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

Thought for the day!

There have recently been some comments on this blog by someone opposed to pheasant shooting and it is perhaps surprising that this has not happened sooner.   So this morning I will add a link to my post on the ethics of game shooting to my about page.

I have also given some thought to how I would deal with future comments of this nature.  I do believe in respecting everyone’s views and listening to others,  and I think it is important to take every opportunity to promote and defend our sport and our lifestyle.

But on the other hand I do not have unlimited time to spend debating a topic on which it is often hard to find common ground.

So I have decided to put some other thoughts on this issue,  in response to these recent comments,  and simply add to these if any relevant points need covering.    I have also decided to moderate ‘all’ comments (this blog is currently set to moderate only the first comment made by a new visitor).

So in the future you will find that your comments do  not appear until I have approved them.  This may take a few hours as I am not always online!

Against pheasant shooting

Some people are opposed to pheasant shooting.    Some arguments against pheasant shooting are based on misconceptions about how shooting is run and who takes part.  Many shoots, including my own, have guns that are not remotely ‘wealthy’  and work hard all week to make sure that they have enough money for their sport,   which may cost them less than a season ticket to Chelsea.

Most arguments ignore the contributions that shoots make to our wildlife and economy.  Many ignore welfare issues entirely.   (A pheasant does not suffer more because the man who shoots him is wealthy for example  –  this is a completely irrelevant argument)

Arguments I respect

Some arguments against pheasant shooting are based on a genuine desire to live on this planet without harming or eating other animals.

I have every respect and sympathy for that view,  though it is not one I share.  And I suspect it may not actually be is achievable.  Even with a truly vegan lifestyle.

Every aspect of human life requires that animals step aside at some point.   Especially when it comes to protecting our food chain.   I have been involved in the pest control industry for over thirty years and can assure all readers,  that if you ever eat in a restaurant,  vegan or not,  rats (and mice and cockroaches and all manner of other beasties) have probably died for your pleasure.

Drugs must be tested on animals so that our children and pets can be safe from the diseases that once ravaged society.

Crops are sprayed so that we can eat wheat, beans, carrots and all manner of other plants without paying a small mortgage for them.   And yes,  the average resident of my village can probably afford organic food,  but could we feed the planet on that basis?  I doubt it.

And bear in mind that even organic farmers employ pest control contractors to kill rodents, rabbit and birds that eat their crops or contaminate their stores  and use heat treatments to kill insects.

Still,  I do sympathise with all those that wish to live without harming other species,  and wish them well.   Most of the vegans I have met live according to their principles without trying to force their views on others.   Respect.

Those who oppose the many aspects of my own lifestyle that they find offensive,  are I find, often confused about their own principles.   They will often admit to hypocrisy when it comes to what they will kill and what they will not.  But do not see that this diminshes their own arguments.  They are also often happy to eat farmed meat which has been subjected to all sorts of unpleasant procedures.  This is what I have to say to them.

To those who oppose my lifestyle

I am happy to be a meat eater.  And happy that my pheasants  (and all the wild animals that we shoot and eat)  have had a better life (and death) than most of the lumps of meat you will find on a supermarket shelf.   I am deeply interested in animal welfare and always pleased to hear of new research or evidence on this subject.

Please read the ethics of game shooting for an explanation of my views,  and please do not be too disappointed if I do not get involved in too much debate with you.

I support your right to have your own views and ask that you support mine.  New information and research is welcome.  Repeated comments that cover the same ground will not be approved and those that come just to argue may be blocked.

This blog is for those that are interested in our shoot and in the activities that go  on there.  If that offends you,  you may be happier reading a different blog

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A morning’s ferreting

two young ferretsI have been largely confined to my desk for the last few weeks.

But with my book now safely at the publishers, it has been a great relief to get out with my dogs again.  

And what better way to spend a sunny morning than out with the ferrets and a dog at my side.

Even if you have never been ferreting, you are probably aware that ferrets are used to chase rabbits from their burrows. 

The rabbits can then be either shot or netted.  And there are pros and cons to each method.

Netting

Ferret at work

Nothing in this hole!

Netting is more time consuming as each entrance to the burrow has to have a net carefully set over it. 

Even when netting is done very quietly, it may make the rabbits more likely to try and ‘hole up’ underground as they become aware of the disturbance above.

We don’t want rabbits to lie up.

This can encourage the ferrets to kill the rabbit,  which quite apart from being horrible for the rabbit, often entails digging out the ferret.  

A time-consuming process. 

In addition, some warrens are difficult to net and some holes can be inaccessible.  

Shooting

Off to a good start

With shooting, there is no time wasted in netting holes, and rabbits tend to bolt quickly and are less likely to lie up.  

Shooting over ferrets is very testing as rabbits bolt with unbelievable speed.  It requires a very good shot and safety is of course paramount.

Obviously in some situations, it is simply not safe to shoot over ferrets, but on much of our shoot grounds, the warrens are ideally placed for shooting.

