A January Day's Picking Up at Holylee Estate

What does picking up on a shoot involve? We went behind the scenes at Holylee Estate, one of Scotland’s premier sporting estates, to see just what it takes to produce a top quality day of late season pheasant shooting.

The success or otherwise of any day’s shooting is always down to the picking up of the game. That is no different at Holylee, one of Scotland’s premier sporting estates, so we went to see just what it takes to make sure that all dead and, more importantly, any wounded game is picked up and despatched promptly.

As with his beaters, Graham White, Holylee’s head gamekeeper, has a number of pickers up from which to choose. Good planning is key to the process, so Graham has his dates as early as possible so that he can book in his pickers up as soon as he can. It is far easier to fill in another beater if one can’t make it – far more difficult to get hold of a good picker up who knows the ground at short notice

Pickers up are much more independent than the rest of the shooting team as they tend to move into position after the guns are in place and are still on a drive well after the guns have moved on to the next one. Thus, they need to know the ground, where birds will run to if they are injured and be able to communicate both which each other but also with Graham and, most importantly, with the guns themselves.

Any gun wants to make sure that any birds they have hit are picked up. They should be marking their fall and keeping count of just how many birds they think they have hit. It is very easy, in the heat of a busy drive, to keep pulling the trigger but a good shot will know the birds they have hit cleanly (which will fall within easy reach) and those they might have wounded which need to be watched until they hit the ground. They should then communicate with their nearest picker up to make sure they know just where all their birds have gone to, which ones have already been picked and which ones are still to be found.

The pickers up at Holylee are split between those who are closer to the guns and those that are well back. With high and fast pheasants the norm, wounded birds can travel a long way behind the line of guns. The pickers up nearest to the guns (who can often be 100m behind the line) are busy picking up birds as they fall, whilst also spotting those that have been injured and alerting their colleagues (who can be 500m behind the gun line) which ones they are and where they have fallen.

Each of the pickers up at Holylee have a minimum of three dogs and some have five or six with them. On a busy drive, the ones closest to the guns can have all their dogs picking up birds that have fallen within reasonable reach and, without belittling their skill in any way, their dogs will often have seen the birds fall themselves so they know where to look. The ones further back will have the more difficult job of directing their dogs onto a bird that they haven’t seen fall themselves. They can often have all their dogs each working on finding different birds all at the same time with the dogs reacting to their own set of commands. Despatching wounded game as quickly and efficiently as possible is the most important part of any day’s shooting and the team of pickers up that are far behind the line are the most important team for doing that job.

We carried out a poll at one of the key drives at Holylee and asked the guns what they thought they had shot on that drive. Each gun said how many they thought they had shot cleanly and how many they thought they had clipped or wounded. The number of birds that were actually picked from the drive was some 8% above the total number the guns thought they had shot with the difference all being collected by the teams furthest back, which just goes to show how valuable a part of the team they are – particularly on a let day where there might be a commercial value attached to each bird picked up (and that is no disrespect to the guns present on the day all of whom marked their birds and knew what they thought they had shot).

A skilled picker up will stay in the field until they are 100% sure they have picked every bird. That might mean their staying on a drive for an hour after the guns have moved on to the next one but that should make no difference as any good keeper or shoot captain will always prioritise picking fallen game.

The difficulty for any picker up is to be working close to a gun who has their own dog with them. They will have brought their dog as part of their enjoyment of a day’s shooting is to have their own dog pick their own birds. There is however a balance to be struck between letting a gun have that pleasure and being able to run an efficient shoot so the rough rule of thumb would be to pick any injured birds first and then to leave a sufficient number for the gun to feel that their dog has had a good day’s work. A fine balance but a key one as there is nothing that will ruin a gun’s day faster than having their own dog sitting at heel (or more often on a lead!) whilst all their birds are picked up around them. They will go on to curse you when their own dog starts whining with frustration as a result!

Seeing a picker up working a team of dogs on a busy day is to watch an art form in real time and, it goes without saying, that relationship between picker up and dog takes months and years to form. Starting with a pup and training that pup into being a trusted and reliable gun dog is a skill of the highest order requiring patience and experience to say nothing of the often special bond between “man” and dog.

Becoming a picker up on a shoot can often take time as keepers tend to have their team whom they know and trust. It would be very rare for a keeper to take on a brand new picker up without getting to know them and their dog’s ability first. Thus, if you wanted to become a picker up, often the best way is to start off as a beater and take one or two dogs with you. Keep them totally under control and get to know the keeper and, more importantly, let the keeper get to know you. It is often then a matter of being on hand for the day when one of the regular team has to call off at short notice and then going on to have a good day with your dogs doing what they do best and being able to despatch any wounded game efficiently.

From then on, one can hope to have many a happy day out in the great outdoors if you have the right kit for the weather conditions on the day and, beware, like any outdoor activity, you can have periods of high activity followed by plenty of time spent waiting and that wait on an exposed hill side in a cold wind in January, can leave you longing for a hot bath. Better to be prepared with plenty of layers and a reliable waterproof jacket and trousers to make sure you remain dry and warm throughout.

For more from our Holylee series, Part One and Part Two – Beating are now available.

Anthony stodartArdmoor teamExpertsGraham whiteHomeNewsShooting