Traditional country pursuits reimagined for a modern world
Retired financier Sandy Swinton recalls his best day in the field shooting woodpigeon with legendary guide Peter Schwerdt.
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It all usually kicks off with a perfunctory text: “Can you shoot tomorrow?” Four of the most exquisite words in the English language, when assembled in that order. Cue mad scramble to check the diary. If you can, you should, most emphatically. Even if you can’t, you know you should. If you absolutely can’t? Well, that’s agony of the most unbearable kind. There’ll be another day, surely? But you know full well it can’t be guaranteed.
Just as our not-so-new unwelcome companion Covid-19 doesn’t have days off, or “do” Christmas, Columba palumbus doesn’t believe in the benign convenience of long-range diary management: the signature privilege of the wild bird, and one to be respected. It follows, therefore, that if the ‘Blue Grouse’ are there, and Mr Pigeon (aka Peter Schwerdt known universally as ‘Schwerdty’) has truffled them out, there’s little time to waste. If not today, then tomorrow should just about do. Maybe.
Your luck is in. Zoom calls can be rearranged. You text back in the affirmative, to register that the fish is hooked. More perfunctory instructions arrive, but much later: a start time, a postcode or at least location, most probably a farm steading near Swindon, or a random track just north of Hungerford. You sleep fitfully - the familiar pre-shoot excitement that has lingered since childhood - but you rest safe in the knowledge that the reconnaissance has taken place and the prep is done. And most deliciously of all, by someone else.
I shot my first pigeon aged seven and I can recall the moment as if it took place just 10 minutes ago. A most unlucky bird: Neither of us should have been there at all. Unlucky to have found a small boy in shorts cradling his .410, trespassing on the edge of an uncut field of corn, more unfortunate still to have wandered into the shot pattern of the most wildly speculative ‘hit and hope’ heave to starboard. Thereafter, for 30 years or so, my skirmishes against this noble quarry were confined to evenings roost shooting in the Borders, in the company of a much-loved springer spaniel. The forays were plentiful but the bags modest. Wonderful memories, and most good shooting folk will have a version of them. You all know the drill: Eyes peeled amongst the tree tops for the familiar grey chevrons arrowing in on set wings into a stiff westerly. Thrilling stuff (just don’t count the cartridges) and challenging enough. Good practice to boot, come the pheasant season. But not much of this kind of fodder prepares you for your first brush with the decoys.
I have known Peter on and off for 30 plus years. I was careless enough to draw next to him at Catton Hall on a partridge day in 1985 and, for me at least, I recall it was a long way to drive for such a humbling and unprofitable experience. Since then, regrettably, the ball and chain of various jobs in financial services had not enabled me to seek out sporting opportunities of the spontaneous kind Peter was hard wired to facilitate. Until one day a work colleague, a clay shot desperate to bag his first pigeon, managed to persuade me - in that charming way South Africans do - to source a solution. Naturally I knew exactly who to call. It was only reasonable that I should join in the fun too.
So, here we are, after bacon and eggs in Shepherd’s Bush, parked up in a farm steading not a million miles from Swindon, giddy with anticipation. It’s 25 July 2013, and it’s hot - 30°C. For England, that’s hairdryer hot. An insistent, but not bullying, breeze muscles in from the west, ruffling the tops of the poplars. It’s already 10.30 but Mr Pigeon tells us that birds are yet to make their move, and would begin most likely “around midday”. Myself and my guest Andrew load our gear into Schwerdty’s 4x4: Again, perfunctory rules on what to bring. Packed lunch (as it happens, half a chicken and industrial quantities of biltong for the South African, smoked salmon sandwiches, a packet of Quavers and a Twix for the Scotsman) two slabs of 250 shells per hide and loads of bottled water (we both buy five litres). Our hides are rudimentary but come complete with oil drum seat, and the camouflage is excellent. A magnet is already cartwheeling its metronomic circular way 20 yards in front: Two dead pigeons, a rotor blade and a car battery. Think horizontal Catherine wheel. Pure genius and simplicity, hand in glove.
My hide is in the crook of two long hedges. I am facing north so the warm wind blows left to right across my ‘killing ground’ in front. I have bought my beloved Greeners - both twice my age and more- with a view to sharing the workload between them if things get busy. A wise decision, as it turns out. Mr Pigeon ‘sets me up’ and bumps away in his Mitsubishi. Andrew is installed a mile or so to the west, out of earshot. Somehow I just know he will be watching us both like a hawk.
