Shooting by Captain R. Bird Thompson

The 1st of September is a day more looked forward to by the general sporting public than any other. August 12th and October 1st may be eagerly anticipated by the wealthy sportsman, but September 1st is the day most generally looked forward to. Nor is the reason difficult to discover. Partridge-shooting is comparatively the cheapest of sports. So long as vermin is kept down by trapping, and the fields properly bushed in the season, to prevent the birds being netted, a fair number are sure to be found. There are few better or more exciting sports than partridge-driving. People who have never tried and those who have tried and failed, affect to despise it; but, in spite of all, it is an excellent sport, if only for the reason that all can join in it. The old and young, the weak and strong, and even ladies, honour the stands with their presence; though this cannot be said to add to the accuracy of the shooting, for partridge-driving arrangements are usually made so as to arrive at the first set of stands somewhere about eleven. Here the head-keeper is met, who, after giving directions about watching particular lines, and begging that gentlemen will not put up their heads too soon, but keep down and "give the birds a chance," as he calls it, on the lucus a non lucendo principle, I suppose, mounts his old horse and trots off after the drivers, receiving, first of all, you may be sure, some chaff from the youngsters about his horse and his seat, to which he good-humouredly rejoins that "he hopes they will shoot better than he can ride."

The party now disperse to their several stands, each one accompanied by his loader, and, as you stroll down with your old loader, he greatly amuses you by his observations on the party and shrewd forecast of their respective powers. In a short time the distant sound of a horn is heard, which makes your old man break off his stories and reflections altogether, as he knows it is the signal for the line of drivers to start; you yourself peer eagerly through the screen, though really knowing that there is no chance of a shot for a long time yet. Presently a series of unearthly yells are heard, as some obstinate covey rises and breaks back over the drivers' heads. And here let me remark that the arrangement of a successful drive requires a great deal of forethought and knowledge; the wind and sun must be studied, and also the habits of the birds. Partridges are thorough Tories, and like to take the same line that their fathers before them did, so it is useless to try to drive them far out of it.

Presently, as you are looking through the screen, a dark object comes into view that appears rather like a bumble bee; in another second you perceive it is an old cock French partridge, when, just as you are in the act of firing, down drops the bird, and commences running like a racehorse. Naturally you bring your gun down, but the old loader whispers, "Shoot un, sir, shoot un; he be the blarmed old cock, and mayhap, if you kills un, t'others will be obliged to fly;" so you pot him, and the cloud of feathers that comes out is wonderful. A novice would think that it was blown to bits; but the fact is, nothing of the kind has happened, the cloud being caused by the great thickness of plumage. It is very curious to shoot one in snow: the stream of feathers lying on it looks as if a small pillow had been ripped open.

Soon a distant cry of "Mark over!" showing that a covey has risen and is coming right for the stands, puts every one on the qui vive. Here they come straight for the man on the right, and you feel almost inclined to envy his chance, when suddenly the covey mount straight up like so many sky-rockets; your friend, fresh to the sport, has put up his head just a minute or so too soon, and the birds saw him. Firing a hasty right and left as they pass over, he is greatly surprised at a bird falling nearly on the top of him, the fact being that the two he shot at were clean missed, but one of the hindmost of the covey flew into the shot. And now the scene begins to be very interesting; the birds are beginning to run out of the roots on to the large stubble in front, not by ones and twos, but by twenties at a time, the French birds of course being first. It is most curious to notice their dodges—how they run about looking for places to hide in, and when they discover the least shelter drop down into it at once; but you cannot spare much attention to them, as the coveys begin to rise thick and fast, and cries of "Mark over!" are incessant. The work now begins to be very exciting, and the fusillade kept up reminds one of the commencement of a general action, so sustained is it. Some of the younger hands, thoroughly overcome by the excitement of their first drive, are firing wildly, as if they thought they should not have a second chance. By way of contrast, look at the man stationed three or four stands from you, and see the machine-like regularity with which he knocks the birds over; no flurry of any sort, the gun brought up easily, the two sharp reports, and a brace of birds tumbling; the empty piece handed to the loader, and the other gun taken and discharged in the same cool way with the like unfailing result. Both master and man are perfect specimens of their kind, the former as a shot and the latter as a loader. And now, as the drivers get further through the roots, the hares begin to bolt out, running wildly in every direction, utterly bewildered at the shouts and yells that greet them. Not many are shot at except by those who have utterly muffed the birds, and are anxious to show that they can hit something. Next, as the drivers come out on to the stubble, the French birds begin to get up by ones and twos. Many of these get off, for they rise from such queer places, often close to the stands.

