Spectator: Walk the line

Lucy Baring goes shooting but would rather take photographs.

‘Well, that was a lovely walk,’ we all said as we looked at two pheasants, two pigeons and two squirrels lying on the ground in front of us. The four people holding guns stared back. ‘That,’ they responded, ‘was a fiasco.’

We had been a party of 20 – four with guns, 16 without. Actually, 15 after one looked at the wind and rain and retired back to bed after breakfast. ‘Bring guns,’ my brother had said, ‘and we’ll have a wander about.’

The informal flavour of ‘wander about’ brings to mind a chatty walk, a social enterprise for all ages with the common purpose of conversation, fresh air, a bit of a view, the odd photo—which is why I found it surprising to hear a note of exasperation creeping into my brother’s voice as children moseyed in and out of the hall looking for socks. The guns were stamping their booted feet outside, looking purposeful.
As the guns strode ahead, we were so busy discussing the merits of differing gumboots that we lost sight of them. We ambled onwards, a ragtag group of 11 year-old boys, teenage girls, a dachshund, a Disney dog of indeterminate breed and two over-excited spaniels.

My brother had explained where we were heading and we’d nodded while paying little attention, each group within the party busy in various ways. The terrain was an unstable mix of bog and stubble, which meant I had to carry Fletcher the dachshund and hold Emma’s hand. She and I had been at school together.

The boys were wielding large sticks, Jedi style. The girls shouted about the hundreds of mice they’d just found. I wanted to go and look, but Emma feels about mice how I feel about spiders, so I let their shouts be carried away on the wind. Out of the corner of my eye, I could see my brother waving his arms.
We regrouped by a fence and I thought I saw a gun shaking his head. They entered deep discussions with my brother while we compared thermal layers. He’d taken on the air of a general: ‘If you could line out along this edge and move forward to the bottom left corner…’ We looked at him, we nodded, then got distracted by arranging the children into feet-size order, which was surprisingly unreflective of their height.

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We climbed a steepish bank and dropped down to a field full of cows. Cows with calves. And horns. ‘There’s no way I’m walking through that,’ I stated, mindful of the golden rule about cows and calves and dogs. Two friends of mine have broken their legs in separate incidents involving these three elements. This fell on deaf ears, the brother-general marching onwards as we reluctantly wafted around in his wake. The cows never looked up.

‘It’s very, very important that nobody gets ahead here. Stay in line.’ I think that’s what he said as we climbed the barbed wire into the wood, but we were soon absorbed by the manmade earth banks we came across, some sort of bike course with surrounding rubbish. To one side was a well- constructed weatherproof shelter, with a wooden bed and the ashes of a long-ago fire. We discussed possible ways to deter camping cyclists before rejoining the guns, who were now shaking their heads.

‘I’ve never known anything like it,’ said one. We assumed he was over-reacting to the makeshift campsite. ‘You are the most incompetent beaters I’ve ever seen.’ What? He went on to explain that, with a gun in his hand, he feels every second on the hunting field is a second in anticipation of prey. And every other second is a second wasted. ‘You never do what you’re told and you never line out.’ ‘But if we lined out,’ we explained, as if to a simpleton, ‘we wouldn’t be able to talk.’

It finally dawned on us that the guns actually thought we were going to spread ourselves out and walk alone in order to drive a couple of birds over their heads instead of having a lovely chat and taking photos. I’m still not sure who was the most surprised.