By Mike Swan, GWCT Head of Education
6 minute read
“Hey mister,” said the slightly breathless young lad, “can you please tell me where people are getting the mouse body parts?” Well, it was from me; another crazy Swan idea that just happened to work out.
I was running a small GWCT stand at a schools’ countryside day in Suffolk. For this sort of audience, promoting sustainable game management, and the conservation through wise use concept directly, was likely to meet schoolteacher resistance, so I was after more a gentle approach. Simply reminding folk that the whole of nature is not vegetarian, by pulling apart barn owl pellets, and showing how to tell mouse, vole and shrew skulls apart is perfect. The fact that owl pellets are regurgitated remains and not poo, even though they look like it, also fascinates the kids – and many of their teachers too.
The only thing that I got wrong the first time I did this was failing to anticipate the demand to take skulls and bones home to show mum. I ended up running out of pellets, but that was rectified for future events, and it was a joy to watch the young carefully packaging their souvenirs in their empty sandwich wrappers for safe transit.
Making yourself available
Almost wherever I go, people lament the lack of young people in our sport, and ask “How do we recruit the younger generation?” Two or three years ago, I had an interesting conversation with our new vicar on this subject. “Every parish I join says we need a youth group” he said. His response was to say “No, what we need to do is join in with existing groups.” So, he made himself available to the local scouts, and now though his leadership activities, he is known as Rick the Vic, and familiar to all.
I think that we shooters who would like to gently promote what we do to the next generation can take a real leaf out of that book. Scout groups and youth clubs are often screaming out for more helpers, and welcome new folk with open arms. If you do a bit of homework locally, you will surely find a group that would welcome you. As a volunteer you should expect to find time for a bit of basic training, and you will likely be asked to go through a Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) check, but none of this is onerous.
The Scout Movement
Having never been involved as a youngster, I had remarkably little idea of what scouting was about until my elder son Stuart joined as a beaver a bit over a decade ago. It was only then that I discovered that that there are now as many girls as boys involved. Watching the fun that my two lads were having, and picking up on the infectious enthusiasm of the leaders when we joined a family camp, I could not help myself from volunteering to be part of the Active Support Group.
ASU is a great way to help, and play to your skills and knowledge, without needing to make the regular commitment that leadership requires. You may be asked to do a bit of ordinary stuff, like being a car park attendant at a fundraising event, but they will surely want to use your expertise too. So, I have talked hides and decoys, helped at air rifle shooting events, prepared and barbequed rabbits, and led bird nest box building sessions for the new HQ.
A Deer at the Camp Fire
When I heard that the scouts were planning a summer survival camp in the woods, with shelter building and a bit of wild food foraging, I rashly suggested that I’d try to find a bit of wildlife to cook on the camp fire. I was thinking the usual pigeons or bunnies, but a yearling roe buck offered himself up a few days before, so I took him in skin, in a roe sack to join the youngsters.
We hung him in a tree, and a surprising number of scouts took turns to help skin the carcass, before I jointed him. The haunches were wrapped in leaves and popped into a pit lined with hot stones to quietly cook while we foraged for edible leaves under the supervision of another ASU member. Truth be told, the haunches were a tad pink when we ate them, but that did not seem to matter, and some quite raw venison was consumed with relish by most of the team. The addition of medallions from the saddle cooked on a hot plate over the fire embers made for a very decent supper, although the corned beef hash back up was a welcome extra.
Since then, at the request of the leaders, a skinning and jointing demo has been a feature of the second evening of family camp each time it happens, for the young people and their mums and dads. Cut into steaks and flashed over the barbeque, the output has gone well at the last evening party too, thus reinforcing the idea that wildlife management is a responsible activity.
Back to School
Knocking on the local school door, and volunteering to teach the children about shooting is clearly a rather too direct approach, but if you have school age children, volunteering to help when they ask for a few parents to accompany an outing is a good way in. I have led a school nature ramble or two as a result of this, and one keeper that I know ended up presenting a weekly nature programme on the local radio station.
In his case there were not even any children of his own at the school. It was just that, faced with a bit of vandalism during the school holidays, he asked the head teacher if she would like to bring parties out to the estate to see the work of the gamekeeper. He was planting a new wood at the time, got the children involved, allowed them to name the wood, and then encouraged future visits to help maintain it. With a feeling of ownership engendered, the vandalism ended, and lots of country skills were learned.
Family and friends
One of my great joys over the last five or six of seasons has been seeing my own boys growing into their sport. At the age of eleven Stuart took to the beating line on a local shoot like a duck to water, learning all sorts from the others in the gang. I doubt he will be the keen shot that his dad is, but he will surely be one of us for life. We have not been deerstalking together yet, but I have a feeling that its careful approach and precision shooting might just appeal to his slightly esoteric nature.
Meanwhile over the last couple of seasons I have been having great fun taking my younger son Peter out along with his great mate Dean. They have both enjoyed breaking a few clays, and beating on our little low key shoot days, while Pete shot his first couple of ducks last season – just a low key start with an evening flight. In this regard I am reminded of the view of my late friend John Humphreys, who wrote extensively for Shooting Times.
Rather than give it all on a plate, he thought that youngsters should work for their sport, and be given the space to learn for themselves, once they understood the basics.
I still remember the great freedom I felt with dad, when he helped me set my pigeon hide and decoys and then left me to get on with it. Having satisfied himself that I was safe, and that I understood the basics, I was free to make a few mistakes and learn from them. The same soon applied with my North Kent wildfowling, and that all set me in good stead when I went to University and began to explore both the very different foreshore and the woods of South Wales.
Sometimes it can be a bit hard to watch youngsters make mistakes and lose an opportunity, that you feel you could have made better use of, but in the long run I am convinced that they make better sportsmen and women as a result. So, be prepared to hold yourself back for the sake of them; the sacrifice is worth it, and they will develop a degree of skill and native cunning that will last a lifetime as a result.
This article first appeared in Shooting Times