The first drive being over, the head-keeper comes up to see the game collected, pausing by the stands of those who have been unlucky, and gravely telling their loaders that they "need not trouble to pick up their master's birds," as he always sees to that; whereupon very frequently the occupier tries to explain how the birds twisted or the sun was in his eyes, or makes one of the thousand excuses that men give for missing. The game being now collected, the party stroll off to the next set of stands, and the same thing goes on again, with the exception that some of the excited sportsmen cool down a little, and, in consequence, improve in their shooting. Driving is the least fatiguing of any sport to the shooters, the drivers having to go such long rounds to their different starting-points that there is not the least need to hurry from stand to stand, but you can pick your way and go by the easiest route. The actual shooting, however, is difficult; it requires skill and coolness to get the exact knack of the thing. I well remember, after one drive, a man, who really was a remarkably good shot over dogs or walking up birds, coming to me with an expression of the greatest disgust on his face, and saying, "I have actually missed eight shots running!" However, he soon got into the way of it; but at first you do not discover the pace the birds go at, and are rather bothered by their coming right at you.

After a morning's driving very good sport can be got in the afternoon by going out with a couple of steady spaniels after the French partridges. You will find these birds have hidden themselves in the most wonderful places, under clods and small lumps of hedge-cuttings, in tufts of grass, holes by gate-posts; in fact, there is no telling where they may have got to. A rabbit-hole is a very favourite place; so if one of your dogs seems inclined to stop and scratch at one, do not tell your keeper to "call the tiresome beast off," as he is always after rabbits, for it is ten to one that a Frenchman has taken refuge there. You will often find that the birds have got down almost to the end of the hole. However, they give capital sport, as they rise out of such unexpected places that you must always be ready for a shot. Besides the sport, it is an excellent way of keeping these "pests" down; for they really are "pests," driving about the English birds in the breeding season, and bothering your dogs awfully in the beginning of the shooting season by their habits of running; indeed, until driving commences, you hardly ever kill a Frenchman; but this is not much of a loss, as when they are shot they are not worth eating. One thing, you can send them away as presents to people who do not know their merits, and are very much pleased with them on account of their size and the beauty of their plumage, doubtless putting down their hardness and want of flavour to their cook!

But partridge-shooting par excellence is over dogs. It is a treat indeed to see a brace of well-broken pointers or setters at work: the speed with which they quarter their ground, and yet their perfect steadiness; to see the dog that finds the game stop dead in his gallop, limbs all rigid, as if he was turned into stone, ears pricked and eyes almost starting out of his head with excitement; then his companion backing steadily, the attitude the same, but no eagerness shown; the rapid shots, and the dogs both down in an instant,—all this is delightful to witness, but is very seldom seen now-a-days. After the first week dogs are very little use, the birds will not lie to them; high farming, with its machine-cut stubbles, clean ploughs, and widely-drilled root-crops, has almost abolished shooting over dogs. The birds will not wait on the bare stubbles, and if you get them into roots, the rattle of the leaves when the dogs are at work is a signal for their flight. The only chance is where seeds have been sown in barley; then the reaping-machine cannot be set very low or it clogs, and in this there is fair lying; but as for the fine stubbles knee-high that our fathers enjoyed, and the broadcast turnips—why, they have gone, and pointers and setters have, alas, nearly disappeared with them.

