Jonathan Spencer

Jon Spencer is a friend from the United Kingdom. I had the pleasure of going out with him on a "rough shoot" some years back, and enjoyed the similarities and the differences between the way it's done there and here. He has kindly consented to allow me to put this delightful account of two days afield "across the pond." I'm sure NRVO's readership will take as much pleasure in reading this story as I have in presenting it. My thanks to him not only for the story, but for the pictures of the beautiful English countryside.

I was invited by a friend to go rough shooting.  I don't know when I last took a shotgun out after game, but it was at least five years.  The first day turned out to be more of a driven pheasant shoot, classic English style, than a traditional rough shoot. The venue was hilly farmland on the North York Moors, overlooking the coastal town of Saltburn in the distance. The land comprised some sown grassland (for silage), some pasture, and some rough moor, and dry stone walls, and lost of small woods.  Plus small valleys—no more than a couple of hundred yards across—which were 'filled' with deciduous wood and brush undergrowth and dead bracken. 

My friend had described it as a "rough shoot."  Rough shooting means walking up game behind dogs, typically spaniels (or these days HPRs) and shooting on flush.  I asked my friend whether I should take my GWP Tuppence and warned him that she will course a rabbit given the chance and isn't a brilliant Retriever—she'll find shot game well enough but isn't excited by the prospect of handing it over: "This pheasant is mine, you can find your own!"  He said no, there were plenty of dogs so to leave mine behind.

So then I had to decide which gun to take, always a problem.  I have a Batista Rizzini in 20 gauge, a Gunmark "Kestrel" side-by-side in 12ga, a Winchester 101 over/under in 12ga, and an AYA No 4 in 12ga.  Or I could have gone silly and taken the Pedersoli 12ga BP gun.  In the event, I decided on the AYA No 4 simply because when I shouldered it, it seemed to fit "just right." I bought this gun second hand two years ago and have never used it in anger.  My decision to take this gun turned out to be a wise one.

After a week of heavy rain, and flooding all over the country, the weather on Saturday morning turned to perfection.  It was a frosty morning, with high cloud and the sun sticking its nose through.  The ground was very wet underfoot, lots of water running off and boggy ground to contend with.  Just as well I was wearing Wellingtons.

There were eight Guns present, half of them guests although I didn't realise it at the time.  The shoot captain gave us a briefing: no ground game to be shot (unless it's a feral cat and you are sure it's a safe shot), cock pheasants only, no hen birds, keep dogs under control.  The beaters were sons and a daughter of the Guns.  They were armed with stout hazel sticks to which were attached flags.

We moved off for the first drive.  The guns were positioned in a semi-circle in a field beneath a wooded valley, and the beaters worked from the top down towards us.  The sun was just above the trees and in my eyes.  As the beaters worked down the hill, tap-tap-tapping their sticks, the spaniels worked through the undergrowth.  I heard the whirrr of wings and saw a cock break and fly off perpendicular to the wood 100 yards from me.  He wasn't greeted with a shot—all the guns were at the bottom—but he made a splendid sight in the morning sun.  Beaters shouted, dogs yelped.  A rabbit scurried across the field.  With a great clattering of wings, a pheasant broke from the wood just ahead of a Springer, climbed and flew downhill towards me following the hedge lineon my left.  I Swung on the bird, swung through, and yanked the trigger. Blow me, the bird folded up and dropped like a stone on the far side of the hedge!  First shot in anger with this gun and one bird down. Excellent!

I saw my neighbouring Gun's Labrador (an 11-month-old, too-excited bitch) streak out and retrieve the bird.  She hadn't been sent for it.  The drive ended and we moved on.  My neighbouring Gun brought me my pheasantA hen.  Oops.  I was anticipating a fine or at least a ticking off, but no one seemed bothered and the shoot captain commented, "Good shot".  It turns out that "no hen birds" really means "no easy hen birds" but high hens are OK.

At the next drive, I was placed in the bottom of a steeply angled valley, only 100 yards across, beneath the end of a tall pine plantation.  The beaters once again worked from uphill towards us.  This drive was more productive.  I saw my neighbours shoot at but miss a woodcock, and get a cock pheasant each.  Several hen pheasant were flushed, escaped without being shot at, and I knocked down a fairly high cock with my second shot of the day.  I was feeling good. 

