As we fast approach the end of yet another shooting season and,once again, the fields and woods will fall silent until it all starts again in the autumn it occurred to me just how much things have changed in the shooting world.
Today many shoots are run on a business basis which means the guns pay to shoot and the payment is calculated by the bird shot. So, what this means is, for example, if a group of guns buy a two hundred bird day it will cost £8,000 based upon a figure of £40 per bird. On average there are ten guns so the day costs each of them £800. Well, actually, it works out at a bit more than that as it is the custom to tip the gamekeeper at the end of the day and I am reliably informed that the expected tip from each gun is £50. Apart from the day's sport each gun has his gun cleaned at the end of the day and takes home a brace of pheasants, two birds. That, for the most part, is how things are done in the modern shooting field. When one considers that some shoots are shooting six days a week one begins to get an idea of the scale of the business. Not only is it a huge part of the rural economy but shooting produces sales in terms of clothing, ammunition, hospitality and so on. But most of all it produces huge numbers of pheasants and, to a lesser degree, partridges and duck.
To go back to a former age most shoots were conducted by landowners for the benefit of themselves and their friends, numbers of birds were not the main consideration as profit was not the aim, quite simply sport was the most important element. Good high and testing birds were the order of the day, numbers would then have been considered to be of less importance and for a gentleman to complain about the number of birds would have been considered wholly inappropriate, just not the done thing.
Of course it is also the case that the people who shoot, and can afford to do so, have also changed. Once the members of a shooting party would, almost exclusively, have been members of the landed gentry, nobility and generally the great and the good. Today the mix is far more diverse. Yes, there are still a fair sprinkling of the above groups to be found but also lots of small business men, pop stars, film stars,bankers, hedge fund managers, builders and all manner of other people. Some of the behaviour one sees in the modern shooting party would not have been seen, let alone tolerated, in earlier times. Of course, as might be expected many of the people from these groups are not country people but come from the towns and cities to shoot. Good manners were always expected of the guns and it was the norm for the guns to express their thanks to the beaters at the end of each day. They always said good morning and expressed their delight when things went well. Sadly, that is no longer the norm, many modern guns will walk past the beating line as though the beaters were not there and not a word is exchanged. In fact, I heard, only the other day of a shoot somewhere in mid Dorset where, so called, pop and film stars shoot, where the gamekeeper tells the beaters that they are not to engage in conversation with the guns, they are not to look at the guns and generally must be seen and not heard.
Frankly, I don't understand why anyone would bother to go there. If I were confronted with such a situation I would tell the keeper in no uncertain terms that I was at the wrong place and the guns could go beat for themselves. Fortunately, this behaviour is the exception and not the rule. But, in general terms, "old money" is much more user friendly having been brought up in a manner which respects tradition and is fully conversant with good manners and etiquette.
Undoubtedly, alcohol and drinking have always had a place in the shooting field. It is traditional to have a nip of something before the day begins, usually sloe gin. It is also perfectly normal for members of the shoot to carry a hip flask in order to have the odd swig during the day, especially in cold weather. Also the odd port or glass of wine at lunch has always been acceptable and added to the delight of the day.Unfortunately many modern guns seem to have the idea that a key component of the day is to get … well, ratted, to use a modern term. I strongly believe guns and booze do not mix and it is high time keepers started sending people home when they have gone over the top with drink. If they want to have a drinking session that should be done at the end of the day and not at lunch time. However, all is not lost, I notice increasingly that shoots are beginning to "shoot through", what this means is they don't stop for lunch. They do all of the shooting for the day and lunch at the end. A much better idea as, quite apart from the drinking aspect, it also means the beaters get home earlier as they are not sitting around for nearly a couple of hours whilst the group of guns enjoy a longish lunch.
Long may the shooting traditions continue but, if they are to some taking stock will have to occur and good behaviour and good manners will have to be at the heart of any such considerations.