How Much Do You Know About British Hunting Etiquette?

Zoe Samuel

Image: David Osberg / E+ / Getty Images

About This Quiz

In the USA, it’s called hunting, but in the United Kingdom, taking out a rifle or shotgun to hunt an animal is referred to as shooting. This is because the British field sports community distinguishes this activity from what they mean by “hunting”, which involves getting on horseback and using a pack of foxhounds to track and catch a fox.

Shooting is very popular in rural communities, and more regimented than its US counterpart. It provides income from woodland, making it part of conservation efforts in the UK, and a major reason that the forested area of the country has doubled in the last 120 years (the other is the rise of central heating)

Strict rules govern shooting etiquette. You can’t just do it anywhere, you must respect the season for each animal, and if you hurt another person, don’t expect to get invited back! Shooting is also considered acceptable only if the animals are kept in proper conditions. In the case of pheasant or partridge, this means they may go in a smaller pen as a chick, but the minute they can fly, they live in the woods and can come and go as they please from a large outdoor pen. For grouse, snipe, and other birds that you can’t breed, it means managing their habitats—moorland, wetlands, and so on—to boost numbers. Duck requires a mix of methods. That way, they live a happy life and their death is clean, quick, and in most cases, painless.

Some of these rules are laws, and others are strict customs. How much do you know about how to participate in this heavily regulated sport?

What is it called when you stand as the birds are driven over you?

A "drive" is one part of a day's shoot. The people with guns stand in a row at a safe and respectful distance from each other, usually under a hilltop (so the birds fly extra high off the hill, which is harder thus more fun) or just beyond the edge of a wood where the birds live. A group of others (who are paid!) go through the underbrush and flush out the birds. The birds burst out of the trees or off the hill in small groups and those who are shot are dead before they have a chance to be worried. A normal day on a large estate will include five or six drives: three or four before lunch, two after (as the sun goes down early).

What are you looking to hunt if you call it "stalking"?

Rabbit, hare and deer can be "stalked." This means the "gun" (the person with the firearm) finds the animal, sneaks around to get upwind, then shoots before the animal knows they are there. You can take all day stalking a single deer and not get one. Rabbits are much easier!

When stalking a deer, you find the herd. Which one should you shoot?

You should only shoot old or sick deer, unless you have paid to shoot a stag with a fine set of antlers. Shooting the healthy ones cuts them off in their prime, and is generally a bad idea. Shooting the old or sick typically spares them a drawn-out death—as all apex predators in the UK are now gone, there is no quick way for an older deer to go. Gamekeepers on big estates are legally required to cull herds so that the older deer do not die like this.

What is a "beater"?

Remember how a "drive" means flushing the birds out over the people with guns? Well, the people who do this are called "beaters". Anyone who can walk rough terrain at a steady but slow plod can be a beater. It's a nice day out that many people in the local community enjoy, partly because they get to bring their dogs onto private land. All beaters are paid, including children. Children are only allowed to be beaters if they are big enough—if they are too small but dying to join in anyway, they can make some money carrying the bucket in which spent cartridges (shells) are put, as it weighs almost nothing.

Who are "the guns"?

The guns are the people who are at the shoot to actually shoot. It is a formal business. The full cast is a gamekeeper (a full-time estate worker who takes care of the shoot all year and makes sure poachers are stopped and birds are healthy), the host (the owner or manager of the land, or a person who has rented this shooting day from that owner), the beaters (we touch on these in another question), flankers (beater on the end of the line who stops birds curling off sideways), and pickers-up. The guns are the ones paying to be there, or they are guests of the host. All the others are employees and are paid to be there, though only the keeper and any under-keepers are full time.

What should you wear to go to pheasant shooting?

Tweeds are the customary uniform. Indeed, the full uniform is a shirt with a collar (and tie if desired), a tweed waistcoat, a tweed jacket, and matching "plus-fours," which are a truncated trouser. The reason for the plus-fours is that you may well tread in a bog deeper than a hiking boot is tall, and if so, changing a sock between drives is quick and easy. The only bright colors allowed are shooting socks that go up to the knee. If you have an official family tartan, your tweed should be made from it—this is considered classy as heck!

How many birds make up a brace?

The "bag" is the number of birds shot in a day, and it is measured in brace. A brace of pheasant means two pheasants. This comes from an Old English word for a pair. It's also handy because the shot birds are easily stored on a string that is looped around each bird then over a bar. The gamekeeper can count the strings, which are typically bright orange or blue thus easy to tell apart, more easily than he can count lots of birds in a pile. Each string is thus one brace.