When the birds have become so wild that they will not lie to the dogs at all, the best and most sportsmanlike way is to walk them up; but to do this with any success requires a man to be in excellent training. Walking over fallows deeply ploughed by steam-power is no joke, and the birds invariably select these. Your plan is to have about four guns and five keepers or beaters, and take the fields in line, of course driving in the direction of any pieces of cole-seed, mustard, or roots that you may have on your ground; for when once the birds get into these, particularly into cole-seed, they will remain the rest of the day. It is surprising how many are bagged when walking: sometimes the coveys seem bothered by the line of men, and will rise within an easy shot; but they often seem to know by some sort of intuition the bad shot of the party, and will allow him to get fairly into the middle of them, when they rise with a rush, and fly off none the worse for his too hurried shots.

In this sport there is not half the firing to be heard which there is in "driving;" but the deadly single shot or the steady double is heard pretty regularly, and the bag at the end of the day is usually heavier. You commonly find that a very fair bag is made before entering the cole-seed or roots where the coveys have principally gone; but when this cover is entered, unless very unlucky, you may fairly reckon on the bag being doubled, for the birds cannot run much, and are forced to rise fairly, so that even a moderate shot ought to be pretty sure of his birds. One great advantage of this kind of shooting is that so few birds get away wounded; as a rule they are either dropped at once or get off scot-free, whereas in "driving" an immense number go away wounded; and if there are any crows in the district, it is most curious to see them on the day after a "drive" hunting the fields regularly and systematically after the cripples.

There is still another method of partridge-shooting, but this mode is only adopted by wealthy cits, and brand-new peers. The keepers, with a strong force of beaters, are sent out to drive the birds into cover, and, when there, men are left as stops to keep the birds from straying out; then about twelve the party drive up in wagonettes, well wrapped up, and with plenty of foot-warmers, &c., to the nearest piece of cover, get out, take their guns, and walk right through it, blazing at everything that shows itself; when they have done one field, they get into their carriages and drive to the next, where the same amusement is carried on; then comes hot lunch at the nearest keeper's house, which lasts for an hour or more, and the afternoon sport is a repetition of the morning's. There is no stopping to pick up the game,—keepers are left behind for that, and are told to take their guns, so as to stop any cripples, the "writing between the lines" being in this case that they are to kill all they can, so as to make the bag sound better at the end of the day.

As partridge-shooting is one of the cheapest amusements, pheasant-shooting, on the other hand, is one of the dearest. What with feeding the young birds and doctoring them, and the constant watching they require when they are turned into the cover; and lastly, the large staff of beaters, the calculation of ten shillings per head for every one killed is not far beyond the mark. Pheasant-shooting can really only be managed by one method, and that is by having a body of well-trained beaters; so cunning are these birds that there is no chance of giving your friends the desired sport, if you do not have them. It is true a very pleasant day may often be had on the outskirts of your grounds by going round with some well-broken spaniels; but for real pheasant-shooting beaters are indispensable. A well-arranged and successful beat requires almost as much generalship as an Ashanti campaign. The covers must be watched from the earliest season, but the watchers must show themselves as little as possible; if the pheasants come out, they should put them back by rattling a stick or shaking some branches, for by showing themselves the chances are that the pheasants would fly off at once, but the rattle of a stick merely makes them run back into cover. Then the corners where they are to rise must be netted most carefully, perfect silence being kept, and as little noise of any kind made as possible. When the beat has actually commenced not a point must be left unguarded, the smallest ditch or grip with grass in it must have a "stop" at it, and any hare or rabbit runs that there may be must be stopped also. The boys who act as "stops" have to be well drilled in their parts, just to keep a subdued kind of rattle with their two short sticks, and by no means to strike the bushes in cover—merely to use their sticks as a kind of castanet. In fact, pheasants are at once the keeper's greatest pride and greatest plague, from the time when he has to guard the wild birds' nests against egg-stealers, and to watch those brought up under hens—ever on the look-out for gapes or croup when they are quite young, and then when older, and turned into the covers, on the watch for poachers or vermin, until the grand shooting-day; and even until that is over his anxiety is unceasing. It is very difficult to prevent them straying, particularly in a district where there are many oaks, as they will, however well fed, roam after acorns. And then to insure there being a proper quantity of pheasants in the required places is no easy work. With all the pains possible, it is extraordinary how they will stray away. Two instances of this straying propensity came under my individual notice.

