hit the pub (The Pipe and Glass) for an excellent meal, a pint, and a recap of the day.
The evening's duck harvest
While the shooting was now behind me, the outdoor adventure, and exploration wasn't. As a grouse hunter I've made a bit of a study of the Red Grouse hunting in Britain, and hope to one day shoot Red Grouse either driven grouse from a butt, or behind a good dog. On Sunday Rick and I decided to drive north through the moors hoping to see some Red Grouse. And we sure did see a lot of Red Grouse. In fact we saw 32 Red Grouse, both standing and flying, and a couple of grouse butts. I even had an opportunity to do a little bit of an experiment. I've read a lot that the Red Grouse is the fastest bird in flight, and has the quickest flush. I had to see for myself, finding it hard to believe that anything flushes quicker, or flies faster than a Ruffed Grouse. So when we were presented with a Red Grouse holding close to the road I took the opportunity to wade into the heather and flush it from it's roost. Not wishing to start a Hatfield-MacCoy type of grudge between Ruffie and Red hunters, but there is no way a Red flushed quicker, or flies faster than a Ruffie, though I can see where a Red's low, ground hugging flight could make them tricky to shoot.
The North Yorkshire Moors, and a Red Grouse
By the time I left Yorkshire for London I couldn't help but think that the UK has some fantastic shooting and, if not for the absence of Ruffed Grouse, might be prefect. Top to bottom I had a excellent trip, and enjoyed the shooting. The atmosphere at the Watton Carrs syndicate was identical to that of my regular grouse camp, and anyone of them would fit in up north perfectly, and vice-verse. Without a doubt I will find a way to go game shooting in Britain again.
An old grouse butt in the moors