The next drive was a bit odd.  I was placed in "the old quarry" (only about 50 yards across) whilst my mentor was off to one side and other Guns scattered about.  There was a tall oak in front of me, so any shot that presented would be high and fleeting.  I got ready, muzzles up.

Funny how fast an old man's reactions can be.  Suddenly a woodcock broke over the oak.  I swung on it, fired and hit it but wasn't happy with the shot, fired again and knocked it down.  All in a millisecond, it seemed.   I scrabbled up the rock bank behind me and recovered the woodcock.

Such a pretty bird.  And so tasty too.  Only the second-ever woodcock I've shot at, and my second killed too.  I was on a roll, three birds for four shots.  Ah, but pride comes before a fall.  Another woodcock came rocketing over the top of the oak, I swung and fired both barrels but was miles too late.  My average dipped.

Next we climbed uphill to a patch of rough grass and reeds, oh, about an acre.  Apparently this patch is a hot bed.  Well, there are feeders in it, they're seen in the photo as blue barrels.  Three of us were positioned uphill, whilst the other Guns and dogs worked methodically uphill towards us.  We worked very slowly downhill, the captain to my left with his two Springers and another Gun to my right.  The latter, Fred, has the original "all round gun dog," a very portly Cocker, it was almost as wide as it was long. 

All of the birds broke downhill, some going to the right side as well.  We probably flushed ten or maybe more cocks from there, and at least five went away without being fired at.  One very dark cock flew off to the right, heading for a distant wood, and Uncle Tom out on the flank knocked it down, landing behind him.  It looked dead but then it got up, shook its head, and took off at a sprint.  There were shouts of "Shoot it again!" but he didn't.  Well, the daft old pheasant headed back to safety, whence he came.  He put in a short flight and touched down right in front of Fred's portly Cocker, which promptly grabbed him.  Too bad!  What was that idiom about a blind pig and acorns?

We then worked some larger woods, with four Guns positioned inside the wood on the downhill end and the other four with the beaters worked down towards us.  I saw several cocks equipped with afterburners rocket overhead (these trees were 40-50 feet tall) and I even let off a couple of shots, all missing of course.  My host Bill knocked two down, but he was nicely positioned on the flank at the top of a bank—and that was no accident.

And so it went on.  On the next drive, I was one of the walking Guns and managed to shoot two consecutive woodcock, not a right and left (woooh! that would get me membership of the coveted Shooting Times Woodcock Club) but two consecutive flushes and shots.  When we reached the top of that wood ("Hogsback Wood") we formed a line and the beaters worked a large patch of rush & gorse down to us.  I was left flank and the birds were coming from the left.  Three cocks were flushed during that drive and I deliberately didn't shoot, leaving them for the Guns on my right. Well, two of those cocks managed to evade at least five rounds each!

On the final drive, I was once again deep inside a wood.  I was "the second line," placed in a little clearing downhill with at least three Guns 60 yards uphill from me.  Again these were mature trees, 50' tall. The beaters went way uphill and I could hear them tapping their way down.  When a cock was flushed, I'd hear the beaters shout "Cock forward!" and soon see the bird heading downhill, in my direction.  Due to the topology, the bird would appear low down amongst the trees even though he was above the tree tops.  The first line of Guns would fire, bang! bang! bang! (miss of course) and then the bird would break into the open sky above me. 

With the first cock, I didn't mount my gun until I saw the bird in open sky above me, at an angle of probably 60 degrees. Of course I was too slow and shot behind him.  I made a note to be quicker.  The second bird acknowledged my shot by dropping a secondary feather, but flew off strongly without missing a beat.  "Right," I thought, "I'll mount the gun the moment I see the bird, and follow it. If those useless beggars miss it, I'll nail it with the first barrel." And thus it was, he folded up as it struck by lightning and landed with a solid thump 25 yards behind me.  I had to search for him.

