The Ultimate Guide to Shooting Seasons
For certain animals, shooting in the UK is restricted by seasons. These are based on the breeding cycle and how the animals act at a certain time of year. In this article we cover the key dates to remember, how to find shooting and the different equipment you'll need for hunting each species.
Game Shooting Season
The Shooting season is in full swing and if you're a keen game shot you’ve no doubt had a few days on peg since October, or if you’re very lucky, August. If you're hungry for more shooting there are a few things you can do to get under some more birds, or get out on your first day if you’ve never shot driven game before!
Finding Game Shooting
The internet has revolutionised the way shooting and guns are sold. With the likes of guns on pegs acting as digital sporting agents and actual sporting agents now listing shooting on their websites, there are a lot of last-minute days out to be had. There are also a few other less common places you can pick up some brilliant days out! Here’s a few we know about:
Social Media -
The shooting community is pretty behind the times with social media but there are a few clever chaps amongst us that have set up Facebook groups and Twitter pages where you can swap shooting, fill empty pegs or find somewhere for a full syndicate. The larger estates are also starting to advertise their shoot days on their Facebook pages. Here are a few top pages to keep an eye on: Game Shooting Opportunities, Game Shooting UK, Driven shooting.
Being a BASC (British Association for Shooting and Conservation) member comes with a lot of perks. Including access to events, shooting courses, advice and guides, as well as a lot of shooting opportunities. You can find out more here about the BASC membership benefits
Websites to Check -
Guns on pegs - is the go-to site for most people looking for shooting and there are some great days to be had, they have some very big sporting agencies listing driven days.
Shootmart - Is very much the new kid on the block but still worth a check if you're after cheap days.
Tips for the First Time Game Shooter
Everyone's first driven day is nerve-wracking but there are a few simple things you can follow to make your life a little bit easier and more importantly, increase your chance of an invite for another day.
If you get stuck in with a big 500 bird day straight off not only are you likely to be overwhelmed when it comes to shooting but it’s also all too easy to make mistakes that can be dangerous and will ruin yours and others days.
Try sharing a peg
If you've got an experienced friend then ask if you can share a peg. You’ll take it in turns from drive to drive and they will be able to point out any mistakes and give you friendly advice (it’s better hearing tips from a friend than from the gun captain.)
If they are coming in low, leave them be! There is nothing worse than seeing someone nail a pheasant at 15 ft, with the huge plume of feathers that follows a close-range shot it can’t be hidden and can lead to some very disapproving looks from fellow guns. The aim of the game isn’t to pluck them before they make it to the game cart. On the other end of the scale if the birds aren’t going your way, don’t poach them off your neighbour. Landing birds at your neighbour's feet is the ultimate way to annoy them and a quick way to get the reputation as someone never to invite shooting.
As a general rule, you should tip £20 for the first 100 birds in the bag and then £10 for every 100 birds after that. Unless of course your day has been exceptional and you feel the keeper deserves a little extra. If you’ve had a dreadful time but it’s obvious the keeper has done everything in his power to try and get the birds over you it’s still worth tipping.
Dress the part
You really don’t want to be the guy who turns up in combat trousers and a camo jacket when everyone else is in tweed or moleskins. It’s easy to look smart without spending a lot of money. Visiting your local gun shop and asking for some tips is the best option. Some excellent budget brands to look out for are Toggi, Hoggs of fife and Jack Pyke.
The Biggest issue with staying away whilst shooting is the fear of not being able to store your guns safely - every shooters worst nightmare is getting a gun stolen. God forbid you should also want to take your trusty hound, every working dog owner knows the “Can I bring my dog in, he’s very well behaved” conversation.
Luckily there are a few gun and pup friendly hotels around the UK, making those sneaky weekends shooting all the more accessible! Here’s a list of shoot friendly hotels from our friends over at gunsonpegs.co.uk. If you can’t find something near where you going here are some top things to ask when your booking.
Do you accept guns and do you have a gun cabinet?