I was staying with a large party at a friend's house for pheasant-shooting, and as the covers had not been beaten before, my friend was sanguine of some first-rate sport, knowing the large number of pheasants that had been reared, and the trouble that had been taken with them. We went out, and everything seemed to promise an excellent day's shooting; the pheasants were all reported safe the night before, and "stops" had been sent out early to prevent them straying, nets put down, and all complete. Well, the first cover that was beaten yielded only about thirty or forty pheasants, instead of three or four times that number, and the second and third the same. The host looked much annoyed, and his keeper almost heart-broken; and this kind of sport continued until the afternoon, when my friend called up the keeper, and in desperation ordered him to beat a small covert standing by itself about three-quarters of a mile off. The man said he did not think it was any use, as no pheasants were ever there; however, as his master wished it, it should be done, and he sent off some men to put down the nets very carefully. When we came up the under-keeper said there certainly were some pheasants there, though he had never known them to be in that place before; so we began, and very soon found that they had nearly all migrated from their usual quarters to this place, above four hundred being killed in this small cover. How they got there no one could guess; there were not any connecting hedgerows or ploughed fields, and they had roosted in their usual places.

The second case occurred to myself. I wished to beat a small cover of my own of about four acres, as we knew there were some pheasants there, and being an outlying one it was not altogether safe; so I gave orders that the place should be netted, and "stops," &c., sent out, and then went and beat it, but to my great surprise found scarcely anything. The keeper was utterly puzzled too; we tried all the likely spots round with no result, and I came to the conclusion that some poachers must have beaten the wood very early that day. However, as we were going off, the quick eye of my keeper detected a pheasant running in an old grassy lane near, and we resolved to try this; and well it was we did; every bush and tuft of grass seemed to hold a pheasant, and we made a capital bag, killing all but one, to my keeper's great satisfaction. Several more were got than the number he had mentally put down for the cover to yield; however, in this case we at length detected the way they had got out. The end of the wood had been netted, and a "stop" put on one side where there was an old ditch; but on the other a little grip with long grass in it, leading from the cover across a field to the old lane, had been left unguarded, as the net was thought to have been fastened down so closely that nothing could get out; but the pheasants found the weak place, and undoubtedly strayed by it.