Late in the day, after the last drive, as I was making my way downhill alongside a stream, I stepped into what looked no more than a muddy patch but was a quagmire: I was up to my thighs in an instant.  I couldn't get out—my right foot was stuck under a root and held fast there by the mud.  It ended up with two guys holding one end of my shotgun and me the other, and they dragged me out.  I'm not sure if I could have got out unaided.

I did embarrassingly well, I thought, especially as I've never shot oncoming birds before.  The eight Guns shot a total of 17 birds (four of them woodcock) for something under 80 rounds fired.  I shot seven birds (four pheasant, three woodcock) for 15 rounds.  And guess what?  They invited me back the following weekend for the last shoot of the season, and was able to take Tuppence too.  None of the dogs that were there—with the exception of a black cocker spaniel—were outstanding.  If Tuppence did chase a rabbit or grab a sitting pheasant, no one was going too get excited about it.

My day out on Saturday has caused me to resolve to get off my backside and find a shoot of my own, or join a syndicate like this one.  I've been out of the game far too long.  It's also caused me to finalise a decision which I've been dithering on for quite some time.  I'm going to get another dog, almost certainly a GWP (unless a Vizla crosses my path first).  Tuppence is 8+ years old now, and I want a young dog coming on before she goes downhill.  I'm looking forward to the pitter-patter of little paws once more.  It's been a long, long time.  Much too long.

The following week I went rough shooting at Birk Brow again and it was quite different from the first day.  We had had huge quantities of rain through the week, but then from Thursday onwards, non-stop gales.  I seriously wondered whether my roof was about to lift off.  It was still windy that day but not so strong.  This had dried the ground somewhat. That's a relative term: it was still exceptionally wet, but the water wasn't actually flowing down the hill side and the farmyard wasn't 3" deep in mud slurry. 

My friend Carl had never shot a gun at game, other than an air rifle on rabbits, but he had shot a few clays at some point.  So before we left I gave him a briefing on the gun he had chosen to use, various safety issues and what to expect and what was expected of him.  He picked the Winchester 101 and I fitted it Mod & Imp Mod chokes.

There were only three Guns out yesterday.  My host Bill was taken down with...ahem...a stomach upset which meant he couldn't venture far. Steven (the Shoot Captain) was off beating on a posh estate, for which he gets a Gun on the "Beaters' Day."  On the last day of the season, the paying Guns switch places with the beaters who get to shoot.  The Guns pay a small fortune for the pleasure of shooting on an estate with professional gamekeepers and Victorian-designed woods providing high birds etc, but without the beaters they would have no sport at all.  So Steven was away.  As was Paul and his daughter and their super black Cocker, also beating elsewhere.  Brian (the large animal vet) was on call as duty vet for his practice.  I don't know where the others were, but they weren't at Birk Brow. 

We got there early and by 09:30, we were still the only ones there.  John, the farmer, said that if no one else turned up within ten minutes, then to help ourselves and "...have a walk round."  That sounded good to me, as I'd brought Tuppence and it meant we could work her and shoot to flush—in theory all controlled and much easier for Carl than oncoming driven birds.

Darren arrived within the 10 minutes with a Springer, and we set off. We were to do standing Guns, and he would work his Springer towards us. We did the old quarry first.  I saw several pheasant run down the hill and into gorse bushes, but they wouldn't flush.  So no shots.  The pattern continued, with Darren legging it up the hills and working his dog down gullys towards us.  One cock flushed sideways (i.e. across the hill, not down) maybe 200 yards up from me, and Darren let lose two ineffectual shots.  One cock came straight down the gully centre, at tree top height which was eye height to Carl and I standing on the ridge to the side.  It came from my left and Carl was to my right.  It was a long-ish shot which I left partly because of that but also to let Carl shoot if he wanted.  He did, but he fired much too last and much too far behind the bird.  But he was grinning just the same.

We did more of the same, Darren wouldn't hear of him being a Gun and me beating for him.  He insisted on doing all the leg work.  (He's very fit.)  I did get to work Tuppence several times, in that patch of rough grass & reed where the blue feeders are.  It's bigger than it looks, an acre or more I guess.  And also in some of the woodland as we were moving from one place to another.  She did quite a bit of work all told.  In that photo above, where she is dark underneath, that's mud: she was filthy.

