High, wide and impossible?
We all want to be presented with high pheasants, but are we really up to them? Rupert Godfrey is concerned that some Guns are not showing sufficient respect for their quarry.
It was a couple of years ago when I was invited to join a party on one of Devon's famous high bird shoots. I've never been a great fan of this type of shoot, but I hadn't been to one for some years, and thought it would be interesting to go along with an open mind and see if my views had changed. On the first drive I had drawn peg eight, so was able to watch the action down the line. The morning was damp with a light mist and breeze. The gun line faced a steep bank, on the top of which lay a cover crop.
Looking at an Ordnance Survey map that evening, I discovered that the front edge of the cover crop was at least 80 metres above the gun pegs.
The drive started and birds began to climb from the cover over the Guns. There was a lot of banging for not much result. My loader asked me why I wasn't shooting and I replied that I was waiting for a bird that I thought was in range. I was using 32g 5s and plenty of choke, so knew I could kill with confidence at around 50-55 yards.
At the end of the drive, 244 shots had been fired, and the bag - after a large number of pickers-up had come in - was 12 pheasants. Most of the team thought it had been a fantastic drive, even though only four of the line claimed to have killed a bird. Privately, I thought it was a complete waste of time and totally unsporting.
Although the drives which followed were much more reasonable, I was only killing one bird for 4-5 shots and my own rule of thumb is that if I can't average one in four, then I shouldn't be shooting. The final bag was nearly 300 but with well over 2500 shots. I killed 14% of the bag (and should have had another ten birds picked up) for 8% of the shots, which put the average across the day for the rest of the team at one bird for over nine shots. Two of the other Guns did considerably better than that, so the others did a lot worse! Most of that gun line really shouldn't have been there, as they simply weren't good enough.
So what does it take to be a great high pheasant shot - and by ‘high' I mean at least 50 yards up? I think three things: innate ability, which means great hand/eye coordination, the right gun and cartridge, and an ability to ‘read' the bird, correctly judging its range and speed.
Over the past couple of seasons, I've been lucky enough to see a couple of renowned high pheasant shots on the top of their form. The first, Tony Ball, is well known for his all-round shooting ability, but to see him on song was a joy, as high bird after high bird was despatched with great style. At the time, I had never seen anyone shoot so consistently.
On another occasion, I was beside him on the highest drive on his Dorset shoot, and I stopped shooting (he was happy as he took the birds I left, behind me!). At the end of the drive, he enquired why I had stopped. I explained that I had hit, with both barrels, the first four pheasants which had come over me, and then watched them disappear into the distance. My gun and cartridges, I decided, were not up to the task and I didn't want to wound rather than kill. He replied that he wished a few more people had the same attitude.
On this occasion, I was also with Peter Schwerdt, a great pigeon-shooting buddy of mine. We've shared a hide on several occasions to check on each other's technique (and to proffer unwanted advice!). I have watched him on the end of the line on an excellent Wiltshire pheasant shoot, where his performance was simply outstanding: every bird was shot in the head and came down stone dead. Modestly, he said that they were much easier than those he was used to at North Molton, but I would have been ecstatic to shoot 50% of what he had killed with ease.
Apart from their exceptional skill, what links these two men is their correct choice of guns and ammunition: heavy loads and plenty of choke. This may even mean 36g loads and 4s rather than 5s.
I purloined some of Peter's Buffalo shells for a January day on one of Dorset's best pheasant shoots. Despite putting such a load through my light (but heavily choked) side-by-side, I shot much better than I had hoped, as I was confident that I COULD kill and so I did.
Too many Guns, however, are still thinking that 1oz loads are perfectly adequate, whether through a 20-bore or a 12. A lucky pellet may bring off a fluke shot at long range, but more Guns should be aware of their own limitations and also realise that there are plenty of shoots now, where birds flying directly over them may be well out of shot. The resulting wounded birds do the sport no favours.
Vertical range is very difficult to judge, especially with no reference points, and is often, I think, under-estimated. I was once playing with a laser rangefinder while lying on the deck of a friend's very sumptuous yacht. The top of the mast was 39 metres above the deck - say 43 yards - but the seagulls flying well above it looked to be at a very shootable height. Without the mast as reference, I certainly wouldn't have put them at higher than 35 yards.