To insure a good day's pheasant-shooting, thoroughly trained beaters are absolutely necessary; and it is equally needful that the guns should remain where they are posted, or if they are to move, only do so exactly as the head-keeper directs. Nothing is more annoying, both to master and keeper, than having a good day spoiled because two or three of the guns will get together to hear or tell the last new story, and consequently let the pheasants escape by not being at their proper posts. If you have the good fortune to be placed by the net at the end of the beat, you will find that, besides having the best place for sport, great amusement can be derived by noticing the behaviour of the various kinds of game as they come up to it. Soon after you have taken your position, the rattle of sticks is heard, showing that the beat has begun, and shortly a suppressed shout indicates that a rabbit is up; for the best-trained beaters in England cannot resist giving a shout at the sight of one, and if they are a scratch lot, the yells that greet its appearance could not be exceeded if half a dozen foxes had been unkennelled at once. They will allow a pheasant or woodcock or, in fact, any other kind of game, to get away silently; but a rabbit is too much for them—why, I do not know; but such is the fact. In a short time something may be heard coming very rapidly towards the net, and in a minute a splendid old cock-pheasant appears, who runs right up to it; then, suddenly catching sight of you, back he goes like a racehorse, and you hear the whirr as he rises on meeting the line of beaters, and the cry of "Mark back," succeeded as a rule by two rapid shots, sometimes only by a single one, followed by a crash as he comes down through the trees. Next a lot of hen-pheasants come pattering along, crouching as they run with outstretched neck. These come up very quietly, and begin to examine the net closely, walking along it, trying whether they can find a place to pass underneath, and, if they do, they infallibly lead all the rest away; but, failing this, they squat down and become at once almost invisible; so exactly does their plumage assimilate itself to the dead leaves that, unless you happen to catch their eye, you would never detect them. Then come a lot of young cocks in a terrible flurry, running here, there, and everywhere, occasionally twisting round like teetotums; these, too, at length squat, picking out tufts of brake or grass, where their dark heads are covered, and their back and long tail-feathers just match the stuff they are lying in. Presently some hares come along, and these are all listening so intently to the beaters, and looking back as well, that they blunder against the net, greatly to their astonishment; for they sit up and stare at it, and then trot away to see if they can make off by one of their visual runs; failing in this, they lie down in some of the thickest cover, hoping to escape by this plan. Numerous rabbits come hopping along, and, meeting the net, turn and hide themselves in stumps or any other place they can find. And really, as the beaters come nearer and nearer, you would never imagine the quantity of game there is; a novice would at once declare there was none, so absolutely motionless does it remain until it is forced up; and then, although you have been at the post all the time, the quantity seems quite astonishing. Pheasants begin to whirr up, at first by twos and threes, and then almost by scores at a time, and the firing is incessant; it seems now that every tuft of grass or piece of fern has a pheasant under it; but in spite of the beaters, several old cocks run back between them, being far too clever to rise and be shot at, knowing that a beater may almost as well strike at a flash of lighting as at an old cock running.

I may here remark that some of these old cocks will often escape being killed season after season by some dodge or other. In a cover of my own there was an old cock-pheasant who lived between six and seven years, always escaping the guns. We used to drive this cover regularly to the same point, and just before the beaters had finished, this old fellow would get up close to the outside hedge, rising above the underwood as if he would give an excellent shot; but, just as you thought he was as good as bagged, closing his wings, he would drop into the field close to the hedge, turn round, and run back like a racer, hopping over the fence again into the cover just behind the beaters. He practised this dodge successfully for several years; but at length the keeper complained so much that he disturbed the cover, and would not let any other bird come near, that I had to devise means to kill him, which was effected by driving the cover the opposite way to which he was accustomed. The old fellow was so bewildered that he rose, gave a fair shot, and was killed. A more splendid bird than he was could scarcely have been seen—in full plumage, a broad and perfect white ring round his neck, and spurs an inch long, and as sharp and hard as if they had been made of iron.

Very amusing it is, too, to watch the shooters. There stands one man, picking his birds, and dreading a miss for the sake of his reputation; here is a greedy shot, firing at everything, blowing much of his game to pieces, for fear anyone else should get a shot; and again, there is the keeper's horror and detestation—a man who sends off his birds wounded, as a rule hitting them, but very seldom killing one clean, with the exception of those that he utterly annihilates. Lookers-on are apt to laugh at sportsmen for missing pheasants, so large do they look, and such apparently easy shots do they give; and until a person tries himself, he has no idea how fast they really do fly, or how easy it is to miss them.

Rabbit-shooting is capital sport; indeed, none can be better for affording sport to a large Christmas-party in the country. Everybody enjoys it, and brightens up at the idea, from the schoolboy home for the holidays—who has been in and out of the house scores of times already to see how the weather looked, whether the beagles would be ready, or on some other wonderful pretext—to the old sportsman, who did not know whether he should come, but cannot resist the temptation, merely trying at first to save his dignity by saying he should just come and see if any woodcocks were sprung, and ending in being as enthusiastic about it as the youngest. The "form" displayed by the shooters is diverse. There is the elderly gentleman who gets away by himself to a quiet corner, and is found at lunch-time with three or four mangled rabbits, none of them having been more than a couple of yards from his gun when they were shot. Then there is the man who will always fire both barrels; if he misses with the first, of course he tries with his second; but if he does hit the first time, discharges the second barrel as a sort of salute in honour of his successful first. And here is an amateur—this one usually a schoolboy or 'Varsity man—who fires at whatever he gets the slightest glimpse of; a robin flitting about amongst the brambles is safe to have a shot fired at it; and indeed the dogs, keepers, and shooters have all, in their turns, very narrow escapes from this gentleman: the position he has held is well and distinctly marked by the cut-down underwood and well-peppered trunks of trees. Then there is the sportsman, generally a great swell, who fires at everything he sees in the distance, and claims all game killed within a radius of a quarter of a mile. He cannot be induced to shoot at a rabbit or any game within a reasonable distance, his excuse always being, "Choke-bore, my dear fellow—blow it to bits;" the fact being that he never hits anything except by accident, and fancies by this plan that he is not detected.