Himself always prefers to shoot over ferrets where appropriate, and this is excellent for me, as watching rabbits bolt and be shot, is superb steadiness training for young dogs.

Steadiness training

Labrador ferreting

Watching from behind the guns

The young lab I took with me this morning had never been ferreting before and I decided to keep her on the lead to begin with.

This was a good decision as the first rabbit to bolt changed direction unexpectedly and virtually ran across her toes.

She was unable to resist this extraordinary temptation but I stopped her with the lead, rebuked her firmly and sat her up again. 

 She was as good as gold from there on, and after an hour or so, and many more flushes, I was confident enough to take off the lead.

We  visited half a dozen warrens during the course of the morning and finished up with twelve rabbits.   

In addition to the importance of fulfilling our obligation to control the rabbits on the farm,  and some great training for the dog,  we also came away with several day’s free dog food.  

It is nearly the end of the ferreting season now,  soon the warrens will be overgrown with vegetation,  and baby rabbits will be appearing.    Then it will be time to switch to culling rabbits with the .22 rifle.    There is always something  else to look forward to as we move through the seasons.


Life goes on!

 

Time for some training then!

It’s a strange feeling,  for the game shooting season to be done and dusted for another year.  But as one avenue of pleasure closes,  another beckons. 

People often ask me what we do with our working dogs for the rest of the year,  and  I have chatted with shooting enthusiasts in the USA who find it unusual or interesting that for us,  the end of game shooting,  is by no means the end of shooting for the year. 

During February we concentrate on some different quarry species.  

Rabbits and Roe

Roe are abundant on the farm at the moment and  so for the next few weeks we will be stocking the freezer with delicious venison.    

We will also be shooting over ferrets for a few more weeks  and I hope to put up a post about that soon.    Ferreting with working ferrets is a great way to reduce rabbit populations  during the winter months and to provide meat for our dogs.  

Shooting rabbits as they bolt from their burrows is also great sport and watching it is very good steadiness training for our young dogs.

Training the dogs

The spaniels tend to be a bit raggedy around the edges by the end of the shooting season,  too much ‘sweeping up’  interferes with a nice tidy quartering pattern,  and behaviour does tend to deteriorate a little over the course of the season simply because you are working the dogs far more than training them.

So in February and March before the undergrowth starts to go crazy, we get to work on sharpening up stop whistles and tightening up quartering patterns.  

Woodpigeons

Perhaps one of the most delicious  species on the farm is the humble, plump and prolific woodpigeon.  We work hard on keeping woodpigeon numbers under control as they do so much crop damage,  but the benefits of the meat cannot be overstated.  If you have never tasted woodpigeon I do recommend it.  It is a rich, dark,  tasty meat, almost ‘beefy’ in texture and flavour.   We will almost certainly be shooting plenty of these this year.

Some time to relax?

Whilst I am truly sad to say goodbye to another gameshooting season it has been hard work for us providing the birds, arranging the days, and making sure everything runs smoothly.   And I am looking forward to a more relaxing time,  just as soon as I have handed in this book.

Himself who has headed out to sea today to try and catch a nice big cod,  had made me promise not to start any more projects for a few months.  So  I will have to try and be good.       We’ll see how that pans out….


The end of the season

fox-red labrador with pheasant

Another one for the game cart

Our formal shoots are now all complete. 

From a numbers point of view it has been a very successful season with our total bag accounting for more than fifty percent of the birds we bought in as poults. 

More importantly we have all had a brilliant time,  out in all weathers, admiring those memorable shots, watching the dogs work ,  and  teasing guns that can’t remember their peg numbers… 

We have walked and walked until we were ready to drop, laughed in the pouring rain, soaked up the privilege and glory of shooting in the English countryside, and relished the company of good friends. 

working cocker with hen pheasant

Not a giant pheasant, just a little dog

We have reminisced about some great shots and commiserated over poor ones.

We have watched young dogs grow in confidence and experience, and eaten too much in front of roaring fires.  I am sure we are all fitter though, perhaps no slimmer!

What more wonderful way can there be to spend a winter. 

For me personally the shooting season has brought yet more pleasures. 

It has been a wonderful few months with two very special and important events for me just before Christmas. 

working cocker spaniel

What shall we do next?

In December I signed my first publishing contract,  and I also learned that our new Gundog Welfare charity ‘The Gundog Trust’ has been accepted for registration with the Charity Commission.  

My new book will be published in July and right now I am busy putting the finishing  touches to it.   I am sure I will be blogging a bit more about that in the weeks to come.

The Gundog Trust is the culmination of a massive amount of work,  and is something of a ‘dream come true’ for me.  

There is a lot more work to be done yet,  but much of our progress has been on hold whilst we waited for our Charity Commission registration.  

pheasant shooting in England

Wending our way home

Gaining the recognition of the Charity Commission has been a rigourous and thorough process involving the extensive gathering of information and including a requirement to provide evidence that gundogs are ‘useful to man’. 

