It is a good way for a syndicate to generate cash... or is it?
The third certainty of life, after death and taxes, is that the costs of running a shoot will always rise. I belong to a small DIY syndicate here in Hampshire. We shoot over about 500 acres of beautiful country, shooting on seven days, plus a couple of walk-rounds at the end of the season. We produce some very good birds and have a lot of fun. The fun is free but the shooting certainly isn’t and with wheat prices jostling the £200 per tonne mark extra revenue is required. There are only two ways to raise money, either get the syndicate to cough up some more or sell a day. This has been a perennial subject of discussion on our shoot but last year, for various reasons, we had a ‘spare’ day that we sold at reasonable rates to three shoot members who invited guests to make up the Gun team. All but two had shot with us before and knew and loved our quirks and foibles. It was nominally a 100 bird day but it wouldn’t have mattered if only 50 had been shot – there was no pressure. As it turned out the bag was actually just over that mark and a wonderful day was had by all. The chaps who had bought the day got their money’s worth, their guests had some superb shooting and the syndicate received a boost to their coffers. Smiles all round.
Skip ahead a few months and we are all sitting around a large table in a local pub having our shoot meeting. The big question is whether we should repeat the let day. Two things have changed: for one reason or another more gun days have been taken by syndicate members so there is no spare day and no one in the syndicate seems prepared to club together to buy a day. So if we are to do it we will have to add a day to our calendar, buy more birds to compensate and seek a team from outside. One or two are strongly in favour, one or to are agin and the rest of us sit uneasily on the fence. In the end those for the proposal drag the reluctant rest with them and we decide to go ahead and sell an 80-100 bird day, a Saturday in November is chosen, two hundred extra poults are ordered and a team sought.
Fast forward again and we are in the same pub, the let day is just 36 hours away and we are making our final plans. There is a tenseness around the table, a certain seriousness not usually found at our meetings. We are all aware that eight people have paid proper money and we have to provide a proper day. The main mover, who will run the day, impresses on us the need to behave like real, professional, paid beaters, not the usual rabble chirruping, hitting everything in site and calling ‘over’ and ‘forward’ – a quiet tapping is all that will be allowed. This sober approach will hit me particularly hard as I spend most of the day laughing and my laughter is quite loud; it carries; it resonates. I will have to kerb myself. More controversially, there will be no dogs in the beating line. I think this is to remove a possible source of embarrassment and one particular dog is always a source of mortification when he tears out of the beating line to mug another dog . Fortunately one of our members isn’t at the meeting so we did have two rather well behaved labs for half the day and thank goodness for that. The pickers-up have been alerted and will be of Premiership quality. The drives are chosen (not too difficult as we don’t have that many) and their order agreed so that the day runs as smoothly as possible. Strategy is deliberated over and and tactics worked out. As the syndicate has been fine tuning these drives for over 20 years what all this amounts to is to do what we always do as well as we can. Fingers are crossed.
The day begins overcast but dry as we assemble at the pub for coffee. The Guns are nice enough and it turns out most have shot with two members of our syndicate at another local shoot. The stand-in shoot captain, in an unprecedented move, gathers the beaters for a final 10 minute briefing. Then we are sent on our way while the Guns are marshalled.
The first drive finds the Guns in a deep valley with a small hanger facing them. Above the woods the chalk plateau always holds a covey or two of partridges which we usually manage to put over the guns, supplemented by some good pheasants. Alas, the pheasants, instead of flying high over the line decide to get a closer look at the Guns, why I have no idea, but the Frenchmen do us proud. I am doing the shot count and at the end of the drive the clicker shows a respectable 37 but it turns out that only three partridges have been killed. Not a rosy start. We are concerned. The next drive goes rather better as the Guns get into the swing and the pheasants behave themselves and we relax just a little. Our two star drives are centred around a 60m high, tree shrouded hill and whether it is the professional beating techniques, the weather or the amount of feeding that had been done they both go as well as I have ever seen them and produce absolutely top quality birds soaring off the slopes and over the Guns. One feels very possessive of one’s shoot on a day like this, one wants the birds to show of their best and ours do so, in spades.
Time for soup and sausages and some liquid refreshment. I feel a little odd not knowing whether to hob-nob or tug my forelock (oh for the days when I could grow a forelock) but the rest of the beaters just get on with it, though without the level of badinage of a normal shoot day. It doesn’t do to be rude. At this point the bag is just 45 birds from 212 shots and there are just two drives to go. Getting up to 100 is going to be difficult, to put it mildly. On the plus side we have given them plenty of sport and some cracking birds to shoot at.
The break does the Guns no favours and though there are plenty of birds in the next drive and lots of banging to record on my clicker – 89 shots – only 10 pheasants are picked. 100 is looking very far away indeed. It’s crunch time but today’s last drive always produces good quality birds that can come over the Guns from any direction. It is a drive we haven’t used this season and always holds birds because of the shelter it offers. Today everyone gets some shooting and at the end of the drive the number on the doors was 68. But only nine pheasants and a single partridge are added to the game cart. So the final reckoning is 369 shots for 65 game birds. Are the Guns happy, will there be mutterings? Well, in the end there aren’t and all is well. The team of Guns are content but as we drive back to the pub I can’t help getting the feeling we have got through by the skin of our teeth. Big commercial shoots can change drives or alter the way they are driven to help engineer correct numbers but as a small shoot our options are limited. We simply don’t have the numbers of drives or birds to ‘make things happen’, all we can do is do our best but if the birds don’t behave or aren’t where we want them then there is not a lot we can do about it.
We haven’t had a ‘wash up’ meeting yet but here is my own view. I don’t think the change in beating style made any difference to the numbers of birds put up but… it was probably better for the team of Guns not to have a bunch of hooligans calling the odds, and perhaps the birds came out in a more controlled way. From my point of view it wasn’t as enjoyable, personally I like a good chirrup or ‘hoy,hoy’. I would certainly like a couple of dogs in the beating line, preferably spaniels as I am sure birds were walked over. A team of 10 Guns would be better than eight and would have done wonders for the statistics but that was their choice; another time 10 would make more sense. I also think we should be careful of offering too much. A hundred bird day is a good day on our shoot and not the average. So much depends on the pheasants themselves and how they behave in the conditions on the day, and how straight the guns shoot and whether they are on form or not. If you have limited resources all one can really provide is a certain amount of shooting not necessarily the numbers of game hanging in the cart. And only time will tell if the extra day affects the rest of the season.
Again next year? Personally I hope not. It was an interesting exercise but rather stressful and not, in my humble opinion, really what our shoot is about. If we could sell a day internally as we did last year then I would be all for it, but otherwise? Mind you I don’t expect the wheat price will drop next year, and the pens could do with some maintenance, and I need a couple of new waterers, and some of the feeders are past their prime…