I once saw a capital trick played on a person of this kind by a couple of mischievous schoolboys. They procured a dead rabbit, and fixed it firmly in a lifelike position by means of sticks, &c.; then tying a long piece of string to each foreleg, they went and ensconced themselves behind two large trees in the cover, one on each side of the road, about seventy yards from the gentleman's stand. Putting down the rabbit, one of them drew it slowly across the road, the other giving a shout, which made their friend look round and immediately shoot at it, when the string was jerked and the rabbit fell on its side. Whilst he was reloading and fiddling with his gun, the rabbit was drawn away, and in a short time the game was played again; in the end about twenty shots were fired at it by the victim, not one of which touched it, and the string was only cut once. When lunch-time came, and the keeper went round to collect the rabbits, he was saluted by the gentleman with:

"Well, Smith, got my eye in to-day. Never saw such a gun; killed at least thirty rabbits straight off crossing the road up there. Must have been one of their regular runs."

Off went the keeper to pick them up, and of course detected the trick at once. His good manners would not allow him to laugh there; so he had to make a bolt for it, and, to my great surprise, I saw this staid and serious head-keeper burst through the cover into the ride I was in, and begin to shout with laughter in the most uproarious manner. For a moment I thought he had gone mad, and on walking up to him could get nothing out of him, except between his fits of laughter, "Beg pardon, sir, but them 'limbs,' them two 'limbs!'" At last he got sufficiently calm to tell me what had occurred, and I need hardly say that I laughed almost as heartily. The indignation of the victim was great when he discovered the trick, and he stalked off to the house at once; and perhaps it was well that he did, for the two young scamps' account of the whole thing was enough to send anyone into fits. It is needless to say that they ever after occupied the foremost place in the keeper's affections.

It is, indeed, a very pretty sight to see a pack of beagles working in cover. How they try every tuft of grass or rushes! Soon you notice that they are working more eagerly, and some begin to lash their tails, and suddenly out bolts "bunny" from his seat, sure to be saluted by a hasty shot from some one, not the least to its detriment, but a very narrow escape for the leading dogs. Away go the pack, making the woods ring with their tongues. Excited individuals race after them, often with their guns on full cock, and their fingers on the trigger. What their ideas may be in this performance is difficult to say, but I suppose it is the effect of that temporary insanity that seizes many people at the sight of a rabbit. As a rabbit invariably runs a ring, and returns to its starting-place, there is not the least use, except for the sake of the exercise, in trying to follow it; and the first one put up is safe to run his ring, as the good shots will not fire at him, that the youngsters may have a chance, and the indifferent shots are sure to miss the first through excitement. You hear plenty of shots whilst the dogs are running, as other rabbits, frightened by their noise and passage, bolt from their seats and scuttle about everywhere. Besides these, a few old cock-pheasants, who have strayed from the preserves, are sure to be found and shot. You shortly hear a shot from the cover the rabbit was found in, followed by "Who-whoop!" showing that the hunted one has been killed.

