Andrew Metcalf’s annual clay pigeon shoot at Orchard Farm was a tune-up for the season proper. In the coming months his sporting neighbours would be expected to pull high pheasants from the winter sky as easily as chickens from a freezer. And to ensure that that happened, the shooting men turned up at the farm to fire thousands of cartridges at small black spinning Frisbees (as opposed to firing at live pigeons released from traps, which was once an Olympic sport before it was made illegal in 1921).
Metcalf’s shoot, like many clay pigeon days across the shires, was not only a marksmen’s trial but also a charity turn. Twenty or so groups of four “guns” – usually men who had shot together the previous season, often with teenage sons in tow learning the mores of the shooting squirearchy – would pay £80 a head to shoot the eight clay drives arranged about the farm. Each drive, monitored by a referee who scored the number of hits each team achieved, simulated the flight of a bird, be it a partridge, grouse, duck or pheasant. There was a hare drive, for which the clay target raced across the ground like a loose wheel from a child’s buggy, and a drive that boasted a remote-controlled plane with “flash pods” that exploded when the aircraft was hit.
After the morning’s sport the gunmen would meet up with the WAGS at an old hay barn where trestle tables were laid for a barbecue lunch, charity auction and prize-giving.
Andrew Metcalf started the clay shoot eight years ago “for something to do” in the late summer (it was the year that the foot-and-mouth outbreak had forced him to cancel his annual week’s grouse shooting in Northumberland). Ostensibly, the day was to raise money for the local hunt and the Injured Jockeys’ Fund – Metcalf’s son was a regular point-to-point rider, and his daughter was a keen equestrian – but in reality it was little more than a hooley for his fellow shooters.
In those early years The Fruitie Cup, as it came to be known, was won either by neighbouring farmer James Barnsley and his team of agricultural yeomen, or Lord Simon Falwes and his landed chums, all of whom had spent their childhood shooting fur and feather with every variation of weapon from catapult to crossbow.
Then four years ago the Reading & District Shooting Club entered the competition, which was technically open to everyone but had until then been in all but name a closed shop for game shots. The urban warriors arrived in baseball caps and shooting waistcoats sewn with a multitude of embroidered badges claiming membership of the Clay Pigeon Shooting Association. To a man they sported the non-U over-and-under shotguns (a gun in which the two barrels sit atop each other) rather than the more “correct” game-shooting side-by-side guns.
Annoyingly, despite their unrefined standing, it was quickly apparent that the Reading shooters were a great deal more proficient at dispatching the clays than the gentlemen farmers. After lunch, they collected both the team cup and the prize for the best individual performance, and even won the raffle for a day’s pheasant shooting.
“They wouldn’t be so clever if they were shooting live game,” was the repeated refrain from the Fruitie Cup regulars who felt they had been cheated out of victory by “professionals”. Be that as it may, the following year three more “skeet” teams joined the Reading snipers and the Cup once again went to the pros.
It was left to Simon Fawles to find a way to “spike the Reading guns”. It didn’t take long for him to come up with a cunning plan: from now on, they would double the points earned for a “fun” first drive shooting arrows at a stationary target rather than firing cartridges at a clay.
“Why won’t the skeet shooters be just as adept at that as anyone else?” asked Metcalf.
“Because they didn’t spend their summers on private estates stalking roe deer and muntjac,” said Simon who, thanks to his privileged team’s childhood familiarity with the longbow, ensured that this year The Fruitie Cup returned to its “rightful place” among those who shot the feathered rather than the Frisbee.