A few years ago I was sitting on the sofa at Sandringham enjoying a ham sandwich with the Queen’s then-head gamekeeper, David Clarke. The thing about working for the royals, he said, is that if a drive’s a flop, they completely understand. What Clarke meant is that even if no royal bags a bird, they won’t complain. It’s about the day, not the numbers dead.
Sandringham (unsurprisingly) provides a snapshot of a bygone sporting era, a time when most shooting syndicates were collections of friends and locals, before entrepreneurial types sussed there was a few quid to be made out of shooting. Nowadays, armed with just an iPhone, a bloke on his City law firm lunch break can book a day where a bag of 500 pheasants is guaranteed. And it’s this sort of profit-driven shooting that may well do for the whole sport in the end.
Lawyers and city boys often cough up as much as £20,000 for a day out — that’s £40 a bird. The keeper often has no idea how deadeye or otherwise the party actually is, but when 500 birds have been paid for, he’s going to get it in the neck if he can’t deliver them.
Last year in Suffolk, I was with a smart young set who had dug deep for a big day. Some lacklustre shooting meant that by 11 a.m. it looked as though we weren’t going to make the bag. No matter. We were quickly whisked off to a drive where legions of pheasants heaved themselves a mere 15 yards into the sky and fluttered flaccidly towards the Guns. One well-fed youngofficer, up from Sandhurst for the weekend, who had never wielded a shotgun in his life, clobbered 11 pheasants on the bounce.
And what do you do with 500 birds at the end of the day? It’s no secret that game dealers often turn gamekeepers away as there isn’t enough demand for the meat.