Writer, zoologist and gundog enthusiast, Pippa blogs on life in the countryside

Collecting the last of the gunstand markers

A bit of pipe makes a handy marker

For the last few days I have been collecting up the last remaining gunstand markers from the remoter parts of the farm.  

Having fun

I can incorporate little training routines into this process,  for example,  dropping a dog off at each marker position as I walk down the line,  then calling the furthest dog down the line before walking back to collect the others. 

Sometimes I drop a dummy off as I collect each marker then when I get to the end,  send the dogs back for them.   It’s all a bit of fun.

Today,  it is a beautiful sunny day  and I am looking forward to a pleasant hour or two after dropping my son off at the station. 

Not having fun

Himself, however, is not having quite so much fun,  for it is ‘that’ time of year again.  The time we have to chivvy all the guns for their ‘subs’,  so that we can pay our annual shoot rent.   

The guns all like to keep us on our toes by leaving it until the last minute!   It is one side of running a shoot that we both loath, and are very glad when it is all wrapped up each year.

Jumping ditches adds to the fun

The next few weeks

Bluebell time is rapidly approaching,  and the woods are full of bluebell leaves,  there is usually a magnificent show on the farm which I will attempt to capture for you with my fairly basic photographic skills in the next few weeks when the woodland floor will be covered with a vivid blue carpet.  

In the meantime,  there are a few more markers to collect, and a train  to be caught,  so  I am off out into the sunshine!

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Fourth driven shoot

Waiting for the birdsA blanket of early morning mist soon gave way to a lovely autumn day, as we set off on our fourth driven shoot of the season. 

My daughter took some photographs and I have posted a few up here for you.  

This photo is of one of our guns waiting for the first birds to flush from the copse across the field. 

The telephoto lens has flattened the image somewhat,  the wood is actually about 200 yards away.

Here they come!

In the next photo, the first birds begin to fly over the guns

As you can see from the pictures below,  we have some Viszlas in our beating team this year,  and very useful dogs they are too.   

Speaking of dogs,  I read an interesting post on a forum yesterday. A gundog owner explained that their dog had been injured whilst beating,  and that they had asked the keeper on the shoot for half the costs of the veterinary treatment incurred. 

I have to say I was quite shocked initially.   My dogs have had many minor injuries working on different shoots over the years, and it has never occurred to me to expect anyone else to foot the bill. 

I shall await further comments on the thread with interest. For as someone that runs a shoot, this is clearly a situation that could arise at some point in the future for us!

Looking for fallen birds!

My first reaction to the forum post was that as the shoot organiser, I would probably foot the bill if there was genuine need,  but that I might hesitate to ask that person back to beat in the future. 

I then tried to be more objective and to look at the issue from other aspects.   Whilst our own shoot, and many small shoots like it,  is not profit making,  there are many shoots out there  that are very profitable.  Maybe it is not unreasonable for a small part of that profit to be allocated to caring for an injured dog?

But where do we draw the line?  Is the shoot responsible for the dog developing arthritis in old age due to wear and tear on the joints?  

Viszla picking up

What about ripped jackets and leggings,  damage to clothing is all part and parcel of working in the beating line,  and good waterproof/thornproof clothing is expensive.  Who should be held responsible?   And how do we define the limits of this kind of responsibility?

If a shoot organiser or landowner were to agree to pay half the vet bill for one dog, would he be setting a precedent that might make him liable for more, possibly unaffordable, bills in the future? How would this affect his insurance policy?  And could we be left with a situation where only wealthy shoots could afford to take on the responsibility of beaters?

Ultimately beating and picking up are hobbies.   Yes some shoots pay expenses and provide meals.  But that is about the extent of it.  We don’t do it for  money, we do it because we love it.   As do our dogs.    

It seems to me that unless the landowner has been wilfully negligent (leaving hazardous objects where dogs will be working for example) it might not be reasonable or wise for him to accept responsibility for beater’s veterinary bills. How about you?  Do you think shoots should pay out for vet bills incurred by dogs in the beating line or picking up? 

It’s all food for thought and I’d be interested to hear your views!

The BagFortunately,  our fourth day was unmarred by accident or injury!   We had six superb drives and a good bag to divide between us all before we made our weary way to the pub for beef in ale pie.   

As you can see from the final photo,  the combined harvester comes in useful in the winter too.


One week to go!

Just a week to go now until our first shoot.   Ploughing is almost complete and so we can set about the business of putting out gunstand markers for each of the ‘drives’  on the farm. 

These show the ‘guns’  where they have to stand during the drive. 

The markers are little weather proof numbered cards each of which slot into the top of a split hazel stick.   The sticks are then pushed into the ground.    There are ten of them for each drive as we have ten guns.

The bizarre heatwave of the weekend has given way to more appropriate October weather with some blustery wind and a little fine drizzle,  but the ground is still fairly hard which makes driving the peg holders into the soil a little tricky.  

We finished marking out the first drive this afternoon.  Just another nineteen or so drives to go!

The  dogs are getting fitter by the day and are now running lots of long retrieves up and down the meadows to build up some muscle and stamina in preparation for what is to come.  We have sharpened up brakes and steering,  and are almost ready!  

