By Peter Schechter
If you are experienced in big game hunting and driven bird shoots in the British Isles, skip this article – you won’t learn a thing, and you’ll probably laugh at my naiveté. On the other hand, if you are like me – a somewhat experienced American hunter who’s done little or no hunting of any kind outside of the US – read on.
My recent hunts in England, first for fallow deer and then for upland birds, shattered many of my foolish misconceptions about hunting, the shooting sports, and gun ownership and use in England. And wow, did I have a ton of fun proving myself wrong.
For most of my adult gun-cognizant life, I believed that guns were essentially banned in England, which turns out to be only partly true. One of my favorite hobbies, rebuilding fully functioning British and Australian L1A1 SLR battle rifles, is definitely not allowed. The UK and European Union rules specifying the truly extreme measures that must be taken to decommission military semi-automatic weapons would make any American gun enthusiast’s head spin. They make mine hurt. IDPA, SCSA, USPSA, 3-Gun, or any of most of the shooting sports many of us take for granted here are basically impossible there.
This mistaken belief of mine seemed supported by my understanding of what happened in England some years ago after a horrific school shooting in Scotland. Handguns were effectively banned in 1997; there’s no Second Amendment in the UK. No ordinary British citizens are lawfully carrying a concealed GLOCK 19 for self-defense around Covent Garden or Westminster, in London, or anywhere else. Even the police in London only recently started toting firearms in response to modern threats in the modern world.
Recently, though, I was invited by John Dean, a UK patent attorney and colleague of mine, a true gentleman and scholar, and a country farmer to boot, to join him and a client of his for an afternoon sitting high up in a stand overlooking some Sussex woods that are definitely populated by too many smart deer.
Soon thereafter, John and his daughter Maisie invited me and my British partner Rose (known jokingly as “Milady”) to John’s inaugural “clients, colleagues, and friends” bird shoot. Both events were real eye-openers. The deer hunt story will be told another day, but here’s how the JDIP (John Dean Intellectual Property, his firm) Shoot unfolded.
We were guests of Mike and Antonia Appleby, well-known gamekeepers, owners, and operators of Honeycombe Shoot, on the roughly 4,000-acre Sherborne Castle Estate, near the picture-postcard pretty town Sherborne, Dorset, in southwest England.
Lots of places throughout Great Britain are mind-bogglingly gorgeous, and Sherborne and the surrounding English countryside are no exception. We arrived the night before the shoot and stayed in the first-rate Eastbury Hotel in town. After enjoying an exceptional meal, it was time to retire and get a good night’s rest under our thick down comforter as we expected to be outside all of the next day on a potentially cold and rainy day.
To our delight, however, we awoke the morning of the shoot to a clear sky, frost on the grass, and our car encased in ice. After a few minutes in the bright sun with the car’s defroster set on high blast, we were on our way to Keeper’s Cottage in Honeycombe Wood.
The Applebys have been running Honeycombe Shoot as their own business for about a dozen years, and they’ve been there for nearly 20 seasons. They know everything there is to know about the property and the animals that live there, whether raised and planted, or wild. Honeycombe Shoot has a hard-earned and well-deserved excellent reputation as being a classic Dorset shoot under their careful tending and management.
We soon arrived at the “gun room,” the starting and ending place of our Shoot. Surrounded by walls covered with maps, photos, and—of course—mounts of harvested Fallow, Roe, and Sika deer, some small game, and the various birds we’d be seeing later, we enjoyed a round of piping-hot tea and coffee, and some tasty pastries. Introductions and talk of past shoots and other hunts, and of the business of the day, and no small measure of laughter, filled the room.
Our group consisted Mike and Antonia and a few of their staff (and some of their dogs), ten shooters (called the “guns”), several “loaders” (essentially personal guides for the less experienced guns, like me), and four “beaters” (the people driving the birds out of the brush, cut crops, and tree lines).
The guns weren’t nobility, dukes or duchesses, but instead were ordinary people, some retired, some with jobs, some business owners. Regular folks throughout England, it turns out, still enjoy shotgunning, and those who grew up in rural villages and small towns grew up shooting guns, often for meat to feed the family. “Country sports” include the shooting sports in the UK, just like here in the USA.
Our group also included hard-working, well-trained retrievers, spaniels for flushing birds, and a beautiful pointer trained to point only at partridge and no other birds.
When I was invited to the shoot, I was a bit worried at first about making a fool of myself in a crowd of experienced countryside shooters. Among other mysteries, I had no idea what to wear, even asking my colleague John whether I should wear camo. Thankfully, John didn’t rescind my invitation on the spot. He simply sent me this picture of himself clad in traditional shooting attire from a past shoot and said, “dress like me” …
And so I did …
Some people wore gaiters over boots, but most wore Wellies (traditional rubber boots best suited for traipsing through muddy fields). My Downton Abbey get-up got big laughs from most of my friends back in The States, but hey, I make these duds look good!
