Will Pocklington reflects fondly on a youth spent lending a hand on his local shoot, and highlights the contribution of the thousands of others who readily give their time to shoots across the country.
Three bulging sacks of wheat was about as much as I could balance in Mum’s garden ‘barrow as I wheeled it the half-mile through the village and up the chalk track towards the big wood.
I must have been 14 or so at the time and loved nothing more than tootling down to the farm, filling those bags and hand-feeding the thick hedgerows we’d walk up with a flag and a muddle of dogs come the shooting season. I felt like I was doing some good.
The same hedgerows provided a handy backdrop for a hide on numerous decoying missions. Looking back at the scribbles in a half-kept shooting diary, it seems we did a bit of good on that front, too: “12 egg-thieving carrion crows shot. Farmer, pheasants and finches will be happy,” reads one entry.
From a young age, it became clear to me that a task needn’t involve money for it to be rewarding. Helping out on the local farm shoot was a joy – and, ever since then, I’ve considered myself very lucky to be able to help out on others close to home in my spare time.
Of course, I’m far from alone: the truth is there are tens of thousands of people – of all ages and persuasions and from a range of backgrounds – that feel similarly and get stuck in where they can on shoots across the UK, simply because they love doing so. I’d go as far as saying few volunteers, regardless of the cause, gain more satisfaction than those who gather at the keeper’s house on a Saturday morning to lend him or her a hand.
The jobs themselves might not always be the most riveting – in fact sometimes they’re tough going – but when payment takes the shape of fresh air, exercise and a rare sense of community, it’s worth it.
You could argue we’re an oft-overlooked army of part-time land managers and conservationists and I don’t think you’d be wrong.
Without volunteers, shoots would struggle and the sport wouldn’t be what it is. Besides, in how many other sectors would you find a barrister, a shop assistant, a brickie and a banker, shoulder to shoulder, chipping in and roughing up the calluses on their hands? We build things together, work as a team, swap recipes and stories. It’s good for us.
Importantly, though, it’s not just us ‘volunteers’ that benefit. The pen repairs, bitting, catching up and dogging-in may be a great help to the keeper, but what of the coppicing, the duck nest tube building, the pest control, the litter picks, the charity clay shoots… (the list goes on)?
Our countryside, its wildlife and the landscapes so many others enjoy in their spare time are the real winners.
Gaining the gamekeeper’s trust
Most keepers will be all too grateful for an extra pair of hands at busy times, like when birds are being taken from the rearing field to release pens, but without his or her trust you’re unlikely to become a regular part of the team.
You might have a mutual friend or know someone already helping on the local shoot who can introduce you. Alternatively, a phone call or knock on the door at a reasonable time to explain that you’re keen to help, might be all it takes.
Local pubs, gun shops and game dealers are often good places to enquire about shoots in the area – and don’t forget your local BASC office. You could leave your name and number with them and ask if they can kindly pass it on.
Beating as a point of entry
Shoots will often find themselves short of beaters at some point in the season. Being part of the beating line gives you a chance to become familiar with the shoot and the other people involved. It’s also a chance to demonstrate that you’re capable of following simple instructions and not afraid to get stuck in.
Bear in mind the keeper will likely be busy and under a bit of pressure, though – pick your moments to have a word with him/her.
Taking the rough with the smooth
Not all jobs that volunteers might help with on a shoot are pleasant and rosy – it’s all about taking the rough with the smooth. Don’t expect a few days in the beating line to qualify you for regular shooting permission or invites from the keeper. These things take time and are often hard earned or not even on the cards.
Let’s face it, if you’re not going to enjoy yourself, what’s the point? Nobody wants a miserable or awkward person on the team; everyone else is there to enjoy themselves and get a job done in good company.