Our regular stalking columnist Dr Al Gabriel explains why he loved learning to shoot, and what keeps him coming back stronger every year.

Dr Al enjoying time with his dog and the rifle

It is always an interesting question when one is asked “why do you shoot?” The reality is that shooting is just a small portion of what is involved in this misunderstood art-form.

The word “shooting” often conjures up images of war and violence in those people who have lost the connection to the outdoors or consider themselves as modern urbanites. To me shooting is like music, it is the child of necessity and ingenuity.  

My primary discipline is deer stalking, although nowadays I prefer the term “deer manager”. Shooting is a very big part of who I am today. My proper training as a rifleman came during my time with the Territorial Army about 14 years ago, when I was asked if I could join the battalion shooting team.

One advantage of an infantry battalion is that you do get to spend more time with your rifle. I didn’t realise it then, but it was much better when someone else paid for the ammo!

I miss the days of shooting thousands of rounds a day at army ranges across the country. According to my commanding officer at the time, the biggest problem with my shooting was that I was inconsistent: it was all or nothing. My ego suffers to this day!

Thankfully, it wasn’t all soul shattering. I had the pleasure of shooting with some of the best shots in the country and received coaching second to none. Once a year or so I do look at my shooting medals with fond memories.

Not simple

Most people assume that all you have to do is aim at the target and pull the trigger. If only! Anyone can pull the strings on a guitar and make a sound, but it will not sound like Jimi Hendrix. It was during my time with the infantry that I met the best shot I have ever seen to this day; his shooting was nothing short of poetry.

Most of us will never achieve those skills but we can continue to strive to be better. It is that sense of education that keeps us going out every day, trying to improve our kit, our bullets and techniques. As a scientist, it appeals to my obsessive-compulsive behaviour for detail and accuracy.

Reloading at home is the highlight of the month: precise measurement and quality control to deliver the perfect shot – a load far superior than factory ammunition.

There is much more to shooting. I will not be exaggerating if I said it involves, biology, chemistry, physics, ballistics, metrology, psychology, forensics… I can go for hours! A day out with a rifle is an attempt to improve on all these variables for a successful hunt or shot on a target. It is a lifelong training programme where slow and incremental experiments make us better. 

Shooting is conservation. One thing that many people may not be aware of is that the UK is an ideal habitat for deer. Land management policies following the second world war with increased afforestation has created an ideal habitat.

The UK currently is home to over two million deer species composed of six species. The amount of damage they cause to our native flora, crops and plantations is significant and increasing year on year. The increased number is also causing road traffic accidents, increased disease transmissions and overgrazing.

Shooting is the main way of controlling spiralling deer populations. Shooting is an extension of our evolutionary self; the modern rifle has made us a superior hunter, the de facto apex predator in the UK. Over 600,000 deer are shot every year, large bag for such a small island.

I’m always reminded how lucky we are to have a tradition in managing these large herbivores, when friends across the pond have to win seasonal lottery for a cull tag, just to cull a single animal a year.

Shooting deer requires patience and a game plan to outsmart an opponent whose home we have just stepped into. In the process of stalking, most of us forget the daily grind of the office or home, and give ourselves a few hours or days where the Neanderthal in all of us is connected viscerally with mother nature. It may sound cruel and primitive but there is a critical job being done here and that job is conservation.

Sweet meat

One major advantage of shooting is the harvesting of lean, organic wild meat. There was a time when the hunter was the most important person in the village, whose skills and knowledge fed families and kept them alive in tough winters.

It is always amazing to me that we now live a world where that sought-after skill is now being questioned for the first time in our evolutionary history. That said, even today wild meat as a byproduct of hunting is still a sought-after product.

It brings friends together; it is always satisfying creating dishes and experimenting with ways of cooking it. I stopped buying meat from the supermarket years ago (I saw it as a choice of either being a hunter or a scavenger!) It is rewarding and fulfilling knowing where my food comes from. There is a fundamental need for farming but, when possible, we should utilise wild meat. 

Shooting, like many sports, has a major social element. It plays a major role in the wellbeing of individuals and communities. Anyone who has had a day of shooting cancelled will know, it can ruin your week and wellbeing, it is that important.

It is important because we look forward to it, it’s a tradition that connects people to their parents and grandparents. I would argue that we are unconsciously seeking to link up with our ancestors of hunters and gatherers.

It is that real fundamental connection that we have all fallen in love with. What better way to appreciate the outdoors, conserve our rare flora and ensure continuity to the next generation?

One of my favourite things about shooting is that I get to enjoy the outdoor with my dogs; it adds another dimension to the day. It takes a long time to become an efficient hunter, but a hunting dog naturally possesses that skill. 

While there will always be people who will never understand why we shoot, most people are neutral to the idea. It is up to us to introduce as many people as we can to the sport. A simple gesture such as handing out spare game and venison will go a long way to allow people to think about their food and the benefit it has to the environment.

Although a rare occurrence, some vegetarians have become meat eaters as a result of taking part in shooting. Reaching out to people and explaining why we shoot is key to preserving the sport and to promoting conservation.

We didn’t always live in cities, we didn’t always have supermarkets, our innate self still yearns for the outdoors. If there is one thing Covid-19 lockdowns have taught us, it is that the outdoors is vital for all our wellbeing. We must not forget that we were never meant to live in a concrete jungle.

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