Adam Smith remembers a couple of amusing incidents involving crossed wires and confusing questions

You might recall Ben, who had a sparrowhawk perch on his rifle barrel. Well, he was round ours for a bit of a natter, discussing how our birds were faring, predator problems and so on – typical topics for keepers during the rearing season.

We were in the sitting room; Ben in an armchair, me and the missus on the sofa, and Gimble the cat taking his usual spot in the rocking chair – an additional detail you might well question. Patience please; all will be revealed.

Ben is a good keeper, known for rearing and showing quality birds off predominantly flat or very gently rolling ground, which is not the easiest thing to do. He’s also hard and straight-talking with a staccato barking voice to match, and not one to suffer fools gladly either – a personality trait that’s emphasised physically by piercing dark eyes under beetling brows. On the other hand, I’ve also seen those same eyes full of tears as I helped him fill empty feed sacks with over 250 headless poults, the handiwork of a pair of well-grown fox cubs who had dug under the wire of his main pen. Their growth rate ended abruptly, but that’s another story.

Anyway, there we were, chatting away, with predators and predation high on the agenda. I’d lost a couple of birds, found in a circle of breast feathers with neck and breast meat chewed and the skin folded back at the edges – typical signs of a feral cat’s attentions.

Giving our cat curled up in the chair sound asleep a pointed stare, Ben suddenly barked: “Does he want to fart?”

There are times, I’m sure you’ll agree, that you can be lost for words. Also, knowing that the cause of the loss might have a very short fuse, you search wildly for a suitably diplomatic reply, at the same time desperately trying not to meet your beloved’s eyes – who is biting down on large chunks of cheek and snorting in a less than ladylike manner as she tries to stifle fits of the giggles.

When a domestic cat is due to release bodily gases is not a subject high in my knowledge or experience – except that when mine does drop one, those in the immediate vicinity certainly know all about it. But there’s no prior warning.

Eventually I managed to ask in a strangled sort of mumble, “Sorry Ben. Couldn’t say. No offence. Just a bit difficult to find an answer, that’s all.”

“What’s so bloody difficult? Or funny, for that matter?” Ben replied, with signs of that fuse shortening as he spoke. “Don’t you know where he gets to?”

“Ah. Still not quite sure what you mean, so let’s start again, can we? What did you ask about the cat? How would I know what his plans are?”

Ben stared back for a couple of seconds before sighing and saying in measured tones, as if to a not very bright five-year-old, “I said, does he wander far? Simple enough question for God’s sake. If you don’t know what that old moggy of yours gets up to, how d’you know it’s not him taking a bird or two?”

Now it’s a fact that the cat was not, nor ever had been, a wanderer. Some might think it odd for a keeper to have a cat in the first place, with their reputation, but Gimble was a good‘un. He was a great mouser and brought the occasional bolter rabbit, and even the odd rat, proudly to the back door, but he never took a poult despite ample opportunities with my rearing field so close to the lodge.

If Ben’s question had been clearer we might have made the connection, but it made for a long-standing joke between us. We can still dissolve into fits of giggles at the memory. Even Ben, after another hard stare, saw the funny side.

It goes to show how misunderstandings can so easily arise, and another that comes to mind can still raise a smile too.

In this tale, one of the Guns had a large and wooly labrador of which he was unreasonably proud. It had no gun sense or understanding of field commands and an even smaller grasp of obedience. A big, bouncy, family pet of a dog with no proper place in the shooting field but yet a frequent part of the team, probably in the hope that one day he’d see the light.

We’d decided to walk a block of kale through to push anything towards the next drive, with the right flank well on to swing birds left towards the woods. We’d stopped to plan things out, deciding not to send any Guns forward in case they turned birds the wrong way – though we had a flanker Gun to take any good birds that might break to the right.

This Gun had walked on to get well in front of us while we discussed the next proper drive and we were all surprised when a shot rang out. There were no beaters in the kale, we’d not even lined out, yet we watched in amazed horror as bird after bird lifted and swung hard right.

I’d not expected much in the cover at all. I’d not fed it, in fact it was just a time filler, but with Sod’s Law being what it is, the patch was packed. After several more shots, the sudden appearance of a wooly black head bouncing up from the kale solved the mystery, because dear old Bert the labrador had sneaked off to do the drive on his own.

The dog’s owner did his best to call the errant pooch to heel but, as usual, his increasingly desperate commands were ignored. Only when the dog had cleaned the cover of all other life did Bert bounce back, visibly proud of his achievement.

Red faced, the owner started his profuse apology but rather than spoil the day with recriminations, my boss came up with a clever solution. “You know, Charles, we’ve often queried that dog’s pedigree, haven’t we? Well, I think I know what it is – that wooly coat of his shows he’s not a lab at all, you know, he’s a Bouvier de Flandres. Shout at him in Flemish from now on, old chap, that’s the answer.”

You just can’t beat a bit of laughter to defuse a tense situation.