The highlight of my country calendar is when I’m lucky enough to be invited to what even the host describes as ‘the world’s best worst shoot’. It’s the worst shoot because the bag is often truly atrocious. This year, for example, in the course of six or possibly seven drives — the details are hazy — we managed a total of nine birds between us. That works out at an average of one and one eighth of a bird per gun over an entire day. But still, disappointingly, we were well short of the all-time record low of three.
I’d love to be able to blame this shaming tally on poor gamekeeping: ‘Of course, I’d have bagged loads more if a single bloody pheasant had flown anywhere near my peg the entire day.’ But in all honesty it wasn’t the birds that were the problem so much as the useless gits standing under their flight path. Some of us kept missing because we were too coldy or decrepit; some of us because we were too laidback even to bother raising our guns; some because we don’t really like killing things that much; some because we’re simply lousy shots.
I personally fit into quite a few of these categories. One year, I remember embarrassing myself by getting a bit too sentimental about a wounded cock I’d had to go in and finish off by hand. ‘Goodbye, my dear handsome chap,’ I muttered as, trying to ignore his beady, accusing eye, I stroked his bright feathers prior to wringing his splendid neck. No hunter or shooter I have ever met likes to cause unnecessary suffering. But it’s poor form to display your squeamishness in public.
Really, though, my worst vice is ineptitude. Sure, on a good day, I can acquit myself perfectly respectably. (One of the better shots of the day was mine: a fat hen flying fast over a distant hedge to my left, which I got with my second barrel by not worrying about aiming and just remembering to give it a really long lead. ‘A proper crumpler,’ someone said, which is what you want, because it means it died instantly.) But when you’re averaging roughly two shoots per year, that doesn’t leave an awful lot of room for practice.
My favourite spot in the line is: anywhere where the other guns can’t see me. If it’s an open field, you’re left cruelly exposed. Every-one can see exactly which birds you’ve missed, which you’ve hit, how easy or hard they were, and so on. Obviously, if you’ve done something impressive, this is great because it means you get congratulated without having to draw attention to your own feat. But if you haven’t, there’s no pretending that everyone else hasn’t noticed how rubbish you were — especially if all the birds flew over your peg and none over theirs, giving them plenty of downtime to observe at leisure your utter crapness.
So yes, definitely, you want to be positioned in a hidden corner behind a hedge if you can be. As well as sparing you public humiliation, this means you can discreetly check your phone during those long, chilly interludes while you are waiting for the birds to arrive. You can’t allow yourself to be too distracted though. Usually the arrival of the pheasants is preceded by a telltale fluttering of songbirds. If you’re not ready at that point, you’re deservedly shouted at. ‘DELINGPOLE. Those were YOURS!’ bellows the host, who knows exactly where you are, even if he can’t see you.
And you feel properly guilty because ultimately, you’re insulting the gamekeeper and the beaters and everyone who has taken such trouble over the past year to give you your day’s sport. ‘Sport’ does not include checking Twitter.
What I like best about shooting is the male camaraderie. I’m not saying girls don’t have their place in field sport — one of the things I used to love about hunting, before my family banned me, was the erotic thrill and delightful company of all the women with those oddly sexy hairnets and their firm, jodhpured buttocks astride their glistening, quivering, immaculately groomed mounts. But killing stuff with guns, the competition, the smell of cordite and so on, still tend to be considered — properly, I think — a chap’s domain.
Going on a shoot is like being back at school: the teasing, the banter, the swanking, the bullying, that still slightly naughty feeling you get as you chug at your hipflask at 10 a.m. on a working weekday. Some people, I know, take their shooting very seriously — a bit like those bridge players who count cards and don’t get a fit of the vapours bidding to slam. But I suspect most are more like me: secretly hoping that only a few birds come their way (to minimise the chance of being shown up), mainly looking forward to the long lunch and the mid-morning break when you can nip at your sloe gin, your port, your bullshots and whatever else is handy, in the company of like-minded, up-for-it blokes.
Boys are never happier or more alive than when they’re together outdoors doing man stuff. The ultimate paradigm of this is war (I’m with David Starkey: chaps enjoy this much, much more than our current feminised culture will allow us to admit), but country sport is probably the next best thing. Unlike, say, when you’re stuck in a room at a party, the conversation is easy because it’s the way men prefer it — incidental and sporadic rather than the main event.
Women bond by telling each other every-thing in prurient detail. Men do it by avoiding the subject — just hanging out together companionably and trying to top one another’s quips. The relationships you form on one day’s shoot are more intense and perfect than you’d get in a year’s normal socialising. And that’s why this worst shoot is simply the best.