A classroom like no other

Next generation
(Photograph: Shaun Stoker)

There’s a lot more to building a young Gun than the gun, says Peter Ryan as he considers the many qualities that fieldsports instil in young people.

At some point in their lives most hunters get ‘the look’. You may even remember giving it yourself as a youngster. It means, in the most obvious way possible, ‘please, please take me with you.’  You’d have to be a hard case to ignore it. 

The first port of call for a budding hunter is always equipment. Magazines and catalogues are relentlessly pored over, dream guns become the centre of a thousand fond imaginings. I know this to be true because I was once that boy (and according to my wife and bank manager, I still am). Humans are toolmakers, equipment is the first thing our minds jump to, but the reality is that if the wallet is up to it you can sort out a good rifle or shotgun in an afternoon. And looking back on my instructing days it isn’t that hard for a keen pupil to become a basic Shot in half a dozen lessons. That applies in particular to women, who are often good listeners, or to put it another way, don’t listen as badly as some men. 

But the qualities that separate a hunter from a shooter are a far longer journey, one that never really ends. So to those thinking about their own youngster’s apprenticeship I would echo Lord Ripon’s advice: aim high and don’t check on the follow-through. He meant this purely in terms of marksmanship of course – however much of a crack Shot he was, there wasn’t much philosophy in old Ripon – but the metaphor holds good on a more personal level too. Aim high for your youngster. There’s a lot more to building a young Gun than the gun.

a classroom like no other
(Leica FS Photographer of the Year entry by Steve Magennis)

Cast your mind back to the earliest images of hunting. Caves, dark fearful places underground, and the painters with only a smoking torch for light... but the artwork is astonishing. The proud sweep of a wild bull’s neck, a stag in mid-roar cast across a vaulted ceiling of living rock. Look at them and you see so much more than a simple image. You see awe, thousands of years of it. Respect for quarry is where we began, and though we may lose our way from time to time, it’s where we will always need to be. 

No matter what discipline it might be – wildfowling, African safari, deer stalking – the best among us are always those who never lost their sense of awe. By contrast those with no wonder in their hearts are the most likely to become the dreaded totters-up of bag numbers and trophy inches, whose only experience of the field is to reduce beauty to mere possession.

There are other, perhaps more prosaic things that a young Gun should have. They need a good command of regulations but – and it’s a big but – the life of a hunter will bring many moments of truth. As any lawyer will tell you, it is quite possible to work within the law and yet not meet the standards of fair play. I’d like my own young Guns to know the difference, to carry their own true north for those moments. One day I may hear “no shot” or “let him walk”from my own son and daughter, and if I do it will be the proudest day of my life. Again, this is about more than hunting. Show me a Gun who relies on technicalities, rank or underhanded play to get what he wants in the hunting field and I’ll show you one who will do the same in his wider life as well.

If you have any knowledge of poaching you’ll know that fieldcraft is often more important than gear in getting results, though what I see today are a lot of people short of time who buy equipment as a substitute for skill. Even if you stay in a small area your entire life there really is no end to fieldfcraft, and of course if you hunt in different locations it’s almost a matter of starting again every time.

shooting instructionFieldcraft inevitably leads to an insight into country life in general – the ebb and flow of seasons, lambing, crops, harvest. And it is the loss of understanding around rural life that is at the heart of so much grief and bitterness between hunters and anti-hunters. No youngster should spend long in shooting sports without a grasp of what might best be summed up as ‘country matters’.

Someone once said “I never knew a man not improved by a dog”, and in general that’s good advice. Looking after a field companion, keeping them fit, earning their trust, nursing them through the hundred little trials and tribulations that go into a working dog, all this is an education in itself. When you bring a working puppy home, you’re striking a deal that, with luck, will last a decade or more. In that time there will be laughter, friendship, pride and no doubt a few tears as well. I know because I was that boy too. If there’s a better apprenticeship to life in general I’ve yet to see it.

‘First, catch your hare’ is usually said to have been written by Mrs Beeton, Victorian domestic goddess and general busybody, though it seems she never actually put those words to paper. Nonetheless it’s a short jump from getting game to preparing it for the table. Here too there is a lifetime of learning, all of it good. Autumn is the most natural time of year to harvest game, when young animals and birds have become fully independent, when a little chill means fewer insects and the chance for meat to hang and cool. The harsh days of winter have yet to strip condition or cull the wildlife population down in slow, cruel ways. Autumn is also when the world is full of trimmings begging for game cookery – crab apple jelly, chestnuts, fat parsnips, apples and pears off the tree. I’m sure it’s a sign.

hunting puppyBehind every piece of meat in the world there is a story. Going out and finding your own isn’t like throwing a plastic tray in a shopping trolley, which is kidding yourself that there is no story. Game cookery is the oldest of all. It comes from the riverbank, the desert, the cave – the days before cities and towns, even before farming. In all that time only one thing has remained the same. It’s all about company. A youngster will start out with technique – the slow bubble of a simple casserole, browning off smoky bacon to start a game pie – but will soon discover the secret that lies beyond technique. The best thing to go with a fine game meal are people whose hearts belong in wild places, who worked with you to earn it and who delight in the stories. Add to that a blazing fire and maybe an old dog to sleep by it, and then, my young friend, you have more than a meal. Your meat will have a good story, and you have a moment that might be remembered for the rest of your life.

These things might seem a mixed bag but they all share a common theme. They are the things I want to leave behind, and if I can do so, they will mean more to me than any trophy or game tally. They make a life so much richer, and to hell with correctness, so much better. The late Gene Hill understood all this very well. In 1975, when I was just a youngster myself, he captured it perfectly:  “As long as there is such a thing as a wild goose, I leave them the meaning of freedom. As long as there is such a thing as a cock pheasant, I leave them the meaning of beauty. As long as there is such a thing as a hunting dog, I leave them the meaning of loyalty. As long as there is such a thing as a man’s own gun and a place to walk free with it, I leave them the feeling of responsibility. This is part of what I believe I have given them when I have given them their first gun.”

children who shoot gameAll of this is simply many ways of saying one thing – that while certain skill at arms and good equipment is needed to be a Shot, so much more is needed to build ‘The Compleat Hunter’. 

Respect, fieldcraft, knowing the law of the land, the partnership of a gundog, a love of countryside and wild food will take a callow young shooter and make – I’m sure readers of both genders will forgive me for keeping the phrase simple – a better man. 

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