The pheasants are now foraging about over the farm during the day,  and returning to the safety of the pens to roost at night.

apple treeThere is still plenty of leaf on the trees,  and not a lot of autumnal colour to them yet,  but other signs of autumn are well under way. 

 This year has been quite an extraordinary one for apples,  there are piles of them everywhere, and the remaining few are now tumbling on to the ground. 

This is one of the last trees to hang on to its fruit.  

Around the oak trees the ground is crunchy with ripe acorns and if you stand still for too long under any tree,  you are likely to be struck smartly on the head!


Protecting the pheasant poults from raptors

We have plenty of raptors on the shoot,  and the pheasant poults need to be protected from these deadly birds of prey.

pheasant poultsDay by day the  poults grow bigger and stronger. They are still very shy and this is a good thing as it keeps them tucked under the vegetation whenever a ‘shape’ approaches.

Each year we lose a few poults to tawny owls, buzzards and sparrowhawks.  Tawny owls hunt at night, only killing the very small poults and tend to leave the poult where they have killed it, coming back for seconds and thirds over the next two or three days. For this reason we leave the dead poult in the pen so that they can continue to feed on it each night. If you remove the poult, they will simply kill another one.

Tawny owls actually nest and raise their babies in this hollow tree just feet from the gate into one of our pens. owls nestHimself made the mistake of peering too closely at the nest one year and got himself dive bombed by an outraged mother owl. The wound in his head took quite some time to heal!

 All the baby owls are long gone by the time our poults go into the wood.  This pair will carry on killing a poult every two or three days for no more than a couple of weeks and as owls are territorial, we don’t get massive numbers killed this way. We just have to accept these small losses.

 Sparrowhawks also kill poults and will take slightly bigger ones. We have a lot of sparrowhawks on the farm and their favourite food for much of the year seems to be woodpigeon. They hunt the pigeons across the open fields and into the pen wire on the edge of the woods. Many days there are wood pigeon feathers scattered in heaps along the edges of the pens. When the poults are small, they are an easy meal compared with the aerobatic woodpigeon.

Again, the sparrowhawks do not kill huge numbers, and as they hunt during the day, there are deterrents we can use to make hunting our pens unattractive to them. As well as the plastic game feed sacks we hang from trees, old CDs are useful. They spin in the wind when hung up, and create a flashing visual deterrent.

Buzzards are less predictable. Some years they don’t show any interest in the pens, in another year, you will get an individual buzzard that will ruthlessly pursue the occupants of a pen killing dozens of birds in the space of a week. I  suspect that this type of behaviour is that of a juvenile bird practicing his hunting skills as he will often strike the backs of the pheasants with his feet, killing or maiming them, then move on to the next bird without feeding on the last.

Again, flashing, spinning and brightly coloured objects are our only defence against these birds, which are all protected by law.


Pheasant drinkers

Pheasant drinkers rapidly become coated with algae,  and contaminated with other debris.   Cleaning them out uses up some of our precious stored water so where possible, we pick and choose our times according to the weather.

cleaning the pheasant drinkers Last night it rained for much of the night, and though the sun was out again by mid morning, more rain is forecast for tonight. Our water storage tanks are now in better shape, so today was a sensible choice for cleaning out the drinkers. Not one of our most fascinating routine tasks.

Like many young spaniels, Phoebe needs some more practice at sitting still, so she came along to watch in the ex-layers’ pen.    The older pheasants are getting used to the dogs now,  and whilst they keep a wary distance,  they are not upset by her presence.


Steadiness around the Ex Layers

Walking the pens is great practice for young gundogs.  We introduce our young dogs to game this way,  on a lead at first,  then simply at heel off-lead.  It gives you a chance to gauge their level of interest,  to assess how distracting they find the birds.   You can get them to sit if a bird takes off,  or gets a bit lively,  every now and then I just stop,  and wait,  and let the birds and the dog relax before walking quietly on.    The ex-layers pen is better for this,  as the little poults are still very nervous

We have one pen each year with ex-layers in.  As their name implies ‘ex-layers’ are breeding birds that were used to produce this year’s poults.  When they have finished laying their eggs,  they are sold to shoots.  

There are pros and cons to buying ex layers compared with poults.   They arrive earlier in the year,  so it means a longer commitment to their care and protection.   They are less vulnerable to the smaller flying predators,  sparrowhawks and tawny owls for the most part  leave them alone.  Buzzards can be a problem if they get a taste for pheasants,  and we have several pairs of buzzards living on the farm.    

Hanging plastic sacks all around the pens does not look pretty,  but it helps to dissuade the large predators from entering.

Once we have the dogs nice and steady to the birds outside the pens,  and the birds are used to them,  they are allowed into the pens  where they sit and wait whilst we refill hoppers,  clean out drinkers etc.    Eventually we can throw a few dummy retrieves quite close to the birds and the dogs learn to run out and pick up the dummies whilst ignoring the live birds.

This kind of practice is invaluable and if you have a young gundog,  it is well worth offering to help out your local shoot in exchange for being allowed to get your dog accustomed to being around the birds.   If you can make sure that they are calm around domestic poultry or rabbits first,  so much the better.  We keep chickens and rabbits at home in our garden so that the dogs grow up learning to ignore them.