Covert shooting, where beaters only are used for moving the game and driving it to the guns, will be treated of by Mr. Portman. Here we will deal with the covert shooting where dogs are used, and the game consists chiefly of rabbits. This sport may be divided into two branches—shooting the coppices, the underwood of which is from one year's growth to, say, four or five years, and also the high wood ; shooting the commons and thickets.
It is no use beginning covert shooting till the leaf is off ; that is, sometime in November. In spots in the woods where the bracken fern grows thick, late December or even January is a better time than November, because the brown masses of dead fern are not well beaten to the ground till there has been hard frost or snow, and it is difficult to shoot rabbits or hares among this undergrowth. Often you have to shoot at the spot where the fern is moving, for the rabbit or hare is hidden in its flight; and in shooting thus you have to be extremely careful not to hurt the dogs.
Large parties are not very good for beginners. The pleasantest way of learning to shoot in covert is to start out with one fellow-gunner and the gamekeeper, and perhaps another to help carry the game. Often, whilst out alone in the covert, I used to wish much that I had somebody to help me carry the game, or else a velveteen coat full of great pockets like the gamekeeper's. It is astonishing how much game one gamekeeper or gamekeeper's assistant can carry at a pinch. I know a gamekeeper who has carried as many as thirty-two rabbits in his pockets and "harled"1 on a stick across his shoulder, but in that case a number of the rabbits were paunched on the spot. If you are likely to shoot much alone, a coat with ample storage room is a boon. It is possible you may be tempted to hide your rabbits when these become irksome by their weight, but you will scarcely care to put your pheasant in a bush till you come back that way later, and nothing would induce you to treat a woodcock so.
1 A "harled" rabbit has a slit with a sharp knife cut in one thigh, and through this the other leg is thrust. By this device you can thread half-a-dozen rabbits on a stick, and carry them in one hand or across the shoulder with comparative comfort.
However, at the moment I am picturing you as out in the covert, with one shooting companion and the gamekeeper. The method when shooting rabbits with dogs is for the guns to take in strips the covert chosen for the day. The keeper will walk between the two guns at a distance from either of, say, sixty yards. But the extent of covert covered by the guns and the keeper will vary according to the height and thickness of the underwood and undergrowth, the amount of ground at the disposal of the party, and the abundance or scarcity of game. If there is plenty of covert and little game, and the underwood is low, so that the members of the party can see one another at some distance off, then the plan will naturally be to take broad " drifts," to cover much ground at a time. If there is not much covert to shoot through and game is abundant, naturally the tendency will be to take far narrower " drifts." A certain number of rabbits, with a few hares, in the course of the day will be dislodged from their forms1 by the shooters themselves, who disturb them by walking through the undergrowth. The keeper, who beats the bushes and likely lurking-places which he passes and cheers on the dogs, dislodges others. But most of the ground game is found and put up by the dogs. Well-trained rabbiting dogs, spaniels and terriers—not by any means necessarily purebred specimens—are greatly to be desired for this style of covert shooting. You want the dogs to hustle the rabbits about, giving plenty of tongue all the while, and to chase them—up to a point.1 You want them to work the ground steadily, visiting all the bramble beds and thickets of grass, fern, etc. It is a constant pleasure to watch a dog work, which is at once keen-nosed and well-trained, prying into all the likely spots, and following by scent, giving tongue when that scent is hot, and even contriving—I believe that the best-trained dogs do this systematically at times—to work the game round to their masters.
1 The " form " is the smooth place, commonly slightly hollowed out, where the rabbit or hare squats, resting through the day. Hares choose nearly always an open spot to squat in, or at most avail themselves of a bunch of grass. Rabbits in high wood, where there is little or no undergrowth, will squat on the open ground or among the stems of hazel and oak, making their form on the dead leaves; but they prefer fern, brambles, and thick grass to lie in.
When the keeper sees a rabbit travelling more or less across the line he calls out to the gun on his right or on his left, as the case may be, who stops and hopes for a shot. The guns stop too, and are on the alert for shots when the dogs about them are giving tongue. It is a good plan to wait a little at open glades now and then, whilst the dogs are bustling about in the undergrowth near by. Often rabbits will come stealing across these open spaces, stopping for a few seconds here and there, listening to the dogs, and uncertain where they can most safely betake themselves to. It is never so satisfactory shooting these irresolute rabbits in covert—creeping rabbits or creepers as we sometimes call them — but in this method of covert shooting with dogs it is necessary sometimes to do so.
1 The keen but ill-trained dog will, in hot pursuit of a rabbit or hare that goes clean away, disappear for ten minutes or so quite often, paying no heed to whistle or to the shouts of his master, till he has fairly lost scent of the rabbit or hare.
The open spaces are good spots at which to stand and get shots at the rabbits running fast away from the dogs. Stand quite still and presently you will get a clinking broadside shot at a rabbit going perhaps as fast as he does in the open when well on his feet. It is good, clean work when you lay the rabbit dead thus, and the three or four dogs, wildly giving tongue as they rushed after him, suddenly become silent, and go off to put up another. One such rabbit is certainly worth half-a-dozen creepers.