Is it a communal gun cabinet? (The last thing you want is some barbarian scratching your Purdey with his Baikal) If it is shared you should ask who else has access to it.
Are they dog-friendly? If they say yes and your pup is used to living indoors make sure you can have them in your room and not in the kennel.
Is there somewhere I can wash my dog off? (you don’t want to be sharing a room with a stinky mutt)
When is best for shooting Gamebird and Waterfowl?
In the UK we’re lucky enough to have some of the most varied deer stalking in the world. Whether you're looking to shoot Highland Red Stags or Woodland Muntjac, there’s somewhere on our little island that will cater for you. That being said, deer stalking is often seen in the same bracket as game shooting when it comes to the people that participate. This couldn't be further from the truth. If you're looking for a trophy stag then perhaps, but there's plenty of budget sport to be had for people that are happy to take a few cull beasts.
How to Find Shooting
If you're looking for regular shooting the best thing you can do is knock on farmers doors. Where you're in the country depends on how likely you are to score some ground to shoot. Most farmers are more likely to let someone they know shoot or someone who has been shooting pigeons and rabbits on their land previously so it might be worth asking for something smaller before deer. You may also be expected to arrive as and when the landowner or farmer wants you to as they’ll treat it as a pest control job. If you want to keep the ground you’ll need to keep them happy!
There are also a huge number of estates and deer parks that sell stalking. The service you'll get often varies from being put in a high seat and being left to do your own thing to a full guided stalk with a professional stalker who will know the land like the back of his hand. The prices vary depending on where you are and what your shooting. For a morning or evening stalk - where you’ll shoot one beast and not take it home - you'll be looking at spending around £80 to £150. If you wish to take the carcass home with you you’ll be looking to pay between £1 and £5 per lb. Trophy fees also usually apply if you decide to shoot something with a good set of antlers. Normally your guide will specify a price when you see a specimen beast and it’s up to you if you'd like to continue with the shot.
Deer Stalking Qualifications and Courses
There's far more to shooting deer than squeezing the trigger and there are some great courses available if you'd really like to become a pro. Recently, police forces have been known to ask shooters with very little experience to complete a course prior to allowing a variation for a deer caliber rifle. The best by far is the Deerstalkers Certificate’s level 1 and 2. These are run by various organisations such as BASC, The National Gamekeepers Organisation and the British Deer Society.
Level 1 DSC -
The level one course has an obvious focus on safety and usually includes a meat hygiene qualification which will allow you to sell venison to the public. The course tends to include a few days of theory in a classroom, where you’ll be given a book that covers everything you’ll need to know and has all the questions you could be asked in the back. You'll then spend 2 days taking tests.
The practical test involves shooting a deer silhouette in the correct place at varying distances in different positions. You’ll then have to show you can do various tasks that you'd normally have to do on a stalk safely, such as crossing fences on your own and with a partner, moving through heavy cover and climbing into a high seat. The theory test often seems daunting, but you'll have a week to study, and you'll find all of the answers in the book. The test consists of 80 multiple choice questions which are selected from the bank of 300 questions at the back of your book.
Level 2 DSC -
The level 2 course is more practical and actually involves shooting deer. You’ll need to find an assessor who will go shooting with you and sign off various tasks as you complete them, including stalking, humane dispatch, inspection of the carcass and transportation and storage of the shot beast. In order to apply register for a DSC2 course, you must hold a game meat handling qualification (usually included in the DSC1 Course) but also included in the Lantra large and small game meat hygiene qualification so it may not be necessary to have completed your level one qualification.
Deer Stalking Tools and Equipment
The most important thing you’ll need is a rifle, the caliber will need to be deer legal, for all deer species it must be .240 and above, with a muzzle velocity of over 1,700 ft-lb. If you're just going after the smaller CWD and Muntjac you can use a .220 centre fire as long as the ammunition you're using produces a minimum velocity of 1000 ft-lb and doesn't weigh less than 50 grains.
