As a Zoology student I’m not your typical shoot attendee. Many of my course mates have stigmatized the world of shooting, perceiving it as unnecessary and barbaric. This has in many places resulted in a social barrier between shooters and conservation – two sectors which I believe need to work together to find a way in which people can engage in this field sport and benefit the environment.
Being aware of this, I was therefore eager to find out more about a shoot day for the first time myself, after attending a couple of shoots I came to realise that the working dogs are key elements in a successful wild bird shoot.
When I arrived for my first shoot at East Tisted to beat I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t even realise working dogs were used to flush game. My only exposure to the world of shoots was from documentaries, always based in other countries, where hides were exclusively used. I was born and raised in the suburbs of London, and so the only dogs I’d interacted with up to that point were household pets!
Whilst I worked as a beater it was fascinating to see how important the dogs are in flushing game. The dogs can cross terrain their handlers couldn’t hope to traverse – dense thickets of brambles or wide ditches. The dogs are also a great way to collect birds that have landed in an inaccessible area or are lost in the trees.
One of my major takeaways from shoot days is that these working dogs do their jobs better than we could ever hope to. One experience really drove this home for me. On one shoot I had the pleasure of working alongside June and her dog Ash. At one point, Ash stopped and began circling a particular tree. None of my arguably limited human senses picked up anything and, nothing seemed out of the ordinary, and so June and I pushed past it. Lo and behold, a few seconds later a dead pheasant dropped out of the tree right in front of the eagerly awaiting Ash! The dog had noticed this dying pheasant hidden amongst the canopy that both June and I had no hope of noticing.
Talking with the handlers I learnt just how specialised the dog’s training was, even going so far as to teach the dogs the correct way to pick up and carry some of the heavier game species to avoid muscle and neck strain.
Not only are the dogs better than us, but they also love their job! Moments such as seeing the dogs shiver in excitement at the start of the day, or seeing the joy with which some of them charge headfirst into a patch of brambles, really drove home just how loyal these dogs are – and the lengths they would go to make their owners happy.
My involvement in the PARTRIDGE project, a North Sea Interreg project with the aim to look at new management solutions to improve biodiversity and ecosystems using the Grey Partridge Perdix perdix as a flagship species, has enabled me to attend and enjoy many shoot days at the Rotherfield estate at East Tisted, and opened my eyes to some of the ecological benefits of the pastime.
The shooting carried out on-site allows for two full time gamekeepers to be employed, who contribute to the intensive partridge-tailored habitat and predator management to develop a wild gamebird shoot and conserve wildlife and biodiversity generally. The number of shoot days are moderate, as are the bags, with partridges and hen pheasants being avoided to help restore wild grey partridges and maintain a wild pheasant population in the area.
Funding from the shoots contributes to the salary of the keeper who is employed by the GWCT, which allowed – over the past 10 years - to demonstrate how to recover grey partridges on an estate where they had gone extinct in the past.
After having been positively surprised by my own experience of a shoot day, I thought - why not convince my fellow students at GWCT to attend a shoot day? There was certainly no lack of selling points: getting to spend part of the day traveling in a tractor filled to the brim with lovely dogs, plus the added opportunity to see species that are typically elusive in the day, such as woodcock and tawny owls, and they were all on board! I think it was a great opportunity for them to experience something a little different which we would usually not consider attending.
And finally, taking part in shoots allowed me to interact with a variety of people from all walks of life – people I’d never normally have had the opportunity to meet! I’ve thoroughly enjoyed my time beating, as it is a great way to get in some exercise and to interact with some fantastic working dogs.
Written by Lucy Robertson, for more information check out the PARTRIDGE project.
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