By the way, you can spend anywhere from about $400 for this whole special-purpose set of tweeds (including “plus fours,” a shooting waistcoat, the shooting jacket, sock garters, a tie with—what else—pheasants on it, etc.) or $4000 (or more) depending on your budget. I stuck to the low end of the price range, but the clothing turns out to be particularly well-suited to the late fall and winter weather in England. And regularly wearing at least some of it seems to be in the cards.
Imagine my delight upon being introduced to Duncan Kay, my loader, an APSI-certified instructor at Lady’s Wood Shooting School located in Gloucestershire. Duncan not only stood by my side (or behind me) and explained what was going to happen during each of the four styles of shooting we would do that day, getting me on the birds in no time flat with one simple bit of shooting advice, but he actually pulled the spent shells and quickly reloaded my shotgun with fresh shells each time I broke it open.
He also provided my gun for the day, a 12 gauge Beretta SV10 Perennia over/under. Having a loader allows for some pretty quick follow-up shots even with an O/U.
While firearms are practically unheard of in UK cities, in the countryside all throughout England, Scotland, and Wales, shotguns and wing-shooting are fairly common. (Ireland and Northern Ireland are a different matter, I’m told, for reasons that should be obvious.)
Actually, I already knew this, in truth, as it’s the rare walk in the English woods, hills, dales, pastures, and farmlands during which we don’t hear shotguns at least once. Even rifles and rifle hunting, while relatively more uncommon, aren’t unheard of.
Firearms are very tightly restricted and regulated in the UK, to be sure, especially in comparison to even some of the most restrictive places in the United States. Still, getting a “shotgun certificate” is, like most other things in life, just a matter of careful observance of the rules and perseverance (and a squeaky clean record).
No such certificate can be obtained before all of the background checks one would expect are conducted, but also not before the local police department certifies (after inspection) that the gun will be stored in accordance with detailed regulations specifying the how’s and where’s, etc.
An approved home gun safe “permanently” attached to the structure will suffice, contrary to my previously ignorant belief that shotguns had to be stored at a gun club (with all of the potentially very high costs associated with belonging to a gun club in England). It’s also possible for a foreigner to visit England with his own shotgun — again with a lot of planning in advance — though it hardly seems worth the effort if a gun can be borrowed (possession by borrowing is also strictly regulated, by the way). Nonetheless, it’s possible to own, possess, and shoot a shotgun in England, and someday I hope to do just that.
One other matter of “courtesy” and “good manners” should be mentioned. It’s considered at least bad form to shoot anything—even an air gun—in the UK without carrying shooter’s insurance. After much investigation, I concluded that no such insurance is available in the United States for shooting in England. So, on my pal John’s recommendation, I contacted and then became an annual dues-paying member of BASC, that is, the British Association for Shooting and Conservation.
With membership at very modest cost you get the following insurance coverage: £50K personal accident, £250K legal expenses for firearms appeal, £10 million public liability, £10 million products liability, and £10 million employers liability. You also get all of the other great stuff that comes with membership. Not a bad deal, and would someone please explain to me why don’t we have anything like this in the US?
The Applebys were friendly and welcoming at every step of the way, giving us clear explanations of what we were about to do throughout the day. Lots of people who’ve been to Honeycombe Shoot have described it as a relaxed and relaxing day. It was certainly every bit of that, but only due to the care, professionalism, experience, and outstanding surroundings provided by the gamekeepers. Did I mention that the beautiful woods and fields were full of pheasant, partridge, and even ducks?
Getting back to business, when it was time to get out of the gun room, we piled shoulder-to-shoulder into the “gun trailer” pulled behind the Applebys’ truck:
At the first stop, Mike and Antonia carefully positioned the guns (with loaders) and the beaters completely encircling a hilltop that had lost all of its tall trees in a severe storm several years back, creating perfect thick low brush for bird cover.
A bit to my shock and horror at first, every gun was actually going to shoot in the direction of another gun on the other side of the hilltop! The instructions were clear as glass, however: no low angle shooting allowed. No bird could be shot until it was at least 15 feet into the air.
In the event I were to forget that crucial rule, or misjudge the height of a flushed bird, Duncan was right there to remind me. Fortunately, I was able to successfully manage those judgment calls on my own.
Antonia blew her whistle and everyone took one or two steps forward, the guns keeping in line with the beaters. Almost immediately a French partridge was flushed no more than 7 or 8 paces in front of me. As it rose over my head toward the edge of the hilltop clearing behind me, I put the bead of my Beretta SV10 suitably ahead of the bird, pulled the trigger, and the very first bird of the shoot tumbled to the ground.
After smiles and congratulations all around, the pressure was off — apparently I would not embarrass myself that day. I could have stopped right then with my 100% success rate, but what fun would that have been?
After each gun had advanced no more than 20 or 25 paces, this “walk-up” session was finished and the retrievers set about the job of finding and bringing in all of the downed partridges and pheasants to the gamekeepers and their staff. The guns had done well.