The keeper then begins to draw afresh, and you may notice that certain of the older sportsmen are very attentive to the hounds whilst drawing, the reason being, as is soon evident, that they hope a woodcock may be flushed, and their hopes are usually realised. If you mark one beagle poking about by himself, sniffing along, evidently on scent, yet not opening, you may be pretty sure he is on a woodcock. But very soon another rabbit is found, and away goes the pack, this time not quite so steadily, as the number of rabbits up tempt the younger hounds after them. However, this adds (except in the opinion of the staid elders) to the sport; and soon, by the noise of the beagles' tongues and the rapid shooting, it appears as if every hound had a rabbit to himself. There certainly must be some "sweet little cherub" sitting "up aloft," who protects rabbit-shooters and beagles, so reckless does the shooting always appear. Here you see an excited youth fire at a rabbit not a yard in front of the dog. How he manages to miss both seems incomprehensible, but he does. There another rushes round a corner, and blazes both barrels at one, just in a line with another gun, and only a few yards from him; but he escapes too. In a word, rabbit-shooting with beagles is one of the most amusing, but at the same time one of the most dangerous, sports going.

The advance of civilisation and cultivation has almost entirely spoiled snipe and wild-fowl shooting. In the districts where, thirty years ago, ducks might be found by dozens and snipe in swarms, the former are extinct; and as for the latter, if there happens to be one, it flies off before you are within half a mile of it, as if it was ashamed of being seen in such a place. I well remember the capital shooting I used to get in Berkshire. There was a large swampy common of several hundred acres, all rough sedgy grass and rushes; on one side was a wide ditch full of twists and turns, with high reedy banks, and at the further end a narrow tributary of the Thames, with beds of water-rushes on both sides; and on the other side were acres of small meadows of from six to ten acres, divided by high hawthorn hedges and deep wide ditches. It was a real "happy hunting-ground" for anyone fond of the sport, and many have been the long days that I and my retriever passed on it. The common itself was invariably full of snipe, and they behaved themselves properly in those days, not rising and going off in whisps directly you appeared, but trying to be shot at decently, like respectable birds. Then the ditch and river were sure to hold ducks; and after you had hunted the common, it was very exciting work, creeping up the various well-known curves and turns in the ditch, where the ducks usually remained, my dog creeping after me, quite as much interested as I was myself, and showing most wonderful intelligence in avoiding stepping on any little pieces of thin ice or anything that would make a noise; then the careful look over the bank, and if the stalk had been successful, the rapid double shot at the ducks, as they rose with a rush, followed by the drop of killed or wounded, if the shot had been lucky, and the subsequent hunt after the cripples, if unfortunately there were any, for nothing on earth is so difficult to get as a wounded duck. The way they will dive, and the time they can keep under water, only rising and putting the tip of their beak up to get air, and the extraordinary places they get into, will puzzle the best retriever, and weary out his master's patience, unless he has a very large stock of that, or obstinacy, in his composition. But very often, when I peered cautiously over the bank, the ducks could just be seen swimming away down a further reach of the ditch, making for the larger stream below, and then it was a race as to which should get there first, as the cunning birds knew as well as I did that if they once got there, and into the reed-beds, they were comparatively safe. It was no joke, running as hard as you could go, in a stooping position, for several hundred yards; and often they would escape me, an unfortunate step on a piece of thin ice, or a stick, making them rise, and I then had the pleasure of seeing them fly off and drop into a reed-bed half a mile off, which I could not get at.

I had often been warned that the ditch was dangerous, and proved it on one occasion, very nearly to my cost. Some ducks dropped into a rushy pool in a field on the opposite side of it, and as I should have had a walk of a mile to get round to them, I determined to try and cross, fortunately for myself selecting a place where there was a stout young willow; so putting down my gun, and catching firm hold of the tree, I put one leg into the ditch, and soon found, though it passed down through the mud above my knee, that no bottom was to be found, and on trying to withdraw it, discovered that my leg was fixed as if in a vice. Fortunately the willow was strong, and having one leg on the bank, after pulling until I thought the other must be dislocated, I succeeded in extricating myself.

