Any kind of shooting requires the game or quarry to be collected quickly and efficiently to ensure the wounded animal is dispatched humanely, and to provide food for the table, which is, of course, the primary purpose of game shooting.
A good way to start at a shoot is to offer your services as a beater, if you don’t want to beat with your dog then leave it behind; a beater, even without a dog, is an asset to any shoot. You can then get to know the lay of the land and how the shoot works. You may be given a flag to start with but, be warned, you can cover a lot of ground as a beater!
The more helpful and friendly you are, the more likely you are to be asked back. If you finished picking up for your Gun, offer to help any of the other pickers up that are still looking. Always ask first, don’t just send your dog into someone else’s area! Learn how to tie up a brace of birds and hang them in the game cart, these are all small but important trades. If you are seen being useful you’re more likely to be asked back. Remember you may also have to dispatch birds wounded birds, so make sure you have learnt this skill before your first outing.
Expectations run high and it is easy to get upset and make yourself look and feel a bit out of place. On small shoots, the beaters’ dogs will often come charging through at the end of the drive and hoover up the birds. This can be frustrating when your dog has sat patiently waiting and marked down its retrieve and you’re ready to send it out at the end of a drive. It is all part of the day, so bite your lip and smile, and think how your dog’s steadiness will be improving. Be prepared to socialise at the end of the day. On many shoots everyone will eat together, but sometimes the beaters, pickers up and Guns are separated so don’t feel offended. However, at the end of the day a last drink in a pub or back at the shoot cabin is where you make friends and learn more about the sport.
When you take a young dog on a driven day for the first time, it is really important to be able to pick and choose your retrieves. You don’t want a young dog retrieving runner after runner, getting overly excited. Ideally, for the first few outings, your dog should be mainly observing behind the line. This means finding an experienced picker up who will let you tag along, perhaps selecting a couple of suitable blind retrieves (when a bird dropped into cover and wasn’t marked down by the dog or handler) for your dog. This type of experience is worth its weight in gold and if you don’t have friends or family in the trade, your best way of getting it is to hire the services of a professional trainer.
I’ve experienced picking up and beating on many different shoots, having the opportunity to follow in my mother’s footsteps. It is advisable to go along and talk to a shoot captain and discuss how you could proceed and they will put you in touch with an experienced picker up. Knowing how to handle and ensure basic control over your dog is essential, but be warned if you have spent a great deal of time teaching your dog long retrieves, you may be a little disappointed to find out that much of a picker up’s job is rather less glamourous and involves what is known as sweeping up. It means hunting an area of ground thoroughly, in order to ensure all the birds that have fallen are picked up and taken to the game cart. There are opportunities for those really pleasing retrieves and if you spend a whole season picking up, you will definitely have some brilliant retrieves to remember, but they are the silver lining that only tend to come about when others are not looking! I have been fortunate to have had such moments with my Lab Skyr and it’s a great feeling when you return to the same shoot the following season and the Guns remember how efficiently you and your dog work as a team.
On a driven pheasant shoot Guns are arranged in a line and birds are shot as they fly over. Many of these birds will fall behind the line, and this is where the pickers up and their dogs are waiting. Wounded birds are collected immediately – this is when you require a steady dog that can be worked while the Guns are still shooting. However, the majority of work is done at the end of the drive. The same rules apply to partridge or grouse shooting, though the terrain may be very different from the typical pheasant shoot.
Safety is paramount and something everyone on a shoot should be aware of. At the beginning of each shoot day the captain or landowner of the shoot will give a safety briefing. Make yourself aware of the basic dangers of a shoot, and make sure to read the safety guidelines, which can be found on the BASC website. Safety is a matter of common sense in that it is only logical not to stand in front of a Gun as some do shoot low. Also be aware of where you are standing behind them and always let them know where you are.