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Picking-up for gamekeepers and 'guns'
- country sport or a job of work?   
by Bob Preston ©
A picker-up (with their team of picking-up dogs) attends a shoot for one purpose and one purpose only - to cover the ground behind the guns to ensure that dead and in particular any wounded game birds are collected up. Apart from the purely humanitarian perspective which should be in the forefront of every shooting person's mind (because the last thing we want is for wounded birds to be left behind if there is a chance of finding them) there is also the financial aspect. It costs money to rear a pheasant and to put it over the guns. To then skimp on the investment by not making every effort to ensure that bird is counted in the bag at the end if the day is simply foolish. Certainly a picker-up, as a 'shoot servant' to use an antiquated term, can be asked to carry out other tasks and should be willing to do so, but the wise keeper or shoot captain will realise that to have his pickers-up out of position at the start of a drive because they have been blanking in a piece of hedgerow is perhaps not the best use of resources.

English Springer retieves a cock pheasant

How do you start picking-up?
Most shoots will have a regular team of people who attend all season long and may have been going to that shoot for a number of years. They may or may not go to other shoots in the area. For a small shoot which has perhaps 10-12 days a year over 4-500 acres this is an ideal situation for the shoot manager to deal with, but for someone looking to start picking-up this is not necessarily the place to go looking. Pickers-up on smaller shoots can be fearfully protective of their "territory" and will guard it jealously.

On a large estate shoot where they shoot 30-40 days over 2500-4000 acres with daily bags of 250-400 birds expected, the situation is somewhat more complex. These shoots are likely to be more commercial in that a proportion of the days will be sold to teams of guns from home and abroad. Such shoots will require a much larger pool of pickers-up in order to cope with the demands of that number of days. Not that many people can allocate that number of days to any given shoot, especially if they are also working full-time.

It is on these larger shoots that the "newbie" may well find that they are able to wet their feet. There is a constant turn-over of pickers-up with people retiring, moving, losing vital dogs or any of a variety of reasons which then leaves a gap for a new person to start. I guess most of us got into our shoots in this manner. For me it was a few days beating on a particular large shoot in Hampshire. When there I let it be known that I was interested in picking-up and after a while I was invited to join the picking-up team on the last drive of the day to see how I got on. It must have been OK as I picked up on that shoot for nearly 18 years!

A picker-up and dog on the old Longparish shoot

What makes a good picker-up?
It is not easy to generalise here as it depends on a number of factors. Generally a good picker-up is one the guns don't see a lot of, but who sees what the guns are up to. This might sound a bit odd, but you are not there to hob-nob with the guns, though some guns like to see a picker-up at coffee time to query about a particular bird they hit, or thought they hit.

  • A good picker-up will know the ground.
  • He will know how the birds fly on any given drive and where wounded birds tend to make for.
  • Even if he can't see the guns he will know how the gun line is set and which guns get the most shooting and where birds slip out of the side to be picked off by a walking gun.
  • He will know to sweep through a wood in a given direction so as to push birds into the next drive if required, or so that they are not being pushed off the ground into next door's shoot.
  • He will know where the other pickers-up are working so that he doesn't cover the same ground as them.
  • He will know his dogs intimately and trust them implicitly whether in sight or out of it and this is vital.
  • He will be willing to go the extra distance in search of that wounded cock pheasant that the gun is certain is dead in the field but he knows it disappeared along a hedgerow half a mile away.
  • He will know where to stand so that the guns know he is there in the interests of safety, but he will not be in shot or obtrusive in any way. 
  • He will learn to spot wounded birds in the air. Not all birds fall down dead when shot, or stagger on in the air with various bits hanging down - legs, wings etc. Some glide on apparently unharmed but the experienced eye will see something out of the ordinary and watch that bird. Sometimes it just folds up in the air after gliding three or four hundred yards, and sometimes it lands and runs into cover. Those are the really rewarding birds. They are the ones my dogs get an extra Bonio for if they find it.
Furthermore a good and experienced picker-up going to a completely new shoot will be able to evaluate a drive so that he can place himself in a good position to do the job he is there to do. It may not be perfect, and he won't know the ground, but he will be able to form a shrewd idea of how the drive is likely to go and be there to do the job as effectively as he can.

