There are essentially two kinds of airgun hunter; those who have permission and those who don't. If you fall into the first category then perhaps you've earned that smug grin but if you don't yet have anywhere to shoot then securing hunting ground can seem like a mammoth task. Maybe you've had permission and lost it, perhaps you've moved away or maybe you're wondering why a landowner has become unresponsive? Perhaps you've yet to begin your search or it could be that you've taken the approach of scouring the countryside fruitlessly knocking doors. Whatever the cause of your hunting woes, fear not; if you're seeking shooting permission then the following is sure to help.
This week I've secured an interview with Liam Bell, shoot manager and local Headkeeper on an extensive private estate in Shropshire. Liam is also regional chair for the National Gamekeeper's Organisation and is the author of On Your Shoot which is very useful reading for anybody wanting to understand the gamekeeper's perspective when aiming to impress. Liam knows his business and his insight on how we air gunners can go about finding more shooting is absolutely invaluable.
How can air gunners be of use to gamekeepers?
Air gunners can help with all the corvids; crows, magpies, rooks, jackdaws, jays to a lesser extent, rabbits and squirrels. Squirrels are the ones as you can do a lot of still hunting with squirrels. They do a lot of damage and I think air-gunners can do a good deal.
Do you get people approaching you for permission? If so, how do they go about it?
I do yes and they don't go about it very well. I get people knocking on the door with a gun in the car because they've been down to a farm and basically the farmer doesn't want anything to do with them. If the tenant farmers have somebody shooting it's normally one of their staff or somebody they know, but if a random person turns up with a gun in the car and a dog saying they want to go shooting then they're not going to let them if they don't know them. Just knocking on the door saying “I want to go shooting, any chance?” is not going to get you permission anywhere.
What would be your advice then on how to approach keepers and landowners?
It's difficult, ideally you need an inside line. You need to know someone they know or you need to live locally which isn't always possible but if you don't then have something to offer. All the the lads who come beating for me can go pigeon shooting, squirrel shooting and rabbiting anytime they want because they've give me something back. There has to be a bit of a two way thing because providing a service alone isn't enough. If you can, do a trade off because farmers are always looking for a deal and if you have a trade or a profession or can help out at harvest time or put up some fencing etc then you can do something in return. Your chance of getting permission to shoot if you just turn up knocking doors, offering nothing, is very slim.
So what's the ideal dress code and personal approach?
Unarmed, in a family car with a pair of shoes on, a shirt, a jumper and a smile. That's it. You don't have to wear a jacket and tie but try to avoid camouflage. From a farmer's point of view you're always suspicious because there's lots of farm theft, abuse and vandalism etc so you're naturally cautious. It's like you get a strange knock on your door from someone wanting to go in your garden to a degree but if somebody turns up in the family car, knocks the door and says “Hello, I'm sorry to bother you...” it's better. Let them know where you're from, give them your contact details etc and remember to ask.
If you say to a landowner or a keeper “Alright mate, I'll come and help you shoot your rabbits.” you're almost inferring that he can't shoot his own rabbits! Besides, I don't like being called mate.
Remember that farmers don't always need your help; it's them doing you the favour. They're thinking that this guy with an air rifle can be part of the solution but they're not going to say “This is the answer to all my troubles and I'm going to let this guy I've never met before walk around my farm with a gun!”
Is there anything else that the air-gunner should let you know?
If you get an air gun pellet in a cow and the milk production goes down it's serious. Let them know that you're insured and abreast of current legislation on what you can and can't shoot and that you'll only shoot where and what you've agreed upon. Also, (don't exaggerate) but let them know what kind of shooting you've done before and be prepared to back it up.
The gamekeeper on a private estate is the figurative and the literal gatekeeper and farmers will often defer all shooting enquiries to them unless they already know you, so it's crucial to be aware of the keeper's priorities and how you can directly address them. It's important that you put the needs of the permission granter first and not yours. If you're polite, dressed appropriately and can offer something in return then you may well find yourself with an increasing range of air gunning opportunities with the possibility of some rough pheasant shooting on Beater's day or even the chance of some deer stalking. It all comes down to making a fine first impression and taking the time to build a positive and mutually beneficial relationship.
One good turn deserves another
As mentioned above, air gunners can fulfil a useful role in ensuring that game bird populations remain healthy by reducing predation from corvids and squirrels and in being part of a wider strategy of countryside management. At this time of year, keepers often plant maize at key points on their drives to give game birds the kind cover that they enjoy but young maize is also popular with other animals and rabbits in particular can be a real pest, making inroads into the crop, thus reducing cover for the pheasants and potentially impacting the quality of the drive.
As these small maize crops are normally planted on the edge of woodland they present a great opportunity for some combined woodland squirrel stalking and rabbit shooting that should benefit the keeper as well as curry pot. For this afternoon's hunt I work uphill along a verdant and meandering field boundary that provides plenty of cover for my approach and although the maize lies at the top this wheat field this important cereal crop also gets hit quite hard by rabbits. On the way up I have the opportunity of a 25 yard standing shot but miss and regret my decision not to take the time to move into a more supported position.
I'm grateful for the moderator on my Weihrauch when I spot a wary but startled rabbit digging up young maize roots far from cover. It'd heard the shots but had either been uncertain of their direction or not quite alarmed enough to move closer to the warren. The rangefinder gives the distance at 60 yards and I slip off my padded rucksack to crawl to my maximum rested range of 40 with exactly one dot of hold over. As I lie flat, resting my rifle and palm upon the pack I take a moment to enjoy the pungent smell of hot grass from the hedgerow and to feel the warmth of the crumbling, sun-baked earth. From this stable position I can dial in more magnification as scope wobble is minimised and I place my shot with confidence. I hock the rabbit and continue my slow climb up to some mixed woodland where I stalk very slowly and carefully along a ride through the beeches to take a young squirrel at 25 yards as it feeds on a low branch.
It's been a great afternoon of shooting and I've learned a lot from Liam. It's been interesting to get the perspective form the other side of the landowning fence and I'm sure that if all air gunners follow his advice there'll be a lot more shooting going on. If you'd like us to explore this area in more depth then please let us know but for now be it for permission or pests, I wish you all some very happy hunting!