Earlier this year I wrote a defence of driven shooting and ended by saying I hoped my children would have a chance to participate in the sport one day. Believe it or not, I wasn’t fishing for invitations. It was intended as a piece of liberal-baiting, on the assumption that any left-wing prude who disapproves of grown men spending a day shooting game birds would find the prospect of children being inducted into this ‘barbaric’ practice even more appalling. But it has in fact led to several invitations, for which I’m very grateful.
The first was to spend a day grouse shooting in Yorkshire along with my three sons – an absurdly generous offer which I obviously could not turn down. Unfortunately, there was a complication. Caroline had arranged to go to Ireland for the weekend in question and our 14-year-old daughter, Sasha, was supposed to be staying with a friend. But at the last minute the arrangement fell through, which meant I had to text my host at 11.45pm and ask if it was OK if I brought Sasha along. He kindly said yes, pointing out that his own 14-year-old son would be there and speculating that they might get on.
Well, they did get on. No, no, not like that. On the day we arrived, they stayed up talking late into the night and the housekeeper overheard Sasha trying to persuade the boy to let her shave a couple of slits into his eyebrows. Now, this is not quite as bizarre as it sounds. Eyebrow slits, whereby you shave some vertical lines out of your eyebrows, are ‘on trend’ at the moment. Indeed, there is currently a debate raging in teen fashion magazines about whether they constitute ‘cultural appropriation’, since this is a look that was popularised by African-American rap artists. Nonetheless, the housekeeper thought it odd enough to pass on to the owner of the grouse moor. This led to a rather awkward conversation in which he told me my daughter had attempted to shave his son’s eyebrows off. ‘I thought you ought to know,’ he said.
The shoot itself was a great success. The three boys were originally supposed to share two pegs with a pair of loaders between them, but Charlie, the nine-year-old, found that even a 20-bore was a bit too much for him so he decided to join the beaters. That meant ten-year-old Freddie and 12-year-old Ludo had their own pegs for all five drives.
I was amazed by how well they did. I had taken them to E.J. Churchill, a shooting ground in High Wycombe, a few days earlier and looked on disconsolately as they missed clay after clay. But faced with actual grouse hurtling towards them at 60mph, they both proved remarkably deadly. In fact, Ludo managed to shoot more birds than me on the second drive — a total of 16, which is pretty respectable when you factor in how windy it was. When he discovered that he had done better than his pompous old dad he was absolutely cock-a-hoop.
‘Now, Ludo,’ I said, taking him to one side. ‘One thing you should know about shooting is that it’s completely infra dig to brag about how many birds you’ve shot after a drive — an absolute no-no. And one thing you absolutely cannot do is rub someone’s face in it if you discover you’ve bagged more birds than them.’
He looked at me with furrowed-brow concentration, slowly nodding his head, and I experienced one of those rare moments when I felt as if I’d communicated an important piece of wisdom to my son. This was something he’d remember all his life and, in due course, pass on to his own sons.
‘Yeah right, Dad,’ he said. ‘You’re just jealous.’
He then skipped off down the line, laughing gleefully to himself, and told each of the other guns in turn that he had shot more grouse than me.
I was given an opportunity to get my revenge a few weeks later when a man called Gavin Lockhart-Mirams, who used to work for a Conservative think-tank but now runs Glorious Game, invited Ludo and me on a pheasant shoot. This was my first experience of shooting ‘high birds’, and I had been led to believe it would be easier than shooting grouse. Even though the birds are a bit further away, they’re bigger, slower and fly in straight lines. In fact, I found it just as difficult — I averaged no more than half-a-dozen a drive. The only consolation was that Ludo found it even harder. After one ‘doughnut drive’ (when you shoot a big, round zero), he announced that the recoil was hurting his shoulder and he didn’t want to shoot any more. I gave him a pity-ing look, he said: ‘Still shot more on a single drive than you ever have, Dad.’
Then, last weekend, Gavin invited my three sons and me to spend the day in Hampshire ‘fishing and foraging’. This is one of Glorious Game’s most popular ‘dads and lads’ packages. The foraging bit consisted of hunting for truffles on an estate belonging to the owner of Cottonworth vineyard. The winemaker hadn’t realised how many truffles were buried in his wood until a relative came to stay with a Lagotto Romagnolo — a bona fide Italian truffle hound — and the beast dug up about 20 in ten minutes. ‘If you ever breed Valentino I want one of the pups,’ he said, and about a year later he was presented with Rudolph, Valentino’s son. Sure enough, with Rudy running ahead of us, we found dozens of Tuber aestivum, aka Burgundy truffles. The fun part was trying to prevent Rudy eating them, with Charlie hanging on to his collar for dear life as he burrowed into the earth like a frenzied mole.
After elevenses, we set off for the river Anton, which boasts the fast-flowing, ‘gin clear’ water that is ideal for fly-fishing. Our guides were Rollo Grandy and Oscar Boatfield, one of whom is a former world champion, and it wasn’t long before we were hauling brown trout out of the water. Rollo and Oscar insisted we throw them back — it’s against the rules to kill them at this time of year, because they’re spawning — but they had brought along some commercially farmed trout that they cooked on a makeshift fire by the riverbank.
I won’t say this was the best day out we’ve ever had — that was the trip to the Hawthorns to see QPR beat West Brom 4-1 — but it was close. Ludo and Freddie are now hooked on shooting and fishing and Charlie wants a Lagotto Romagnolo for Christmas.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.