A picker-up whose husband comes beating

Give it time
All of this takes time to learn. My view is that it takes at least three seasons to thoroughly learn your way around a shoot - especially a large shoot. I am now into my fourth season on a large Berkshire shoot where they have something like 50 available drives, and it is only this year that I am feeling much more comfortable on the ground and am feeling that I am beginning to give real value for money. On the Hampshire shoot referred to above it took three full seasons picking-up 26-30 days per year before I felt I knew the ground well enough so that if I was told to go to a given drive and pick-up behind the number 8 gun I could do so and be in the right place, work the right area and know where the rest of the picking-up team would be so that I could link up with them to cover the ground efficiently. The new picker-up will be reliant on the other team members to explain the drives and what he needs to do, sometimes with the aid of a sketch map.

No...*picking-up*, not pick your nose!

Team management
On larger shoots there will usually be a senior picker-up who will manage the team on the day. This person should ensure that his team rotates position around the drive. People become very "territorial" and it is all too easy for people to go to the same gateway all the time and cover their little bit of ground without any understanding of what the other three or four people are doing. People do tend to like familiarity, but they should be familiar with the whole drive, not just "their" little bit of it. Similarly the senior person should be able to use the resources at his disposal effectively. If he has one man there with five dogs and another man with two it is inefficient to ask the man with two dogs to sweep a wood out behind the beating line while leaving the man with five standing in the open. Five dogs will cover more ground than two.

Edith, picking-up

Where to stand
Where a picker-up should stand relative to the guns is another question that seems to crop up frequently, and this is dependant upon the nature of the ground and the proximity of adjacent drives. If the third drive of the day is the one into which the birds from drive 2 are being flown it is obviously not a good idea to go and stand there. Pheasants will rapidly vacate a wood if a dog goes running into it especially if it is a small wood or one with relatively little ground cover in which they can hide. This will be made clear to the new picker-up by the other team members. Where possible I like to stand anything from 200-400 yards behind the gun line. At this distance the picker-up behind number 1 gun can easily be ¾ mile or more from the picker-up behind number 8 which gives an idea of the amount of ground in between that has to be covered. Such luxury is often not available on a small shoot, so you have to evaluate each drive according to the layout of the land. Whatever the ground, it is important to get as far back as the circumstances permit.

If you are too close, wounded birds will fly back over your head and you may not see where they go. If you are too close you may not even notice that they are wounded. Also, being close to the guns is a hazard to you and to your dogs. Not all guns are as safety conscious as they might be, and it is a source of amazement to me that we do not hear of shooting accidents. Partridge days are the worst in my experience, though those who pick-up on grouse may have a different viewpoint. Guns seem to delay taking the shot until it is too late to take it in front so they turn round and shoot behind and as partridges often don't fly very high that puts the picker-up in the firing line if he is too close.

I have noticed that when standing well back, say 300 yards behind the guns and working forwards towards the gun line when the drive is over the first birds you will encounter will be the uninjured and lightly wounded ones - birds just carrying one or two pellets, but these will still probably die within a day or two so should be picked wherever possible. After a hundred yards or so you will run into a barren patch. The uninjured birds have moved off and there seem to be few if any hit birds. This is because the lightly hit birds have put as much distance as they could between the guns and themselves, and the harder hit ones haven't managed to get that far before seeking cover. After a while you start finding more birds; the more seriously injured ones that have managed to creep into cover, unable to fly further. Finally in the last eighty yards or so you begin to encounter the dead birds, the ones that fell more or less as soon as they were hit

Wendy Maxwell with her working dogs

Humanely dispatching birds
Dispatching wounded game is an area where things can go wrong. I hate to see, and have never done, what some guns will do if they pick up a wounded pheasant which is to hold it by the neck and swing it round and round as if they were stirring a huge bowl of soup. This is not far short of barbaric in my view and if seen by those we would rather not have taking too close a look at our sport could easily result in some nasty photos in the more lurid press.