The options for deer suitable rifles are limitless with nearly every rifle manufacturer selling something in the correct calibers. If you’re looking to get started and working to a budget you can’t go wrong with a Howa or a second hand Remington or Tikka, and most are available for less than £700
If you’re looking for something more advanced and have some more money in your pocket, it’s possible to spend whatever you like. Sako, Tikka, Savage and Mannlicher are some of the many manufacturers that sell +£1000 rifles which can be upgraded in a number of ways including stocks triggers and barrels. It’s always worth bearing in mind the type of shooting you'll be doing as you don't want to be buying a huge, heavy barrel 30-06 if you're going to be walking long distances and mostly shooting muntjac.
There are two optical devices a deerstalker will find useful. The first and most obvious being a scope. When choosing a scope the most important things you'll need to consider are; the range you'll be shooting at and the light conditions you'll be shooting in. For longer ranges more magnification can be useful but more than 12x isn't much use as you’ll unlikely be taking shots further than 100 yards. Large tactical turrets aren't much use as you'll unlikely need to adjust more than a few inches, it’s also all too easy to knock them when you're moving around in thick cover. If you're going to be shooting in low light then you’ll want a large front lens as it lets more light in; 50 mm is about as big as you can go without having to raise your cheek or having a funny shaped front end on the scope. Stalkers also find binoculars useful as it means you don't have to point your rifle at everything when you want to have a look.
Other useful gear
There are a few other useful bits of equipment that can be handy in the field. A good knife is a must, you'll need to be able to handle anything you shoot in the field. It’s also worth investing in a good rifle sling as you’ll no doubt end up carrying a deer and your gun which can get awkward. For transporting deer a roe sack is useful for the smaller species but anything bigger than a Roe and you’ll probably have to drag it unless of course you have a 4x4 or ATV that can access the shot zone.
Deer Stalking Top Tips
1 - Find a mentor for your first few outings. There are lots of little tips and tricks an experienced shooter will be able to show you.
2 - Do a deer management course (DSC).
3 - Practice range finding and shooting before you go on your first stalk, make sure you're confident in your ability with the rifle.
4 - Don’t rush your first shot, when the adrenaline is pumping it’s all too easy to fluff it if you're not careful.
What are the best dates for Deer stalking?
Other Species Shooting Dates
There are also a number of animals that can be shot all year round in the UK. These are specified on the general license which is a public document supplied by the government and can be found here.
Methods, Tools and Equipment
Pigeon shooting and crow shooting
Pigeon and crow shooting is one of the most diverse forms of shooting, from finding a light line and sitting with only a gun and a bag of cartridges to setting up a spread of decoys and spending a day in a hide or sitting in a wood in the evening, shooting birds as they come into roost. There are a huge number of methods that can be used to shoot pigeons.
If you're just starting out you can’t go wrong with 12 shell decoys, a camouflage net, some hide poles and of course a gun and cartridges. Once you get more into it you can add various other gadgets to your pattern such as flappers, bouncers and a pigeon magnet, all of these add movement which means the birds spot your decoys from further away. It is also worth investing in dead bird cradles which allow you to use shot birds as decoys. Obviously, they are more realistic so you tend to get a better reaction from passing birds.
If you're solely trying so shoot crows, an owl decoy works wonders as passing crows feel threatened and will try to mob it. Once you have shot a crow if you place it at the feet of your decoy you'll get an even better reaction.
Pigeons use magnetic lines to navigate, these are called flight lines and often you’ll find they’ll go directly between a roost and wherever the birds are feeding. Shooting pigeons in a flight line is simple: work out where the birds are coming from, find a hedge that they cross over and sit with your back to it. All you need is a gun and cartridges and some dark clothing. Be prepared for some very quick shooting and don’t lift your gun too early, the birds will flair and you’ll miss your opportunity. When trying to find where the birds are flying it’s worth taking a pair of binoculars, pigeons can be hard to spot a long way off!