The final drive was the one in the photo where Carl & Darren are with the cock.  Darren worked his Springer down towards us and as they neared the end of the cover, there was a guttural squawk as the cock flushed to my right (Carl was 40 yards on my left).  I swung through and shot the cock, which folded and crashed into the woods behind me.  Tuppence was very good and didn't run in (although she wanted to).  An instant later, another bird flushed but I realised it was a hen.  Although I didn't see it, simultaneously, a woodcock flushed and flew left towards Carl.  He wasn't sure what it was so he didn't shoot.  Then he realised what it was and was happy just to have seen one.  (He's a city boy through and through so it's all new to him.)  Once Darren and his dog came into sight, I unloaded and sent Tuppence for the retrieve.

She had to clear the wire fence.  She'd been jumping these all day, sometimes neatly, generally not neatly.  Again, it's because she's not been used much for this type of work.  She was so wound up by having to wait for the retrieve, although she had remained silent she was shivering with excitement, that she got a bit scatter brained and instead of running at the fence and clearing it neatly, she ran up to it and 'pronked' vertically several times before adding forward motion.  It was comical. She was on the spot (maybe 30 yards) very quickly but had to hunt because the bird had landed in a little stream.  It took her a while to locate the bird in the rough grass/rushes, she was on top of it but circled it trying to work out exactly where it lay.  Then she fannied about picking it up (this is probably only her 3rd or 4th time out shooting birds) but once she did, she only carried it 20 yards before putting to down again, having lost interest. 

She's always been like this.  She isn't interested in retrieving, far less delivering, only chasing (the run out).  I did very little retriever training when she was young, as I had lost my rough shoot.  Well, Tuppence was told to bring it, which she did, only to drop it on the far side of the wire fence: "There's your bird!" and wandered off.  I don't recall ever teaching her to jump fences on a retrieve, which is why she dumped it there.  I can see that we're going to have to do some work on this.  When we're out for a walk in town, she often finds tennis balls which she is only too happy to carry, and very reluctant to let me have.  The only reason she'll drop one (not deliver to hand) is so that I can throw it for her to chase. She's very much chase oriented and will course a rabbit or bird given half a chance.

The pheasant's feathers were wet although he wasn't waterlogged, which explains why the birds were reluctant to fly.  He'd obviously had a rough week, clinging to his perch at night first with two days of rain, and then three days of howling winds.  What was surprising is how well he flew given his soggy feathers, and I took no pride in having knocked him out of the sky, even though it wasn't apparent at the time as he was flying nicely.

So that's it for the year, the game season ends on 31 January.  The roe doe season continues until the end of February.  A month's break, and then the roe buck season starts. Oh, and no more news on the GWP puppy front.  There's a four month old GWP dog puppy available in Lincolnshire.  I might go and look at him next week.  It's a three hour drive.  Norwich is 4.5 hours, but in the same direction.

Apropos, I saw this in the GWPC Newsletter:

A paw that's laid upon my knee,
questing eyes gaze at me.
A furrowed, slightly worried, brow
twixt turned out ears, all ask "what now?"

My hand goes out to smooth the coat,
it sears my loving heart to note,
the clear brown eyes now dimming blue,
and muzzle all turned grey in hue.

Full fourteen years in canine age,
spell the turning of a page.
'ere many moons shall I know,
it is inevitably so.

Yet still her coat has shine and sheen,
and still her appetite is keen.
With greedy hope and love I pray,
that God may yet defer the day,
when shadow at my feet will be,
only the ghost that I shall see.

Soothing my mind with memory of field
and marsh and forest tree.
Where two hearts beat and were but one,
in seeking what befell the gun.
My fingers fondled under ears,
I fight with sentimental fears.

I'm deeply troubled what best to do.
To leave behind will cause misery and pain,
and if she comes there's risk again.
The slope is steep on Forest Hill,
even the very cleanest kill,
may fall two hundred feet below,
into bramble, blanketed in snow.
My own short breath and rheumy back,
confine me to the level track.

Although we brought home only two,
it did not seem to us too few.
We'd stolen yet another day,
that no one now could take away.
Contented by the warm fireside,
our love was not unmixed with pride.