You're shooting duck or other waterfowl. What sort of ammunition must you use?

Bismuth is used to treat ulcers, but it's also useful in ammunition. Typically, birds are shot with lead shot, but if this gets into waterways, it will make the water toxic. The amounts are very small, but it's still a bad idea to risk it. Bismuth shot is more expensive but it protects all the local animals. As we've mentioned, shooting requires protected habitat, which requires all the animals in the ecosystem to be happy and healthy. This means gamekeepers and landowners care very much about creatures like voles, insects and other birds, as their presence is essential to a good habitat.

Do you know what is meant by "rough shooting"?

The shoots we've described so far are very expensive and formal affairs. You can just go hunting if you have a license for the gun and the right to be on the particular land, as well as specific permission to shoot there. This is not just to ensure no over-hunting, it also helps the landowner and gamekeeper make sure nobody is in the area so that the birds are not prematurely flushed out, and you don't accidentally shoot anyone—or their dog!

What is the only creature you would consider shooting at night?

Rabbits are sometimes shot at night, a process called "lamping." They are nocturnal or crepuscular, so it is very hard to shoot enough of them during the day to serve as meaningful pest control. which is the leading reason to shoot rabbits at all. They are sometimes shot to eat them, but mostly it is about keeping numbers down so they stay balanced with other species instead of colonizing all the habitats, making sure they don't eat all the crops, and killing off any who suffer from "mixy." Mixy, or myxomatosis, is a disease introduced to rabbits in Australia to control their population explosion, and it is now everywhere. Shooting a rabbit with mixy spares it a truly unpleasant demise.

If a bird is coming over between you and your neighbor, closer to you, what is it called if he rudely shoots what should be your bird?

Wiping someone's eye means you shot a bird such that that the pellets came near your neighboring gun. Essentially, shotgun shells are not like bullets. They produce an expanding cone of pellets, so even when you hit the bird, a few pellets may go past. Thus, if you shoot "across the line" of guns, or close to it—that is, the end of your barrel lines up with the line of standing people and possibly swings across it as you track the bird—the odds that a falling pellet will hit someone go up. It probably won't do much damage, as a pellet is very small, it's probably falling by the time it hits them thus has lost most of its momentum, and can be stopped by a good tweed hat. It's still bad form to risk it!

What is it called when you shoot a bird that is very low?

If a bird has Braille on it, this is a joke meaning you could hypothetically reach up and touch it (in practice this is not possible). it was too low to shoot and you should have let it go over. Partly, this is because if you hit a low bird, you could pepper the whole thing with pellets, which is annoying when eating it! Mainly, however, it means you didn't play fair. The higher you can hit, the more skill you have, and the more sportsmanlike you are.

What bird would you never target if it flies over during the shoot?

You don't shoot endangered or protected birds. If you are in Britain, you also don't shoot songbirds, or anything that is out of season. This is again a matter of habitat protection. You don't go and ruin the very ecosystem that produced the birds you're there to shoot. If you see a pest like a crow, you can shoot that, but if you shoot something precious and rare like osprey, owl or kestrel, you will be persona non grata at any reputable shoot.

A bird is coming over your neighbor, but she has not spotted it yet. What do you shout to let her know?

If you see a bird coming for your neighboring gun's little patch of sky, you shout, "Over!" to signify that they should look. They might be busy reloading, or have just swung in the direction of another bird that means they are facing away and don't know they need to hurry. Sometimes you will shout, "On your left/right!" or "Over left/right!" to give them a more specific idea.

A "back gun" stands behind the main line. Which birds are for him?

The back gun is an experienced shot who stands about 50 yards behind the regular line of guns. He is only there if it is a very challenging shoot (eg. the birds are known to fly high and fast off a hill) or if the other guns are mostly inexperienced. There may also be a back gun if the shoot has more than eight guns, as there may not be space for a ninth in the line. Sometimes the back gun is the landowner, who wants a good view of the whole drive and to make sure everything is going well.

What is the hole in the ground that you stand in to shoot grouse?