In idle moments, when in London, I often try to estimate the height of buildings (especially if there are pigeons flying around them!). What looks to be well within shot is often at 60 yards plus. Great Shots understand range and also watch each bird very carefully: is it climbing, curling, just drifting with the wind or dropping and accelerating?
I can never understand it when people suggest that the best way to deal with a bird that comes from a long way away is not to look at it until you are ready to shoot! They have missed out on all the information that bird has been giving out as it flies towards them and often have to hurry to take their shot, usually resulting in a miss.
So let's all give this wonderful gamebird - the pheasant - the respect it deserves. Use the right guns and ammunition and only shoot at what you KNOW you have more than a reasonable chance of killing. Or be as good as Tony Ball and Peter Schwerdt!
Johnny Goodhart has been shooting at Haddeo, one of the west country's finest, for 10 years. In that time he's seen two distinct trends emerge - the disappearance of the side-by-side shotgun and increasing usage of 5 and 4 shot cartridges.
“I'm still shooting with a side-by-side, but I seem to be in ever-decreasing company,” he says. He shoots a pair of Holland & Hollands and an Arizabalaga, the latter with interchangeable barrels so that he has three-quarter and full choke to call on. Both guns will cope with 32g Rio fibre loads (which his company CCI happen to import!).
“The guns might require a decent service at the end of the season, but despite being much lighter than over-unders, they handle the cartridges OK - though I wouldn't push it and use 36g loads in them. Some of the boys down here are using 40g loads which I definitely wouldn't entertain. My guns are just not suitable.
“I'm not a great shot but I don't embarrass myself and connect with my share. So while I can keep on doing that I will continue to fly the flag for the side-by-side.”
He has clear views with regard to the criticisms of poor bird-to-shot ratios and out-of range shooting, too.
“I think one of the big problems is that people tend not to be terribly good at judging distance overhead. Everyone becomes pre-occupied with lead when, in fact, they are probably missing because they are off line. Birds tend not to fly straight, they drift. You will see a top shot, who might miss a couple, put his gun down and watch the next bird very carefully before resuming and connecting. If you are not on the same line as the pheasant, it really doesn't matter how much lead you give it - it will keep on flying.”
As regards height, he feels a shoot should be looking to present birds at 40-45 metres. “It is important that birds are within shot and the Guns are capable of shooting and killing them cleanly and effectively. We are very strict on that at Haddeo and that applies no matter what type of gun you are using. The bird needs to match the abilities of the shooting line.
“This is why on most decent high bird shoots the first drive will be a test of the team's shooting ability, and from that point the shoot captain and head keeper will flush accordingly. A difference of 8-10 metres at the flushing point will have an incredible difference as to the height at which the birds will fly over the Guns.”
Justin Birkett has been running North Yorkshire's highly acclaimed Revaulx shoot for 12 years (his family for 25 years) and over that time has seen a change in two ways. “People are now either going for bigger guns and loads or for small 28 gauge guns and big loads (at least for the size of the gun). Then the new breed are now shooting 36grams. It all comes down to the question of how high is a high pheasant? I personally get annoyed when people tell me that they went to an amazing shoot where they saw thousands of pheasants and couldn't hit them. Someone told me the other day that they were on a shoot where 500 birds came over and they shot four! Why do it?
“The average game shot struggles at 40 yards so why present birds that are at extreme range? We present good, testing birds at Revaulx but they are all killable. Of course there will be a few higher exceptions on any day, but for the most part they are in range.
“Personally, I shoot a 1oz load throughout, but will use 5 shot in January. And this is usually good enough for any proper sporting bird.”
Tony Ball is widely recognised as an outstanding game shot, but he also runs two highly rated shoots - Upcerne in Dorset and another family shoot, Bowcombe, on the Isle of Wight. “A lot of my long-standing shooting friends have side-by-sides and for partridges these guns are absolutely fine, but pheasants are a lot harder, particularly longer range shots.
“On a really good curling pheasant you have to find the exact spot and it is very difficult to be consistent beyond 30 yards. Judging distance in the sky is very difficult. I remember at Chargot, in order to test just how high the birds were on Collies drive, some halogen balloons were floated to 50 yards. We were amazed to find that most of the pheasants were flying above them.