 Something that seems obvious to those of us that work them,  but in fact is not at all obvious to those that know little about eating game,  game shooting,  or gundog fieldwork.

Once we receive our Charity Number we will be able to move forward with a public launch.   We are just waiting for some changes in our articles of association to be updated with Companies House and we will be able to receive our official charity registration number.

It is all very exciting!   I’ll let you know what happens next.


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.


Third driven shoot of the season

Game cartWe had one of our best shoot days ever yesterday.   As you can see our little game cart was bursting at the seams.  There were enough birds for every gun, beater and picker up to take home two brace each,  and some left over for  stocking our freezer! 

Every shoot day I manage to forget something.  This time it was my camera.  I took some pictures with my phone,   but you’ll have to excuse the quality.

It was one of those days when everything just ‘came  together’.   We had some great dogs in the beating line.  The best shots got the best stands on   every drive, and the weather was perfect for the dogs (mild and damp makes for great scent).

The day went smoothly apart from the part where we were pursued by an angry tenant farmer because a beater had parked in front of some important machinery in the yard!  

The justifiably annoyed and delayed fellow came steaming across the field to let us know just what he thought of our inconsiderate behaviour,  in his very smart and very valuable tractor.   Onto the windscreen of which,  Himself managed to drop a large and very dead pheasant,  from a height known to be hazardous to glass.  Happily the windscreen withstood the onslaught,  and said farmer was able to see the funny side.

The farmer,  who fortunately is a very reasonable and forgiving chap,  was plied with sausage rolls, apologies, and cake,  and has hopefully  forgiven us. 

Himself made a mental note to add ‘thoughtful parking’  to the list of reminders in his ‘pre-shoot’ talk.   The ‘pre-shoot talk’  is a stern speech himself delivers before the start of each shoot day reminding all participants of their responsibilities.   Shoots in the UK have an exceptionally high safety record and we take our role in this very seriously.    Our team are all very experienced shots,  but listen uncomplainingly to being reminded of safety instructions and their duties.

Two Soggy Cockers

We had an exceptional bag of a hundred birds,  mostly pheasant,  some duck and a woodcock and all the guns had some good shooting.  

On a small shoot like ours that is not always the case.  The guns draw lots in the yard at the start of the shoot day, to be allocated their peg numbers. 

Not all pegs are equal,  some provide better shooting on average than others,  and it  is down to luck on the day, as to which pegs a gun draws.   Less than half the guns usually get more than half the shooting,  partly because some are much better shots,  and partly due to the peg the gun has drawn.

But yesterday,  everyone has some great shooting,  and we were able to finish the day with that lovely ‘job well done’  feeling.

The  dogs worked their little socks off and we all retired happy and exhausted to the pub for slow roast belly pork and scrumptious vegetables.

It is too mild to hang the pheasants for long and we prefer our pheasants not too ‘gamey’  so Himself and I will be busy plucking and gutting this evening.   Not my favourite job,  but well worth the end result. 

I am going to try some pheasant legs (which can be tough) using a new recipe based on Jamie Oliver’s Rabbit Bolognese.  I jotted down the ingredients and method whilst watching him on TV on  Tuesday.   He cooked the rabbit overnight in a very slow oven with lots of garlic, tomatoes and vegetables.    

I’ll let you know how it works with pheasant!


Rough shooting with our beaters

Rough ShootingA good team of regular beaters lies at the heart of a driven pheasant shoot.  Knowing the lie of the land,  where the drive starts and finishes,  where to slow down or speed up,  where to keep dogs close or watch out for pheasants running back.  These are all important aspects of beating that only come with regular exposure to the same ‘drives’.

Good beaters who turn up regularly no matter what the weather,  are not easy to come by.  And once you have found them it is important to keep them happy!

Rewarding beaters

Many shoots pay their beaters.   A beater’s wage can be anything from £20 to £30 a day.   When you consider that beating is a day’s very hard physical labour,  you can see that beaters  are not in it for the money.    On our shoot the beaters usually cover between five and ten miles during the course of the day.   This cannot be compared with walking the same distance on paths or tracks as much of it involves pushing through undergrowth and constantly negotiating obstacles.

We don’t pay our beaters but instead our ‘guns’ treat them to a slap-up meal in the local pub at the end of the day,  and we treat them to regular ‘rough shooting’  days where they can come out with their gun and dog,  and enjoy a day shooting the boundaries of the farm.

A rough shooting day

Yesterday was one such rough shooting day,  and a team of about ten of us set out at 9am with a couple of Viszlas, two Cockers, and two Labs to help flush and pick up our game. 

I was only able to join them for a couple of hours,  but over the course of the day,  our little group bagged half a dozen pheasants, a couple of rabbits and some pigeons.

Himself and I actually enjoy these outings more than our formal shoot days.  There is no pressure on us to produce ‘numbers’ and the day is usually more relaxed.