A butte is a little hole that comes up to your armpit and is usually lined in stone. It is used in grouse shooting, which is the creme de la creme of shooting. This is because grouse can't be bred in pens and only live on moors, making access to them pricier. They fly fast and low, hugging the contours of their hilly habitat, and camouflage very well. They also have excellent eyesight, so if they see a man with a gun, or his dog, they will change course. Thus, they're incredibly difficult to shoot, and a butte is the best way to hit any at all.

When might you use a loader?

A loader is paid to help a gun reload between shots. Most guns reload for themselves, but if there are a lot of birds, you might have a pair of matching guns and a loader who reloads the one you're not using. Loaders also help older guns who can still shoot accurately but can't handle the fiddly loading mechanism, or younger guns who haven't got the knack of doing it fast yet. A loader is paid for his time, and the gun is expected to give him a big fat tip on top!

When should the safety be on?

Any time the gun is closed, you cannot see if it's loaded, and the safety must be on unless you are about to fire. No matter how careful you are, at some point in your life, you will load, then forget that you did. The safety is there as a backstop for such moments. If you're waiting a long time—say, if the drive is over a large area of land (typical of a grouse moor) and the birds don't arrive for a while—then you either unload entirely, or at least "break" the gun open. This is the only way to be sure it is not capable of going off.

Who wrote the famous shooting poem that begins, "Never, ever let your gun / Pointed be, at anyone?"

Mark Beaufoy wrote "A Father's Advice" to his son in the early 1900s to explain shooting etiquette. It covers the majority of what you need to know, ending, "You may kill and you may miss / But at all times think of this. / All the pheasants ever bred / Won't repay for one man dead." Safety comes first, and someone who is unsafe on a shoot will be escorted off at once and can be blacklisted. Gamekeepers in the UK are a tight-knit community, so if one sees a gun act like a dangerous drunk, all will hear about it!

Someone hands you a gun, or you take one out of the cabinet. What is the first thing you do?

If a gun goes off and the muzzle is pointing into the ceiling or sky, the worst that happens is some plaster or twigs tap you on the head. It hurts, but it's not the end of the world. If you get a gun in your hand, your instant response must always be to point it somewhere safe. That means into the ground or floor, or into the sky or ceiling. No exceptions!

You've made sure your gun's barrel is not pointing at anyone. What is the SECOND thing you do?

If the gun is closed, you don't know if it is loaded. If in doubt, you assume it is. That's why, once you have pointed the muzzle someplace safe, you immediately open the gun and check whether it is loaded. Most British gun owners will have had this so firmly drilled into them that it is pure muscle memory, and even if they go years without touching a gun, they still automatically do it!

How often should you clean your shotgun?

You don't have to clean your shotgun every time, but you should. This stops it getting rusty or clogging up, which is annoying because it can break it, and worse, it's dangerous because it can cause the gun to backfire or even explode! Cleaning the gun doesn't take very long, and it could save your life. Plus, quality shotguns are really expensive!

Which of the below would you shoot with a rifle, as opposed to a shotgun?

You shoot deer with a rifle, which fires one bullet, instead of using a cartridge (that is, a shell). The difference between a rifle or shotgun is most obvious if you look in the barrel (UNLOAD IT FIRST) where you can see "rifling," which is a sort of spiral that makes the bullet spin and thus go straight. This is why rifles are more accurate than their predecessor, the musket. Shotguns have a smooth inside to the barrel. Again, if you want to look into the barrel, unload the gun first. Ideally, take it apart completely.

Your dog has broken off its leash in excitement and run into the middle of the drive. How embarrassed should you be?

If your dog runs off into the line of beaters, it may flush all the birds out at once, which makes it hard to shoot more than one per gun. This wastes the keeper's work and the host's money. If you are the host, it's your money, so the worst issue you have is letting your friends down. If you are a guest, you have committed a terrible faux pas! Apologize profusely! If you don't have a spare leash, your dog may spend the day back at the house in shame. Dogs are encouraged to run free after the drive is finished, to help collect the shot birds.

A bird has been hit, but unusually, it is not dead immediately. What happens when it lands?

Some dogs have to be leashed during a drive as they get too excited and misbehave. Experienced "gun dogs" do not. If a wounded bird lands, they will immediately retrieve it so the keeper or a beater can put it out of its misery. That way, no bird is left to die slowly. If you meet a trained gun dog, you can become good friends simply by jangling the keys to the gun cabinet. They may be the only unpaid workers at the shoot, but these dogs really love their job!

For what purpose might you use a "priest"?