“For these sort of birds, if you want any success then you need to use 32g cartridges. I use JK6 No. 5. I have tried 36g but I personally find the recoil too much. And I think 32g of 5 will cleanly kill any bird that is within the range of a shotgun. The gun, of course, is important and I use a Perazzi 30 ¾" choked full and full, or full and extra full. Without this sort of equipment I regret it is not possible to consistently kill the kind of pheasants that are being shown on some of the West Country pheasant shoots.”
Will Criddle is Bettws Hall shoot manager with responsibility for two shoots in Wales, two in Shropshire and the two Molland shoots in Devon - all high bird venues. “We had a team out today who, with one exception, were all using long barrelled over-unders with 36g 4s. This is now fairly typical. But the one exception was using a side-by-side and 30g cartridges of 6 shot and he was pulling down some amazing birds. I personally like to see a side-by-side being used for pheasant shooting.”
Gordon Robinson who runs the British Field Sports Agency at Royal Berkshire Shooting School, takes parties to many of the best known shoots, such as Stanage, Downton, Kempton, Brigands, Chargot and Molland. “Yes, there are now a lot more people using 34g of 4s, though there is an argument that if you need any more than that should you be shooting?
“Interestingly I have been out today at Downton with an American team, who were mostly shooting traditional English side-by-sides which was very nice to see. One was shooting 30g of 5 shot in his pair of 30" William Powells without any problem. It depends on the cartridge and the weight of the gun.
“The Americans tend to favour the traditional side-by-side and the tweeds too. It is great to see and today's team shot very well.”
He added that there is a big demand for high bird shooting, despite the cost of up to £32 (plus vat) per bird. “They are all very well run and a newer shoot to watch for is Combe Sydenham - it is extremely good.”
The UK's largest cartridge manufacturer is Lyalvale Express, whose managing director Roger Hurley confirms that there has been a definite trend towards bigger loads in response to the growth of high pheasant shooting.
“People are starting to understand the laws of physics,” he smiles. “A big ball travels further than a small one and we have seen a demand for shot sizes spread from six to five to four.” He makes the analogy with an overseas police department, in a country where police will fire a gun at a car to stop it. They know that a 28g load will only scratch paint, but a 28g load with a slug will stop it.
Lyalvale's big selling load for high pheasants is the Supreme Game in 32g and 36g.There is a 30g version in 7, 6 and 5 shot, while the 32g and 36g offer a choice of 6, 5 and 4. Many high bird shooters like 36g but there is little that 32g of 4 shot will not stop. Richard Faulds uses these. “By using a mix of powders we are able to deliver a cartridge that is both powerful but comfortable. I have no recoil pad on my guns (a pair of Perazzis) but am perfectly happy to shoot these cartridges all day.” These big loads enjoy the benefits conferred by slow burning powders by French producers Vectan. “I particularly enjoy high pheasant shooting and go to shoots in the West Country, Wales and Yorkshire in the knowledge that these cartridges will kill pheasants at optimum ranges and I will suffer no ill-effects of recoil.” They also make a 30g load in 20-bore called the Somerset.
Gamebore's high bird speciality load is the Buffalo. Managing director Steve Dales explained how the Buffalo has gone through a 12-year period of evolution. “It started out as a live pigeon load before being adopted by some for the FITASC Sporting, including world champion Ben Husthwaite. Then about five or six years ago, one or two started to use the Buffalo for high pheasant shooting and it has all gone on from there. We sell it in 32g and 36g with shot size choices of 6, 5 and 4. The trend here has definitely been for a bigger shot.
“We use a Boffers progressive powder so while, yes, there is more recoil than on a smaller load, there is not as much punch as might be expected.”
Graham Morris at Eley Hawk confirms the trend towards bigger shot and bigger loads. “We certainly sell a lot more 5s than we used to and we now have 4s in both the Grand Prix High Pheasant range and VIPs. The latter we have available in 28, 30, 32 and 36g loads and it seems to be a popular choice. Though having said that Impax and Grand Prix are selling very well.”
Sue Bontoft of Hull Cartridge Company has also noticed that, in addition to the demand for bigger shot in the Stirling and High Pheasant range, there is a big swing to fibre wad cartridges. “Fibre wad cartridges are, of course, much more environmentally friendly and many estates now will not entertain plastic wads. Fibre wads have also come a long way and their performance is now very much a match for the plastic version.”