Your actual time on the peg; pulling the trigger, is, in fact, but a small part of the overall day. While it is the sport that brings people together, for many, it is the enjoyment of spending a day out in the great British countryside with like-minded people that brings the real enjoyment. The camaraderie between the guns, beaters, pickers-up and gamekeepers is second to none.
Nowhere else will you find a billionaire businessman and a local farmer spending the day in each other’s company, brought together by their mutual appreciation of their sport. For many people in rural and isolated parts of the UK, it is a hugely important time in the social calendar and it brings together people who often work alone in their day-to-day lives.
It is, undoubtedly, the most social form of hunting available. Throughout the day, an exchange of friendly insults flow. You will do well to escape some form of well-meaning abuse. Missing an easy pheasant, forgetting your wellies or getting your nice new 4x4 stuck will be hard to live down for quite some time − and rightly so!
Competition between guns is sky-high. Nobody wants to be the worst shot in the team; especially as, on most drives, you are in sight of one another and can clearly see the birds your friends hit or, more importantly, miss. Cartridge and choke selection is a dark art, well-studied in advance. The highly-coveted ‘bird of the day’ is the accolade with which everyone wants to leave.
Besides safety, which is of paramount importance, there are some unwritten rules to which guests must adhere. Answering your phone on a drive is a massive ‘no-no’ and will be met with the imposition of a fine, deemed appropriate by your fellow guns, usually alcohol-related and dispensed in the evening. You are on a day out with friends, and, for today, problems at the office are not your concern.
At the start of the day, a sweepstake is taken for the number of shots fired and the number of birds picked. This is done with great intrigue and secrecy. No peering at the previous guess, not when a sizeable jackpot is at stake. Equally exciting, is the draw for pegs. Who will be your neighbours for the day? Can you land a bird at their feet? Will you be in the hot-spot for the best drive of the day? It is total pot-luck where you end up, of course, but it certainly amplifies the competitiveness between guns.
Some shoots release white pheasants, traditionally used as a marker bird by the gamekeeper, to keep an eye on where his birds are wandering. Should you be on a drive and one such bird decides to fly over your head and you shoot it, your fellow guests each have to pay £10. If you shoot at it and miss, you will have to pay a £50 fine. If, however, it flies directly over your head, in clear view of everyone, and you refuse to raise your gun to it (provided it is safe) you will have to pay £100 for being a bad sport! All fines are done in jest and all money goes to the shoot’s charity of choice – perhaps Air Ambulance or the Game Conservancy Trust.
The hospitality, for many, ranks as equally important alongside the quality of the shooting. Fine cuisine, normally reserved for dining in the city, is now commonplace on the bigger estates. A full English breakfast settles the nerves for the first two drives, followed by a light ‘elevenses’ and a glass of champagne, to either congratulate or commiserate, depending on how well you have shot.
One more drive follows, before a fantastic lunch with one, or maybe, two more drives to finish. Following the formalities of the day, it is back to the lodge, or one of the many shooting pubs or hotels who expertly cater for their sporting guests, for a slap-up meal, a toast to the shot game and the continued trading of friendly insults and banter late into the night.
Britain’s stunning country estates, which have been designed and manicured carefully over the centuries to create ideal sporting landscapes and habitat, span the length and breadth of the country.
Our time-honoured traditions and particular sporting etiquette are unique and by no means exclusive to the ranks of the landed gentry, from where they emerged. The experiences, the memories and the friendships that our sport creates, are what keep us coming back, season after season.