The use of those so-called game dispatchers - things like a pair of pliers - just results in the bird having a broken neck which certainly kills it. However, when you then tie it up and hang it on the game cart and this then goes over a bump in the track, the head comes off the bird as it is only being held in place by a thread of skin. A headless pheasant is not worth very much.

wooden priest or a brass priest as are used in fishing can be effective in dispatching pheasants, partridges etc. A sharp blow to the skull of the bird will result in almost instant death. I use my walking stick which is a solid piece of blackthorn. This has five uses - the handle is nicely curved so I can wedge it up under my right "cheek" and use it as a rest; it is a useful prod to remind an erring spaniel of the need to walk to heel; it is very handy for bashing down brambles so I can get through; it is the priest referred to above and it is, of course, a comfortable and efficient walking stick.

This chap appears in other photos on here...but it

It's just not cricket!
I have known and worked with pickers-up whose idea of picking-up is to be as close to the gun line as they can, picking-up dead birds as they fall and then collecting birds from the guns. This is not picking-up. This is the job that the game cart driver, if there is one, should be doing or the guns themselves, especially if they have a dog or two. These people are not worth the money they are being paid as they ignore the likelihood that there are wounded birds farther back that need to be found. Unless they see a bird with an obvious injury such as a broken wing or leg they assume that everything that doesn't fall out of the sky is uninjured. A sweep along the gun line as a final check is all that should be required of a picker-up, though it never ceases to amaze me that we find a bird or two most times, so it is worth doing.

In fact one such pair I picked up with, knowing that I was standing well back used to call out if they saw a wounded bird heading into the far distance. They stopped when after several days I got fed up with their calls, "hen bird with a leg down heading for the firs", I responded " you effing saw it, you effing go and fetch it!".  Everybody, guns, beaters, and keeper heard it as I hoped they would, and the calls stopped forthwith. They didn't go and look for the bird, they just stopped calling out! They would emerge from the gun line laden down with birds, and twenty minutes later I would return from a hike with four. Their words, "Is that all you've got?" would be met with, "At least these weren't given to me by the gun" or something similar. 

Similarly I've picked up with people who would barely walk a hundred yards from their vehicle and bolted back as soon as they could in order to parade in front of the guns. One or two of these were gundog breeders keen to show off their wares in order to sell a dog. One was a betting man on the horses and had a miniature TV so he could watch the racing and always picked a spot so that he could stay with the vehicle and see if his bet came up. If guns or keeper came near he would be out of his vehicle in a flash, directing his pack of ill-disciplined and scruffy spaniels with great gusto and making a huge fuss whenever one of them returned with a bird. His motto was "Bullshit baffles brains" and it amazes me how many otherwise clever and sensible people were suckered by this character.

Dog training?
Others used picking-up as an excuse for training their trial dogs. In my view  picking-up dogs are expected to use their noses, eyes, ears and most importantly brains. They often need to puzzle out a situation for themselves without directions from their handler - something a trials dog doesn't. He relies totally upon his handler to tell him there is a dead pheasant on the ground out in the open five yards from the end of his nose!

David Andrews, Catcombe Golden Retrievers, having lunch whilst picking-up

The good guys
Similarly, I've picked up with some real hard working characters - people who know the ground and where to go looking - people with whom you can have a real joke and a laugh at coffee time. These people really do go the extra mile and are worth their weight in gold to any shoot. Unfortunately there are all too few of them.

A beater with terrier, at a Burbage shoot

When to pick-up
Another thorny question that often arises is whether or not a picker-up should pick up during the drive. Some guns get really upset if they see this, especially if they have their own dog with them. If you are standing well back this problem should not arise. The dead birds that the gun wishes to pick for himself are all 300 yards ahead of you and you have got the wounded ones to concern yourself with. In general I try to avoid picking-up during the drive, especially if the ground means that I have got to be closer to the guns than I would like. Birds are falling around the dog and it is simply putting temptation in his way to allow him out close to the gun line under those circumstances.

It also depends on the dog and how much you trust him. If the circumstances permit, it is sometimes better to nail a running pheasant before it gets into heavy cover and is more difficult to find. You will often find that a wounded bird will run away from the source of all the noise in the direction in which it was originally flying - i.e. towards you or nearly so. In this case it gives you plenty of time to ensure that your dogs have seen and marked the bird and time to allow it to get well away from the guns before you send your selected dog on a fast and neat pick-up. This can still be fraught with danger because if the bird is still very strong and capable of flight it might take wing and head back through the gun line. Under these circumstances you have to be pretty sure the dog will stop on command and not go charging through the guns straight into the flushing point which I have seen happen - fortunately not to myself. It usually causes great hilarity among the picking-up team and apoplectic rage in the keeper or shoot captain. If in any doubt, don't let your dog pick-up during the drive is the best advice.