Blackberry off, head down, eyes front. Nothing moves for half an hour. And then, as if by remote control, just after noon the first speck appears, tacking up the hedge in front, drifting and sliding across the breeze, then correcting its course in that way only the British woodpigeon knows how. 200 yards out it spots the magnet and the bird is committed. Wings set, it heads for the patch of flattened barley to join six stationary decoys...I rise too early, the bird flares and I start with a double miss. Over the next hour I pull, I snatch, I poke - the panic button of the uninitiated has been well and truly pressed. Mr Pigeon pays me a visit and barks at me to keep my head far lower as birds approach: “Use your bloody seat! They can probably see you from Marble Arch!” And “Stop taking them so far out!” I sheepishly reveal I have 12 down for 50 shells. A poor start.
Birds are coming steadily now, and I manage to find something of a rhythm, my next two boxes yielding 26. I have learned to let them come in far closer than instinct would normally suggest - and now I realise quite how much this is an art form and that Peter’s advice is far more than just a helpful suggestion. A brief lull allows me half my sandwich, and we’re off again. I feel like a batsman compiling a maiden Test innings at Lords. Happily the scoreboard continues to build and by 2.30 I have my first ton: rarely has a Twix tasted so good. But there’s no crowd, and no polite applause from the pavilion.
And so the afternoon unfolds. Planes wheel overhead, puff pillow clouds roll in from the west, goldfinches chitter and flurry in the hedge behind and a buzzard rides the thermals stage left - but these are hazardous distractions. Concentration remains the key. Now 17 straight kills then five inexplicable double misses at identical birds...back on the horse and go again. I start ‘double gunning’ and manage four from one kamikaze group hell-bent on bombing the decoys. Then, for 90 minutes the mayhem intensifies. Birds arrive from all angles, often from behind, dropping unheralded, straight into the decoy pattern like hand grenades - a fiendishly difficult target. This is a purple period of furious action, unadulterated bliss of the most chaotic kind. For comparison, Rossini’s William Tell overture, with its building crescendo and tumbling climactic finale, runs the experience pretty close. And then, almost as mechanically as the first birds had appeared at noon, a tap somewhere squeezes tight and they simply stop coming. It’s nearly 6pm. I have used 14 boxes of my supply of ammo, leaving six for another day. I douse my head in all that remains of the water, chuck the uneaten half sandwich into the hedge for the foxes and sit down for the very first time. Job done.
Peter appears, grinning. He knows it has been a bonanza day. We begin to pick up. My clicker says 209 and we account for them all. Andrew had fallen one short of 100, before barrel burn to his left hand (single gun, no guard or glove - he’ll learn) had forced him to retire early. Mr Pigeon, all the while diligently nannying his two new charges, had managed a nonchalant 141 “fiddling around at the back”. 449 pigeons, all out. Quite some innings. We were very lucky boys.
Other days, all red letter ones, have followed this, our maiden voyage into the genuinely rare and exceptional. A batting average for me of 140 plus over eight years tells you that Schwerdty, whilst he is only human and in his own words concedes that “some days go better than others”, is not born to time-wasting. And this average includes a 62 snaffled in a thrilling short morning in the Marlborough downs between two lockdowns. What most struck me about that July day was the position of my hide, smack in the middle of a field of rape. Plain ridiculous, surely? But one knows better than to raise an eyebrow. The hide placing was pin sharp. Every bird that morning arrived as if propelled from the arm of the great Glenn McGrath in his pomp. On a sixpence. As it turns out, Peter had been watching that field for days.
Three years later I again reached 209, but au moment critique I ‘corpsed’ and missed the last four, before we drew stumps, all easy birds. That was the day my guest, a shooting-obsessed hedgie (who will remain nameless) took to his hide a full wicker hamper, lovingly packed by his housekeeper, containing, amongst many other delicacies, pâté de foie gras and brioche, crustless rare roast beef sandwiches and a bottle of Chateau Beychevelle 1982. Needless to say the pigeons poured into his hide, he ran out of cartridges (500) by teatime and never even unfastened the buckles on the hamper. For a gourmand of his standing, that pretty much tells you all you need to know.
Many other fanatics will have had scores more outings - and bigger bags - with Schwerdty, but I have now supped long enough at this high table to recognise a level of fieldcraft, born of passion, the deepest research and decades of practical experience, that is second to none. And as for preparing the ground - possibly the most critical ingredient - never has the expression, much loved by my late father, a bristling, ramrod straight, one-legged General, been so aptly employed: “Time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted.”
Such simple words of wisdom, such basic ‘evergreen’ advice: As fit for that small seven-year-old boy in the cornfield as it is for the more seasoned sportsman, in my case 55 years on. We know those words are there, lurking in the background, like a dripping tap somewhere, barely audible but they are there nonetheless, and we should ignore them at our peril.
And as for our man in his trusty 4x4 - his own virtual office - in his flat cap, Viyella shirt and well-worn Schöffel, Swarovski binos glued to his eyeballs as he scours the horizon for the slightest twitch of a woodie, for Schwerdty, Mr Pigeon, the Achilles heel of the Blue Grouse, it is surely the most fitting epitaph of all.
Traditional country persuits reimagined for the modern world
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