Rules of the shoot
1. Don’t shoot anything you can’t eat.
2. Don’t shoot my dog.
3. Try not to shoot each other.
First, a little explanation.
In rural Dorset, a “shoot” is an event which takes place when several local farmers and/or land-owners invite a number of “guns” (i.e. other farmers and landowners friends and family), to shoot on their land. The “guns” walk through woodland, moor, or fields and shoot the pheasant, pigeon, partridge, rabbits, and grey squirrels their dogs put up. This is generally known as a “rough shoot“.
There are also more formal shoots, put on by the large private estates, where the guns pay huge sums of money to be present, when hundreds, maybe even thousands, of pheasants are released daily. The guns wait in a line, at the edge of a field, and the birds are driven towards them, by the beaters. This is generally known as a “driven shoot“.
They are both “shoots”. It’s just that rough shoots are generally for sport and enjoyment. While driven shoots are, more often than not, for money.
Every Christmas, Edna and Harry hosted a Christmas “shoot” (a rough shoot), at the family home, Mannington Farm. As far as we know, similar shoots have been going on there at Christmas since the 1800s.
When I joined the shoot in 1966, it was quite a simple affair, just Harry and Me (and my dog Ruan). And, as you can see the rules were not complicated.
Then Bob from across the road, together with his dog, joined us, plus Alan, his neighbour, and then, the following year, Ian from the machine shop joined. Oh, and, the next year, we had Walt from the garage, and his two sons join us, and pretty soon just about all the guns in Mannington village were in our Christmas shoot.
12 guns one year, I remember.
As the years went by, it became a much bigger affair and more than a single farm shoot. Five or six of the local farmers who enjoyed their shooting would give Harry permission for us to hunt on their land, so we also included the land from their farms in the shoot.
I do not intend to convey any suggestion that I was in any way responsible for the growth of the shoot. As far as I can tell, it was just a natural progression of time, more people wanting to join in, and other similar shoots in the area coming together.
All put together, the combined land stretched over many thousands of hectares of the finest Dorset countryside you can imagine. This is the land, often-times snow-covered, that we would trudge — gun under arm, and dog just behind the right heel — for the next three, or four days, or more.
Some days we hung around a coppice with the dogs and the beaters trying to drive the birds towards us. As a result, we wouldn’t walk very far. But, on other days, we’d trudge through dozens of kale fields trying to put up a bird, march across wide open heathland looking for partridge, and push on through endless bog you wish you’d never jumped in. On these days, you would literally walk for miles in the morning, and then miles more in the afternoon.
By the time you got back, you probably thought a little pigeon shooting, with your back up against a tree, was an excellent way to end the day.
If you had a 12-bore, and maybe a gun dog, you couldn’t ask for a better Christmas than a three-day shoot at Mannington Farm. You were almost bound to return with two or three pheasants for the freezer. But that wasn’t always the most sought-after prize.
Pigeon Pie, it seems, was a big favourite. So each day would end with the shoot forming into several groups, each of which would quietly sneak into one of the woods or coppices on the surrounding farms, pressing their backs against the trees and waiting for the arrival of the roosting pigeons.
In the evening light you could just about make out the pigeon flock coming in to roost for the evening. Then the guns would open up, and the flock would rapidly redeploy to the next coppice or woodland, minus one or two of their number, where the exact same thing would happen again.
In the still of the winter’s night, you could hear this going on for miles around, as the pigeons flew from one group of trees to another, looking for somewhere safe to roost for the night. Eventually, either the pigeons flew off to some trees where we had no guns stationed, or it got too dark to shoot them. Either way, that was the end of that day’s shoot.
From the ladies’ point of view…
For the ladies, hosting a shoot every Christmas must have been awful.
Every year the same. The men (and dogs) were out of the house and “gone shooting” by 9 am, so no two hour present unwrapping and bacon sandwiches on Christmas morning.
Two minutes, more-like.
Then the wives had to magic-up a full Christmas dinner by 1 pm when the men returned, which was then bolted down in order to allow for a ten-minute nap before the afternoon shoot, which started at 2 pm sharp.
Finally, just after dusk, the men and dogs arrived back home, tired and dirty, just in time for a wee nap, in front of the Christmas evening TV, until it was time to go to bed.
Wash. Rinse. Repeat.
I’m quite ashamed to say that I had never actually given it much thought from the ladies’ perspective, until recently, when Shirley pointed it out to me. I always assumed they did all that for their men every Christmas because it was a country tradition, and they knew how much the men and the dogs loved the shoot.
I can see now, how that was rather selfish of me. A typical man’s point of view.