Roost shooting pigeons involves sitting in a wood waiting for birds to return from their final feed. It can be tricky as the birds will be ducking and darting around trees. Sometimes the birds can land before you get a chance to take the shot, it’s up to you whether you spook them and try and shoot them whilst flying or shoot them whilst sitting. If it’s sport you're after I’d recommend the first, if it’s for pest control you’re there for then go with the second option.
You'll often find that shooting squirrels is an opportunistic sport, you may spot one on a beaters day or whilst walking through the woods shooting pigeons. There are times though when you'll get a full day shooting them. Dray poking is excellent fun and can result in a very full game bag, it's best done around May, June, July time as the squirrels will have bred and the youngsters will be ready to leave the nest. You’ll need a long stick or a dray pole, the idea is you find a squirrel's nest and poke it with the pole until they bolt and then you shoot them, I’ve seen up to 9 squirrels leave a dray so it can lead to some great sport. They often explode out so it's worth inviting some friends if you're planning on having a go. Rather than using dray poles, you can just shoot the nest, sometimes they bolt but other times you’ll find that you’ve finished them off in the nest.
Foxes can be some of the most difficult quarries to shoot, but with hunting hounds banned, most farmers are keener than ever to have them shot.
Lamping involves using a high-intensity torch at night to spot your quarry and then shoot it, with foxes if you miss you’ll find the fox becomes nervous of lamp light (lamp shy) and you'll struggle to get another opportunity. Often people use a small centre fire caliber such as .223 REM or .243 WIN for foxing because it offers a bit more range and is harder hitting than the likes of a .22LR or 17 HMR.
An alternative to using a lamp is to use night vision, this method is fantastic as the fox often has no idea you're there. Just be aware that if you're using a night vision scope you should unload your gun while looking around.
Fox drives are often run by game shoots at the end of the shooting season and just before the birds have moved from the rearing fields. If you've been beating or are part of a DIY syndicate you may get invited. You should treat it like any other shoot day regarding the way you dress and the gun you use. You’ll need some heavy cartridges though, usually number 1’s or bb’s. Safety is paramount and you'll need to be fully aware of where your neighbouring guns are stood and where the beaters are coming from.
Lamping rabbits is very similar to lamping foxes but a bit easier, it’s by far the best way to impress farmers. I’ve had bags of over 150 in just a couple of hours. You'll need a bright torch and a .22LR or airgun. If you're shooting on your own a gun mounted torch is best otherwise it can get fiddly, shooting with a friend is much easier and if you're on foot they can help you carry your bag.
Often walking hedgerows with a shotgun or rifle can produce good results, as can sitting and waiting overlooking a burrow, you’ll need to know your rifle's capabilities and be able to judge your ranges. If you're proficient with a rifle and your land allows for it, long-range rabbiting is very popular, a small caliber moderated centerfire fired from over 200 yards away leaves the rabbits clueless about what's going on. You'll need to be able to read wind and practicing on targets is vital. If you can shoot a sub 1-inch group at your chosen range you shouldn't have a problem killing rabbits.
Top Shooting Tips
If you're using a rifle always make sure you have a safe backstop.
When shooting from a vehicle make sure the engine is turned off and your handbrake is on before you take your shot.
If you're shooting at night check the ground before it gets dark and make yourself fully aware of footpaths.
When shooting with a shotgun don't allow your shot or shot game to fall on the neighbouring property.
Try to avoid shooting in standing crops without a dog, you’ll never find everything you’ve shot.
How to Find Shooting - Other Species
Finding somewhere to shoot is the hardest part of the sport. Farmers are very protective over their land and allowing someone they don't know to walk around with a firearm is a big decision. The best thing you can do is start small, talk to a farmer and ask if you can have a morning shooting in one spot. Say you’re happy to spend the afternoon helping around the farm in exchange or give him half your bag, oven ready of course.
Another option is to find a game shoot and regularly go beating. During the pheasant shooting season often beaters will get a day's shooting and invited pigeon shooting in the summer. It's also a great way to make friends with like-minded people.
What game is good for shooting all year round?