Cyril *shooting* with his stick.  He never misses!

How many dogs and which breed?
Numbers of dogs or breeds of dog often come into the equation. Shoot managers can easily fall into the trap of assuming that just because someone has five dogs he is going to do a better job that someone with two. This is not necessarily the case, especially if the chap with five dogs can't be bothered to walk more than a hundred yards from his vehicle. Also, just because you have five dogs doesn't mean you are going to pick up more than twice the number than the chap with two dogs does. I find that working three dogs is a good number. I can keep tabs on three and know pretty much where they are or in which direction they are working. Other people are happy with two, others with four or more - the choice is yours. One thing to bear in mind though, in hypothetical terms. If there are twenty birds to be found on a given patch of ground and the chap with two dogs finds the twenty, the chap with four dogs wouldn't have found forty.

Very often, too, when someone is working a large team of dogs you will find that only three out of the six he is using are actually doing any serious work. One is likely to be an old dog and not very quick on his pins; one may well be a young dog and not experienced and one may be lazy and not too bothered if others get the retrieves or is lower down the pecking order in the pack and therefore gets mugged by one or two of the others if he finds anything.

Having said that, just because a dog is a veteran doesn't mean he is past it. My oldest spaniel is 13 and he runs all day and still finds his share of birds. The only problem is that he is rather deaf and if he gets in maize can easily get himself lost.

Breed of dog is a personal thing. I began with  a black flatcoat. He was a superb dog apart from one thing. He would not retrieve woodcock. I think he did not like the smell though when he was still quite young  I sent him on a woodcock which both of us had seen fall. He went straight to the spot and I could see the woodcock sitting there wounded. As he came right up to it ready to pick it up it turned its head right round 180 degrees and stared at him. This seemed to disconcert the dog and he backed away. He never picked a woodcock in his whole life. I bought a second flattie, a liver one this time. The best way to describe him was that he was a hippy. A lovely dog with a wonderful nature, but you could never be sure which dog was going to be out picking-up - the hippy or the superstar who would perform miracles and find birds that all had given up on.

I now work springers, three black & white dogs, and for me this is about right. I can deal with three and do an effective job which brings me to the final question; that of payment. Most shoots I know of pay around £40 for pickers-up. Now I know we don't do it for the money, but that is the approximate price of a pheasant on a let day. All the picker-up has to do is to find one bird that would otherwise not be accounted for and he may have paid his wages for the day. Thereafter the shoot is in profit. On this basis alone pickers-up give excellent value for money. Some shoots give side benefits such as use of estate vehicles as we can't all own 4x4's for a variety of reasons - I use a company car and I don't have the room or the means to keep a 4x4 purely for picking-up. Other benefits might include veterinary care if one of your dogs injures itself while working which is a real boon and could save you a lot of money.

Pete Snr, crossing a fence into the wood

So the answer to the question - is picking-up a sport or a job of work? In my view it is both. I get a lot of enjoyment from it, working my dogs in superb countryside, but to do it right entails a lot of hard work. You will walk several miles which is good exercise and on a decent sized shoot your dogs will get the sort of workout that international rugby players can expect during a test match, and what's more they will be fit to play the next day if asked. However, I think that if you go picking-up you have got to give value for money. £40 is not a lot, and as already said, find one that would have been lost and you've paid your way. You've still got to find that one, and if the keeper goes round next day and finds half a dozen dead pheasants where you were picking-up he is not going to be impressed with your abilities.

Lots of people want to go picking-up, and that's good for the future of shooting and the sport of picking-up. It's also good for the dogs themselves - they are well-fed and cared for, they get loads of exercise and do the work they were designed to do. Picking-up dogs are happy dogs.

David, walking the old railway embankment and watching the beating lines on either side

* * *

There is a code of conduct for pickers-up on the BASC website.

* * *

The above article was written by Bob Preston and is subject to copyright ©
Bob has kindly allowed it to be made available on this website to assist those who are interested. 
Websites can link to this website page but Bob's article must not be reproduced in whole or in part
without his express permission
, available by e-mailing us.

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