We got back into the gun trailer for a short ride to the next stop, where we would shoot in the traditional “guns on pegs” style, more or less. Guns were positioned at appropriate distances from each other along both sides of a tree line separating two large fields of post-harvest stubble. Starting far down the line, the beaters and spaniels pushed pheasant out of the underbrush towards us, with the guns taking appropriate shots depending on where along the tree line the birds flew out.
Again, no low angle shots were allowed as there were guns on both sides of the tree line; Maisie Dean, on the other side of the trees from me, was actually close enough for conversation, despite the theoretical possibility of us shooting in each other’s direction.
We all did well here again, and I was very pleased with my shots taken at the opportunities presented to me. Most satisfying was professional shooting instructor Duncan Kay telling me that I needed no real instruction from him that day, either in shooting technique or the rules of safe shooting and the judgment calls required by those rules.
I’m proud to say that not once all day did I take a shot that I shouldn’t have taken. Low-angle shots were passed on except when specifically allowed while walking across the field during our next session. Shots outside the safe boundaries of my assigned peg or position weren’t taken. I was glad to see flushed birds fly by me unmolested unless they presented good and safe shots.
Next on tap was our lunch break, taken in a field with cattle grazing not very far away. After cheese and crackers, hot sausages with mustard, and some sweet desserts, all washed down with a glass of bubbly pink refreshment, we were back at it.
We were taken to a field of standing kale, the end-of-season growth ranging from ankle-high to waist high plants. Our hosts put everyone in a straight line at one edge of the field, and we were going to march—very slowly—across it, watching the pointer find the hiding partridge.
Everyone who’s ever watched a good pointer working a field knows how amazing it is to watch the dog go nose-to-nose with the bird, the dog slowly circling the bird on command to try to force it to flush in the direction away from the guns. Watching exceptionally well-trained gun dogs strut their stuff doesn’t get old.
This time, with no one in front of the line of guns, we were allowed to take low angle shots as well as high, and also to turn completely around and shoot behind the line at any birds that flew back at and over us.
Suddenly, while we were shooting both partridge and pheasant being flushed from this field, mallards from a nearby pond started flying into the kale field from all directions. That wasn’t their best decision of the day.
All guns turned their attention to the sky overhead for some fast and furious duck shooting. In just a few minutes, the ducks disappeared just as suddenly as they had appeared, but by that time 21 high-flying mallards were already on the ground.
We finished the walk across the kale field and most of us thought the shooting day was done, but the Applebys had one more session in mind for us.
We were lined us up along a forest road for a “mini-drive,” and the beaters pushed a few birds out of the woods and across the road. I was on the peg at the extreme left end of the line, and got no opportunities to pull the trigger, except to shoot at the only woodcock seen that day. In the split-second instant before my shot, though, the bird was shot by the gun to my right; all I did was change its trajectory to the ground. That was his first-ever woodcock, and in accordance with tradition, the bird’s two tiny pin feathers were carefully removed and given to him as a memento.
After a few more birds were taken, our shoot was done and we were in the gun trailer on our way back to the gun room to warm up with some magic potion flowing from someone’s hip flask, break down and stow the gear, and take stock of the excellent day’s shooting.
Our scorecard looked like this:
We were told that shooting efficiency ranges from under 10% for average groups of guns to more than 50% for groups of expert wingshooters. Our success rate of 26% was considered great by everyone, including our hosts.
My personal tally was 5 pheasant, 3 French partridge, and 2 mallards. All of the birds harvested on our shoot would be taken by the Applebys to a licensed game processor to be properly prepared for the commercial market. Dressed birds, as well as fresh sausage from pigs raised on the Sherborne Castle Estate, were available for purchase, but we weren’t traveling directly home, so we didn’t load up with fresh game or delicious pork sausage this time.
Most of our group headed back into Sherborne for after-shoot “frosty” beverages at The Digby Tap, a small pub with an inviting fire going in the fireplace.
After everyone had their fill of real ale (which is always served at less than true “frosty” temperature), some walked over to the rail station to catch a train, some were driven back home by their designated drivers, and Milady and I walked back to the Eastbury Hotel for another wonderful dinner, after which we practically collapsed into bed for a solidly-earned good night’s sleep before our drive home the next morning, after enjoying another “full English” breakfast.
Being so organized and orderly, and the Applebys so attentive to every detail, it was difficult for our day at Honeycombe Shoot to be anything other than immensely fun and completely relaxing. The scenery is stunning. The birds are plentiful. The gamekeepers are skillful and appreciative and friendly and patient.
All in all, it costs no more than any other day of guided hunting, even less than a lot of such days. Though, on this day, on this shoot, the real star of the day was my colleague John Dean and his daughter Maisie, our hosts, to whom, again, I extend my sincerest thanks for a fabulous time and another great new shooting experience.