I didn’t pick up a shotgun until I was well into my forties, Guns- real guns- were just not part of family life, though my favourite toy as a kid was a classic Lee Enfield SMLE 303 in plastic brown which I imagined made me look like Audie Murphy, which shows you how little I really knew. Later, me and my brothers progressed to Woolworth’s toy version of the FLN SLR which fired grey plastic rounds from a mag you could reload. That was the rifle I saw often on BBC newsreels of Belfast in the 70s, carried casually across the chest by British Army squaddies. But nothing real. Not even an air rifle.
We had rich neighbours in our village in central Scotland who went grouse shooting in their Mk 1 Range Rovers. The Grouse seemed to me to be a mythical creature (the glorious 12th and all) and when I was offered a brace I could not refuse. My mum had absolutely no idea what to do with them and the brace hung until they were more maggot than anything discernibly famous. My old man would never have eaten grouse, even if it had been cooked to rare perfection and thrust in front of him by Marco Pierre White himself.
There is a lot said these days about equal opportunity for the young and that’s a good thing. This subject was on my mind when I was on a wonderful family run shoot at Wreningham in Norfolk a few weeks back, watching Harry, an 11 year old boy with a 20 bore, enjoy himself. He didn’t do anything to help improve our kills to shots ratio but he had a great time and contributed some more than respectable birds.
The week before that, I was loading for another lad of similar age who was sharing my peg on a shoot in Suffolk just after Christmas. I had been invited as a guest, mind. The lad had shot his first decoyed Norfolk wood pigeon with Bob Laidlaw that summer and later bagged his first walked up red grouse in North Yorkshire.
So whilst those two young men, on the edge of their teenage years, were out in the field with their reliable beretta's, at their age, well, I had only woolworths. They had gaiters and tweeds. I had my elder brother’s outgrown Lee jeans and Bay City Rollers jumper.
I wondered what my shooting ability would have been like had I had been introduced to game shooting as a boy. As I pondered that and stood next to the young gun who was going for it, I realised that however good bad or simply average I now am, I am enjoying my days out like never before. Part of it I put down to having reached the stage of seeking quality, not quantity. But whilst I know what that saying means when I am out fly fishing, and it’s a bit of a pious cliché, I am way more at peace with my shooting (if you will spare the contradiction) than I ever was, and I know why that is.
This season just ended , I have become a gamekeeper. Feeding them, watering them, being responsible for them. Enjoying their aerial triumphs, mourning the downfall of some at the havoc of the fox. I am, folks, a gamekeeper of sorts, on a small “lifeblood of the sport” shoot in North Norfolk. 600 birds. 7 or 8 drives. A bag of 25 to 30 birds per shoot day. Pheasant, partridge (including a few English, brave handsome lads one and all) and a couple of dozen Mallard on a pond which have attracted in some wild duck, including teal.
You will have had your own chance happenings. Good things you didn’t expect to happen, falling into your lap. That’s life, and that’s how I got into gamekeeping. I had taken a half gun on the local shoot run by Bob, having become disenchanted with my diet of large shoots where some of the guns seemed only interested in killing large numbers of birds, greedily taking birds best left to their neighbours, and leaving at the end of the day without taking a brace home for the table. I wrestled with the ethics of that, to be honest, and what it might meant longer term for the future of game shooting in this day and age. Now, if there is any game left over at the end of the day, I take it for myself or offer it to the Pub kitchen down the lane from me where I know local game will be gratefully received and put to good use.
Bob has run the shoot at Whissonsett for many years largely on his own, but Laidlaw had been laid low last summer by a knee operation which was stubbornly refusing to heal. Help was needed if the shoot was to go ahead. To be honest, I had only a little idea of what was involved and the nature of the responsibility to the birds and to the guns. I met and got to know local farmers and dog walkers, picked up the litter dropped in the lanes, was there for some wonderful sunrises. I was learning lots, seeing things a bit differently.
Looking after the birds also kept me going when I was hit for six by Corona virus in September.
Being a keeper of sorts, then, has broadened my knowledge and perspective and has reconnected me with what drew me to the sport in the first place, just when I was in danger of suing for divorce. That’s why, as I say above, my enjoyment (and as it happens and as I am being told, my ability to hit a better bird) is on the up.
My first season is almost over and I’m already looking forward to next year, full of ideas, looking forward to working with Bob and to the excitement and pride of the small shoot day.
Oh, and I didn’t raise my gun all season. I ended up beating on most of the days, unwilling to shoot at my own birds, but happy when a cock bird was flushed and flew well; happy to see a good shot, but equally happy to see one of my boys fly another day.