Learn Field Craft, Be Crafty!
Field craft applies to skills concerned with living, travelling, survival and observation in the outdoors including hunting. Good field craft in game shooting will improve the likelihood of connecting with your quarry. Well-practised gun handling and shooting skills are a significant part of it; but so is being prepared and observant and having awareness and understanding of your environment and what you are trying to achieve. All this will ensure you are a more successful shot.
Appropriate dress means you will be suitably protected against the elements. Importantly though, you need clothing that allows you to move and mount the gun easily whilst keeping as dry as possible on a wet day, or warm on a cold day!
Appropriate footwear, designed for muddy terrain rather than fashion, is essential. You need proper grippy treads on your boots to keep you upright when standing on a hill or on wet leaf litter on a slope in a wood when you’re snap shooting. It’s too easy to slip over in those circumstances. “Live guns” and “off balance” do not mix well!
Appropriate equipment is also necessary. Your gun should be suitable not just for game shooting but for you as well; it needs to fit you and be a weapon that you can handle and control. Your cartridge and choke combination need thought to give you the best kills according to what you are shooting and where. And of course, make sure you have sufficient cartridges for the day. Other bits of equipment are down to your personal preference to make you comfortable.
Finally, practice your driven targets before going out on game. This gives you the opportunity to work on your gun mount, footwork and balance as well as your focus on the target, and how you use your body to keep the line or acquire gun speed.
Always be safe to the exclusion of everything else! Make a note of the people around you; neighbouring guns; picker’s up, beaters; flankers and avoid lifting your gun in their direction. Be aware of your surroundings and where the birds are coming from and going to. Take note of landscape features, ponds, streams, ditches, power lines and footpaths. Work out your safe “window of opportunity” for shooting, particularly if you’re in a wood or you’re looking into the sun? Always shoot up into the sky.
If you’re on heavy clay like we have here in Northamptonshire it can be hard to move your feet at all sometimes with big lumps of clay attached to your boots! This may curtail your shooting making certain shots off limits.
Know Your Environment!
Once on your peg find a suitable spot to stand where you have a solid base, feel balanced and stable, and you can also see and shoot safely. If you’re an end peg, you are generally free to roam in that “end space” as you see fit and according to where the beaters are and the birds! Understand how the drive works; ask your host before the start of the drive and they will happily explain.
Make a note where the wind is coming from and how it will affect the birds. Learn to “read” the wind to help you judge the speed of the birds and their flight path; be ready to put your footwork to good use.
Note landmarks behind and to the sides for marking birds. It’s easy to see a bird appear dead in the sky but not follow it to its final resting place; you need to know where to go to pick it at the end of the drive.
Selecting your bird and keeping your eyes very firmly fixed on it is crucial to your success. Don’t get distracted until it is shot. This is easier said than done, especially when presented with a covey of partridges that appear from nowhere! But it comes with practice.
Know your Quarry!
This is not just knowing what you are allowed to shoot on any particular day but being able to identify it in the air. It’s embarrassing to shoot the wrong thing not to mention the relentless ribbing you’ll get from your fellow guns! It might also cost you a few quid for a fine, and worst case, it could be illegal! Learn what other birds look like in flight that you might also see, so you can avoid them! All sorts of species can appear out of a drive, from owls, sparrow hawks and guinea fowl to buzzards and blackbirds.
It’s of benefit to understand how game birds fly; pheasants tend to fly in a straight line at bout 35 – 40 mph. Partridges are slower, 30 mph, and often lower than pheasants, but can appear very quickly as they can be harder to spot and also appear to be very quick because they are smaller and beat their wings very quickly; frequently they are in large coveys if Red-legs, and smaller coveys for Greys. Woodcock tend to jinx around changing direction. Pigeons are fast and change direction in a flash. Grouse are very fast and hug the ground, sweeping and twisting. And they all do something different in the wind! If you’re shooting pheasants and partridges together you need to adjust your shooting from one to the other.
Know Your Limits!
Be aware of your own shooting limits in terms of height and your preferred angles so your birds are killed outright. Good technique, including foot work and a gun mount are key. Practice on driven clays and have lessons so you know what you are doing. Hold your gun in a resting position that allows you to mount quickly and accurately. Don’t rush a shot just because there is a bird above you and you’ve managed to stuff a cartridge in to your gun quickly; there will be another one along soon; only shoot when you are ready and can make a good job of it rather than off balance and out of proper control. I personally feel it’s not great sport to shoot a bird from behind; at that point, it’s gone for another day.
So much of shooting is about awareness; observe and know what is going on around you. Be familiar with and adhere to the Code of Good Shooting Practice. The better prepared you are in all respects, and the more aware you are, the greater number of opportunities you will have and the more success you will have.
Have you ever come across “bird magnets” on a game shoot? The ones that always seem to be in the right place at the right time? Every drive they appear to have been in the action and come back laden with birds even when on peg 1 or 9! They didn’t really have more birds over them than the rest of the team, but they have awareness and good field craft skills so are able to make the most of their opportunities.
Have appreciation of what you’re doing and why. It’s not all about numbers and how many you shoot. Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should; be selective and take pleasure in good execution of each shot, don’t just blast away without thought or discipline.
Have respect and appreciation for the people that make the day possible, the keeper, the beaters and pickers up and the caterers and your host. Have appreciation for your quarry too and make sure you take some birds home for the pot. If we eat what we shoot we can appreciate more our field craft skills that have helped us to hunt.