The joy of the small farm shoot in January
The small farm shoot is one of those little hidden gems in the shooting world. A small group of friends with a rather casual beating line with banter being more important than the bag. Each year, a close friend invited me down to his Somerset farm to join their family and friends day. I’ve known the family since school and they sold me my first working dog. A few generations of dogs later and the format is the same. A pair of walking guns with the beaters, 6 guns on the peg and a group rough shoot over a large pond to finish the day.
For this small farm shoot, those in attendance have all worked on the farm or lived adjacent for some time. One of the Beaters had done 25 years of hauling and retired a decade ago but still gets his invite each year. The guns are a mix of farmers, tenants on the land and local suppliers. For the most part, their family makes up the beating team with guns swapping out to experience the day. The first drive takes place just behind the house as cover crop flanks a river at the bottom of a bank. 6 beaters and what seems like an endless supply of dogs fill the cover and make steady progress towards the guns.
The process is incredibly informal but everyone understands their role. Keep the dogs close, keep quiet and work together. The next couple of drives are fairly similar with beaters breaking into pairs to push birds down different hedgerows to a mutual flushing point. There are no proper pegs set as the beating lines are incredibly long and the birds are rather wild. Peg spacing on average is close to 50 yards with guns given carte blanche on whether they need to move or not.
Small bag vs Big bag
We’ve had the great fortune to shoot a number of larger bag days. However, I personally don’t think these days were exponentially more enjoyable than this small bag shoot. While the big days provide ample shooting allowing you to be picky on birds and test your skill at birds at your limit, the opposite is true here. You have to be on your toes here as up unto this point the birds have never been shot at but have been given free rein over the farm. This farm is just over 600 acres and rarely do they have a predetermined place in mind. Unlike a large commercial shoot, the birds here are headed in multiple directions.
These two types of days are enjoyable for different reasons. A large day often comes with decadent food and the guarantee of lots of birds. The small farm shoot offers hard work with the chance to shoot a handful of birds. While this high effort, modest outcome approach might not suit many it’s nice to feel like you’ve earned it. Equally, there’s little room for a peg dog on these kinds of days as beaters will be picking up and the guns are expected to sweep up what’s around them.
Neither is right or wrong they are just very different. I enjoy both for different reasons as they bring out different sides of driven game shooting. The bigger days allow you to be picky on your bird choice and test your metal. The smaller days may only see you shoot 5-10 birds so you don’t always have a huge choice. However, for many of us, a days shooting isn’t about the birds. It’s an opportunity to work your dog, catch up with friends and take home some birds.
Protecting the habitat
One of the biggest features of this small farm shoot is an area called the brickyard. This area is too wet to farm with a number of ponds as a runoff point for the clay loaded field. This pond has been extended and loaded with carp and is now a lovely little fishing pond. However, each year migratory geese and duck fill up these ponds creating an issue of safety for both fish and the fishermen. As such, the last drive of the day is around these ponds and clay loaded fields. The guns drive round to the back while beaters prepare to walk up to the pond.
At this point, some of the beaters will grab a gun and a pocket of steel cartridges before they start. The beater with the most dogs will get in a rowboat while the rest walk the banks. The small ducks get off first with a mix of teal and mallards. Caution has to be applied with a healthy population of mandarin ducks living here too. The aim here is to target the Canadian geese as they get particularly territorial when the fishing is the busiest. They also make the most mess and their nitrates in the pond can reach critical levels for the fish.
It’s moments like this where you see the middle of the Venn Diagram between shooting and conservation. Last year when shooting was limited the algae and geese were overwhelming these ponds. The fish and animals also using the ponds suffered so reducing their numbers have been an important part of this year’s plan. Today, three geese were taken off the pond amongst a number of mallard duck.
Making sure game meat enters the food chain has always been a driving factor for shooting. Whatever isn’t taken by the guns should then go to a game dealer to be moved into the food chain. In the past, the volume of birds going to game dealers was relatively slim but with larger bags, they’re taking in more and more. Many shoots are now packaging their birds in an effort to get guns to take and eat their quarry. We firmly believe that if you’re willing to shoot a bird you should be willing to eat it. Not only is it responsible but game meat is one of the healthiest meat options you could ever eat.
The opposite seems to be true at these small shoots. Between the beaters and the guns, there was one Canadian goose and a brace of teal left. The bag of 87 was shared amongst 20 people resulting in almost no food waste. The three birds that were left then went to a bird sanctuary as the birds shot with steel can be used as food. I’d like to think the birds were left only due to the size of the goose and the lack of familiarity around cooking teal. No one was looking for a pre prepared pack with many looking for feathers ready for their fly fishing gear.
The joy of a small shoot is that camaraderie comes before the bag. You’ll find some of the best working dogs outside of a trialling field. Equally, you’ll find some fantastic shots who see it as a lifestyle rather than a sport while taking 80-yard birds with ease. Some of the characters understand both sides of the coin while others are in one camp or the other. The big commercial shoots all work to put on a perfect day with very few blemishes to be seen. This will then be followed by an almost invisible beating and picking up team. On these days it’s often difficult to know how many people are operating behind the scene. You’ll get plenty of birds and a refined experience
Both styles have their merits. Any problems on a commercial shoot are often quickly rectified. Forget a gun or cartridges on a farm shoot and you’ll likely be given a beating flag. If you want to shoot the best birds and have the perfect experience then a commercial shoot is perfect for that. If you want to work hard with your dog but with no promise of a solid bag then a farm shoot is the place to go.
The joy of the small farm shoot is that everything’s a little more casual. The only money that exchange hands is from the guns to the beaters. Here you’ll be free to work your dog as long as it doesn’t spoil the drive, waterproofs likely trump breeks and be ready to work for your shots. Considering this environment is where I cut my teeth, I have huge respect and affinity with small farm shoots. Coming back each year to see old friends and new faces really is what the sports is all about. Young dogs learn from older dogs, young shots learn from experienced ones and everyone leaves with some birds. People leave steadily looking forward to the next time we all meet again which is likely the beaters day towards the end of the month.