Hunting: A shooting paradise lost
- Credit: Archant
Phil Hardman gets the worst possible news about his cherished shoot
This month my shooting world has been turned upside down by some really bad news. It all started with a routine text to the gamekeeper who looks after the larger part of my permission, letting him know I’d be out on the land that afternoon. I’ve done this thousands of times, so even though I didn’t get an instant reply, I started to get all my gear together, camouflage on and everything loaded into the Jimny, ready. I was actually on my way to the shoot when the reply came, and it wasn’t at all what I was expecting.
“Sorry no, it’s no longer under my control.
We have given up the shooting rights,” was his reply. I’d heard rumours within the village for a few years that the estate was selling off a lot of land, and that the pheasant shoot was being reviewed, but I hadn’t imagined actually losing access to such a huge swathe of land. I’d wanted this permission, and failed to get it for almost 20 years, until I finally managed it, seven years ago, and just like that, in one text, it was gone.
I stopped the car on the boundary of it and looked over the ancient woodland as I took a minute to let it sink in. Suddenly it hit me; one of my other permissions is also under the control of the estate, at least as far as sporting rights go, so would I lose that too? I sent a text back to the keeper asking him, and he confirmed that they had also given up the rights to that farm. Without these two permissions, all my squirrel hunting, and a huge load of my pigeon shooting would be gone. The news hit me like a brick and my stomach sank as I got back into the car.
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I took a moment to think. OK, who has the rights now? If it’s gone back to the tenant farm, then I should be able to keep that permission because I’m on good terms with the farmer. The other, larger, section, I’m not so sure about; it could possibly be lost forever, but if I can keep the smaller farm, that will do. As I sat in the car looking out of the windows at this dreamland I had been so lucky enough to hunt over, I started to relive some of my best sessions down there. I wasn’t ever able to publish any pictures of the land’s real beauty because the estate had not wanted me to show anything that might identify where I was shooting, but trust me, this place was breathtaking. I remember my excitement when I first got permission, it took so many years, but eventually I got the go-ahead, and it was like all my Christmases had come at once.
Being an ancient woodland this place had squirrel by the hundreds, and it was this that drew me to it in the first place. Before gaining this permission I would maybe bag one or two a year, but on walks along the footpaths through the woods, I would see them regularly. The first feeders I ever set up were in this wood, and I will never forget just how effective they were. I even went as far as to build a proper, weather proof hide, knowing that the effort involved would be repaid in kills once I was done, and boy did it! For five years that hide stood before eventually vandals found it and destroyed it, but it’s those early sessions I’ll remember most fondly, just after I gained the permission.
While squirrels were my main motivation for gaining access to these woods, they also brought with them plenty of other opportunities, including woodpigeons, and even jays, which previously I hadn’t really had the pleasure of hunting, and it was this feeling of unlimited opportunities for varied bags that I really enjoyed most about this shoot, although the fact that it all took place in such ancient and beautifully natural surroundings, which we rarely see these days, really made fall in love with the place.
I’d always been a fan of Jack Pyke’s LLCS leafy suit, and had owned one in each of the available colours for a while, but my only permission at the time was a agricultural farm, and although it did have hedges and bushes, I had always known that a proper piece of woodland would really see them come into their own. I’ve made no secret over the years that the LLCS suit is by far and away my very favourite piece of hunting kit, bar none, and it was in these woods that the love affair I have had with the suit ever since, really first came to life.
I’d spend hours head to toe in either the brown or the green versions of the LLCS depending on the season and I have never felt so well camouflaged. I saw things while wearing those suits that I have never seen before. It was as if I was observing nature without human contact, as if I was looking at the wood, and all its inhabitants, without actually being there. In normal circumstances, they tend not to know where I am, but walking into the wood, or being spotted, sends out distant alarm calls, song birds stop chirping as you pass, and to the creatures that live there these signs are obvious that there is a predator in the wood, somewhere.
The quarry we shoot simply either doesn’t know where we are, or assumes that we are not the kind of predator they need to worry about, so they relax again, but the woods are a vastly different place once time passes and things settle. With the LLCS suits, this particular wood never needed to settle, because nothing had known I was there in the first place. If your life really does flash before your eyes at the end, I swear I will be back in that wood again, head to toe in my LLCS leafy gear, spring sunlight shining through the wood, and the creatures going about their day as if I wasn’t there at all. This was my little piece of heaven, no doubt about that.
Sitting remembering past hunts only made me more disappointed, but by the time I had driven home, I had managed to turn that disappointment into determination, not only to salvage the smaller part of the shoot, which has some of the same woodland on it, but also, to one day, regain permission for the larger wood. At the moment I have no answers, I do not know if I will ever again shoot on either of them, but even if I should lose both, I still have one permission, the one where it all began, where I started my hunting ‘career‘ as a teenager, so although losing both would be a terrible blow, and will likely disrupt most of my plans for this year, at least, I will bounce back from this; it will not be the end of my hunting, and if push comes to shove, I will do what everybody else does, jump in my car, and get out there and go looking for new permissions.
Did I really use it?
Its funny, but now I have lost it, I find myself wondering if I ever truly used its full potential. I mean, it was a massive amount of land, it stretched for miles, but I tended to stick to certain areas where I knew I had a decent chance of success, instead of potentially blanking, while exploring other less well known parts of the wood. That’s the thing with life, we tend to take things for granted, only realising when they’re gone and it’s too late to do anything about it. While that is true for the lost permission, it isn’t true for my original shoot, and I will admit I have maybe neglected it a little bit over the past couple of years. It was overshadowed by the glamour of the new permission. Who would want to wander around knee deep in mud, across open, often barren-looking, windswept fields, bordered by a noisy motorway, when you could stalk through a proper British woodland, with huge, centuries old oak and beech trees, following a small river as it twisted and turns through the landscape.
My muddy old farm
Funny thing is however, The muddy old little farm has been the place where all of my record bags have been taken, and not because it is loaded with vermin, it’s actually pretty quiet most of the time. My success didn’t come from the land offering me lots of targets, it came because I knew it so intimately that I was able to take advantage of what little it did offer, extremely effectively. That, I’m ashamed to admit, is not as much the case as it once was. My trips there have been less frequent this past couple of seasons, and when I have been there, I have targeted certain small areas, as opposed to walking the entire permission, like I used to.
If there is a plus side to all this, and believe me, I am trying desperately to find one, that is it. That I have learned a valuable lesson about how we use the land we have access to, and what our priorities should be, and that is the lesson I will have to move forward with. If I could choose to go back to any point in my life and relive it, as far as hunting goes, I would go back a decade, to when I only had that one permission, but I knew it so well I could often predict not just what areas would give me the chance of a shot, but exactly what tree birds would be sitting in, or which they would land in, before they even arrived, and its looking like, in a roundabout way, I am going to get my chance to relive that period, whether I like it or not.
Sense of loss
It’s funny how much I am bothered by this, and I feel a real sense of loss. I think it’s the sense of losing what was to come that is the worst part. The days out I would have had, the memories I would have made, I think that’s what it is. Of course the land we hunt on isn’t just a patch of land to us, we don’t visit the land as an outsider, we become part of it, part of the natural order of it. We learn it intimately, we do not walk across the land, we walk through it, we belong to it, just as the rabbits, pigeons and all the other creatures do. We feel connected in ways people who do not shoot will never understand, and I didn’t understand, until today. The truth is, above all else, I am going to miss that land, but I am forever going to feel very lucky, and privileged to have had the pleasure to hunt over it.