But the meadows on the further side were where the best sport used to be got. These, as I have said, were divided by large hawthorn hedges fully twelve feet high, and intersected by deep ditches full of reeds, with an open pool here and there. The meadows, too, had narrow gutters cut in them to act as drains, I believe, and these abounded with snipe; and after you had flushed the common ones, if you hunted carefully a good many jacks could be found. The ditches were very good for ducks. By help of the hedges you could get up to them unperceived, and many a fine mallard I got here. Hares were also fond of the rough grass, and partridges might usually be found in the middle of the day. I remember bagging one December day six and a half couple of ducks, eleven couple of snipe, besides some jacks, three hares, and three and a half brace of birds. This does not sound much, but to me it was a thoroughly enjoyable day. No keeper following at one's heels, full of advice, but just going where and how I pleased; then the successful stalk after ducks, and the unexpected luck with partridges and hares, in addition to the snipe, have indelibly impressed this day on my memory. Being in this neighbourhood a short time ago, I went down to look at my favourite ground, and found that the large marshy common, with a few donkeys and some wretched cows trying to get a living off it, had been drained, and subdivided by neat post and rail fences, and sheep were grazing where snipe used to abound. The only thing unchanged was the old ditch. I suppose it is all right, but I prefer the ducks and snipe.

Many years ago very fair duck-shooting, and some snipe as well, might be got on the Thames between Marlow and Windsor, and this was a very luxurious kind of wild-fowl shooting; for all you had to do was to hire a punt and a good puntsman who knew the river well, and, wrapping yourself up comfortably in a warm coat, drop down the river, going into the quiet back waters and round the eyot-beds. In favourable weather a good many ducks might be found, and it was curious to notice how they would hide themselves under the banks where they were undermined by the stream, and the roots of the osiers hung down. An old mallard would constantly stay until fairly poked out; and often when you thought you had tried them thoroughly, after you left an old fellow would rise and go quacking off. The eyot-beds were favourite places for snipe; but you could not do much with these unless with a steady old dog, who would poke slowly all over the place, the stumps and stalks of the osiers entirely preventing any walking. But now, I believe, this style of shooting is at an end.

My last attempt at duck-shooting was very exciting, in fact rather too much so. A friend, who knew my weakness for it, wrote and asked me to come to his house, as I could get capital flight-shooting close to his place. Of course I went, and in the evening we started for the river, which was much flooded, and embarking in a boat, I was soon landed on a small mound in the middle of the floods, about twelve feet square, and was told it was a first-rate place, as the ducks, in their flight from some large ponds about five miles off, always passed over it. I was also told I might be sure to know when they were coming by the flashes of the guns of other wild fowlers on the banks some miles away. A whistle was given me to signal for the boat when I wanted it, and I was left alone in my glory. It was very cold, and my island was too small for exercise. Soon a flash caught my eye, and then the report of a gun fired some miles off came to my ears, soon followed by a succession of flashes and reports from gunners posted along each side of the river. The effect was very pretty, and I admired it greatly, until an idea struck me that there might be guns posted on the bank behind. Just then some ducks came along, and I fired rapidly at them; almost simultaneously came two reports from the bank, and some heavy charges of shot cut up the water all round; in addition something weighty struck the ground just in my rear, covering me with mud. Instantly blowing my whistle, the boat soon came, and on landing I saw two men, one of whom coming up asked me where I had been. I told him "on the mound"; to which he rejoined, "Was you, really? Lor, now, if I didn't think it was the miller's old donkey! and, thinks I, if the aggravating old beast gets there, a shot or two won't hurt un, and teach him not to get there again; so I lets 'goo' when the ducks comes along. There, and so 'twas you, sir; lor, now, to think of that!" and the old fellow went off into a series of chuckles.

His gun was an extraordinary one—a single barrel, something like four feet long, about eight bore. I asked what charge he put in, and he showed me a measure that held at least four drachms of powder, and another that would contain about three ounces of number two shot. This was how he loaded, and in addition, he said, he always put in a couple of pistol-shots—"they did bring anything down so sweet that they hit." So these were the pleasant things I heard strike the ground just behind me. I went home at once, thankful that I had not been bagged.