We're about to get a little gruesome, so look away if you can't bear it! A priest is a small weighted stick that makes it easy to knock a wounded bird on the head and immediately kill it. If you don't know how to do this properly but you find a wounded bird, ask a beater, the gamekeeper, or any of the pickers-up to help you. It is important that it is done right!

After a drive, what do you do with your empty cartridges (also known as shells)?

Collecting the cartridges is usually a grownup's job. However, there's often a little kid around too small be a beater, but dying to be included—usually a beater or gun's child, who insisted on joining mom or dad's day out. They get a rather sweet job—they carry a little bucket and pick up spent cartridges/shells after each drive. It is good form to gather your cartridges to the "peg" that marked your spot in the line, to help them out. They are paid, and this is often their first-ever payday, as well as great riches in their eyes!

What are the usual ways to carry cartridges (shells) with you on the shoot?

A belt, pouch, bag, or even a pocket can be used to carry cartridges. The important factors are whether you can reach them easily, and whether you can see that you have not included the wrong size. If you have one that is too large, it won't fit in the barrel. If you have one that is too small, it may get stuck. Worse yet, it may slide halfway down and you may forget it is there and put another one in behind it. This is a very good way to blow up your gun while you're holding it!

When just standing around with your gun for a long time, what do you do to make sure it is safe?

You must unload your gun if you have a long wait. Even if the safety is on, it is possible that a loaded gun may discharge, so the only way to be certain is to unload it. For a short wait, breaking it open may suffice, and for a very short wait, you just point it skyward or into the ground.

The guns stand on numbered "pegs," rotating throughout the day so each gets a chance to be in the middle (usually the best spot). How do you pick your first peg?

Most hosts have a little pouch with numbered rods, and each gun pulls out their number at the start of the day. This decides where you go in the line, and you rotate with each drive. As some spots are better than others, it's the fairest option. Years ago, sometimes you would receive whiskey or sloe gin in a cup, which you had to drink to find the number inside. Starting a day of firearm activity by boozing it up before 9 a.m. is, thankfully, no longer the way things are done!

What kind of gun does a proper hunter absolutely never use?

A pump-action gun is absolutely unacceptable on a shoot, so don't bring one! A .243 is a larger rifle for shooting a deer, while a .22 is for smaller targets like rabbits. Either of these rifles will have a telescopic sight, which is quite acceptable. You cannot use one on a shotgun as you are swinging it to track the bird in the air, thus it would not be possible to focus.

What is it called when you get one bird with each barrel?

A left and a right means you hit two birds that came over in close succession, without reloading in between. Experienced guns use a "side-by-side", and learn to eyeball how much to compensate for this when they aim. An "over-and-under" gun, with the barrels aligned vertically, is easier to sight accurately, but is considered amateurish. This is because it takes longer to load, as you have to break it all the way open to access the lower barrel. If this is all you own, ask your host ahead of time to loan you a side-by-side.

How do you know when a drive is over?

The gamekeeper blows a horn when the drive is over. This means either the beaters have flushed all the birds in that section, or that they are too close and further shooting is unsafe. If the land is hilly, you will be told beforehand that there will be two horns. The first means, "Do not shoot forward. You can't see over the hill, but the beaters are now within range." You can still shoot, but only steeply upward or behind you. The second signifies the drive is done. Shooting after the horn is very taboo, as it is dangerous.

Why should you not stare vertically upward after firing a shotgun?

You should wear a hat on a shoot, so a falling pellet doesn't hurt you. More importantly, it's unwise to look vertically upward right after you shoot, even if you really want to spot a particular bird, or for any other reason. "Falling shot"—pellets that reached the end of their range and are now falling to the ground—is not often dangerous, but it can draw blood if it hits bare skin, and it can take out an eye. This is thankfully extremely rare.

At the end of the day, other than your host, whom do you thank?

After the shoot, thank the beaters, but don't tip —they are paid by the estate. Thank and tip any loader. You then go to the host's house for tea. The gamekeeper will bring you a brace of pheasant if you want (the rest are sold to a butcher) and a souvenir card. Tip him £20, plus £10 for every 100 birds in the "bag" (total). The money is shared with any under-keepers. The traditional way to tip is to include it in your handshake (yes, really). If you must leave before the gamekeeper arrives, give the tip to the host to pass on. Failure to tip the keeper is very rude, so if you forget, call your host at once and have them do it for you (which they probably already have), then reimburse them.

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