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Sharp Shooters: An expert's guide to game season etiquette

Tis the season to forage for fowl. Luxury London joins the countryside’s elite to indulge in traditional field sports and asks the experts on how best to prepare  

Get ready to cock your guns and motor your Land Rover over to Cumbria, Wiltshire or the Scottish Borders: the Glorious Twelfth is upon us. Whether you’re an aficionado or a beginner, shooting etiquette throws up plenty of dilemmas, from your RSVP to what to pack.

Firstly, there’s the problem of buying a gift for your host: peg finders or a bottle of plonk? Then what gun to take? Do you take your father’s hand-me-down or the new Beretta you had engraved? Forget what to wear – how do you accessorise? Alongside gun case, cartridge bag, ear protectors and binoculars, are whisky tots and a walking stick that doubles as a cigar holder too much?

Naturally, the morning briefing will cover all aspects of safety, format of the day, how many pegs you’ll move up each drive, the quarry, whether you’re live on a peg or whether the drive starts and ends with a whistle. But for everything else? The top dogs on the hunting scene are here with some tips to ensure you get invited back.

First things first: the prey. At least 600,000 people in the UK shoot live quarry, clay pigeons or targets according to the 2014 survey by Cambridge-based Public and Corporate Economic Consultants. “Pheasant and partridge are my normal quarry,” says James Horne, CEO of James Purdey & Sons, the gun and rifle makers. “However I enjoy grouse shooting as it is the most exciting. The beauty of the surrounding countryside, the silence and the adrenaline all contribute to the thrill of the occasion. Grouse are the fastest game birds you’ll ever shoot.”0

That makes it easy to enjoy the Glorious Twelfth, the marker for the first day of grouse season. A month later, welcome partridge, duck and goose; then pheasant and woodcock from October.

“I love the January days, because birds are strong and wily then,” says Will Hogan, assistant retail manager at Farlows, the shooting and country clothing specialist. “It is always satisfying catching those birds that break out of the drives on beater’s days.”

No matter what happened last year, though, always check what you’re allowed to snipe, where and when (more information is available through the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust). And remember, no shooting on Sundays – ever.

While some years have seen low stock levels (2015 due to bad weather), trends for bird don’t seem to have changed that much, although “there is far more high-bird shooting available and there is much more information about ballistics and what cartridges to use”, says Horne. He remembers shooting nearly 80 days during one season with his father. “We travelled all over the country and were occasionally joined by my son. Having three generations together with everyone of equal shooting ability is a truly special event.”

It’s this familial attitude that keeps the industry alive. Collectively, shoot providers help manage an area the size of Wales, investing their time and money into preserving the countryside. Nearly two million hectares are actively managed for conservation. Many locations across the UK hold events just for women, beginners or businesses. “The commercial world has really kicked off and more estates are doing lots of days,” says Hogan. “It means our sport is attracting more people, which can only be a good thing. We need to stick together despite what some may think about commercial shooting.”

Collectively, shoot providers help manage an area the size of Wales, investing their time and money into preserving the countryside. 

Further afield, companies such as Farlows, GunsOnPegs and Scott Dunn offer trips around the world to experience the best in hunting, shooting and fishing. “Rathmoy Lodge in New Zealand is one of the greatest settings for spectacular scenery and a great shoot,” says Hogan.

However, during the summer months, the UK’s clay shooting is the field sport of choice. It’s the ideal time for a dab hand to oil any rusty hinges before the season gets underway or for beginners to learn how to hit the target. “I would always advise getting some lessons beforehand,” remarks Hogan on the latter. “Driven shooting is not as easy as some may think; there is a lot of sky around them!”

Gunmakers are willing to direct newbies towards their first rifle purchase. Alastair Phillips, general manager at William Evans in Bisley, recommends an over-and-under as a failsafe; Daryl Greatrex, managing director at Holland & Holland, suggests a modestly priced model from either Belgium or Italy; while Karl Waktare, managing director at Beretta, recommends the brand’s Silver Pigeon: “It is outstanding value for money and retains its second-hand value really well.”

Really, it’s about individual taste. Horne uses a rebuilt 1896 side-by-side Purdey shotgun, while William Asprey opts for one of his own, a William & Son 12 bore side-by-side, double trigger with 28-inch barrels. Others use a SO10 Beretta (Waktare), a Boss & Co over-and-under (Hogan) or a Holland & Holland ‘Royal’ model game gun (Greatrex).

Off-the-peg is obviously cheaper and quicker than bespoke and most can be made to fit with minor adaptations. If you’re opting for this tack, stock fit is by far the most important thing to get right, says Waktare, who recommends the Beretta 687 EELL at around £6,500. Good stock fit coupled with great trigger pulls in a bespoke gun, adds Greatrex, and you’ll be laughing all the way back to the lodge. If you are willing to invest in engraving and handcrafted manufacturing techniques, a Purdey gun can cost you from £110,000 or £150,000 for a pair at William & Son.

All in all, there’s a strong demand for guns by well-known makers, and they don’t have to be new. “I like an old William Evans gun that is still in good condition,” says Phillips. “I currently own a boxlock 12 bore with 30-inch barrels that was made in 1924. I can see in the records that it is still the same spec as the original and has the initials of the first owner on the case.”

While you may want to expand your collection, Phillips recommends picking one gun and sticking to it. “Beware the man with one gun. Practice is so important.”

Regarding fashion in the field, it’s down to personal preference – there are endless options for jackets, shooting cases and all the gadgets. Firearms owners are fussy: they contribute around £2 billion to the UK economy. So when you’re ready to fill your trolley, head to Purdey for well-fitting tweeds, Farlows for a waterproof Swazi Wapiti jacket or Le Chameau for rubber boots. While you’re at it, add a gift for your host to the list: a sterling silver flask shaped like a cartridge for £2,100 can be found at William & Son if you’re feeling generous. Then it’s all about the actual day and indulging in a plate of partridge Wellington and a glass of King’s Ginger.

Whatever you do, don’t forget to bring a cash tip for the keeper, never pick off low birds and refrain from poaching the next peg’s flying fowl. Although, Hogan cheekily adds, “it can be great fun shooting your mate’s bird before he has a chance”. 

LEARN THE LINGO

Over: a bird is coming your way

Side-by-side/over-and-under: refers to the layout of the barrels in different shotguns

A peg: where you stand on a drive

Butt: where you stand on a grouse shoot

Blind: where you stand on a partridge/duck shoot

Pickers-up: the people who collect game

Beaters: people who flush birds into the air

Flankers: beaters who push birds in from the side

Flushing point: where the birds come from

A flush: a bunch of pheasants or duck

A covey: a bunch of partridges or grouse

A pack: a large covey of grouse

A squib: slang for cartridge