There is a type of duck, the mallard, which is a very common-place species of waterfowl across the UK and Ireland which holds to its name an unusually singular call, that sounds too much like sarcastic laughter. When you are standing in front of a marked 30m target, it makes for an unsettling commentary.
On the 15th and 16th of October, Ballyvally Archers Banbridge hosted the Northern Ireland and Open Field Championships at Greenmount in Antrim, a two-day mixed round. This venue is arguably the most serene archers get to shoot here in the north, and a personal favourite of mine. It is a shame that we only get to shoot it twice a year, but nonetheless this only amplifies the levels of excitement in the run up to these competitions.
The venue is the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise (CAFRE) campus at Greenmount (Antrim), with a golf course on the far side, so obviously the whole venue feels like someone’s personal, elaborate, and very well looked after garden. From the drive in, nooks of exotic plant life weave between teaching buildings, labs, and student accommodation. Around the course, from the parking onwards, pockets of mirror sharp lakes with mallards, coots, and mute swans – and if you’re lucky, a heron – can be seen throughout, with the environment shifting from open lawns to tunnelling hedge rows to sheltered forest walks. On the one hand it feels like a very exclusive and very well-maintained private garden but will gradually and seamlessly run into a more rugged, untouched ou
tdoor hike through the forest.
Among the wildlife, cows of a curious nature can be seen in fields adjacent to the course, looking on at some of the longer shots and archers shuffling through the grass and over-growth looking for arrows.
At the outset, along the targets close to registration, jays can be heard arguing with magpies over territory and as I mentioned before, the mallards will be heard cackling off over yonder or just off to the side throughout most of the day.
Historically this venue is tough going, with no shortage of places to find sloped shots set at a distance, or even shadowy targets to throw the archer off. The hedgerows whilst narrowing the archer’s field of view tends to make the longer shots look further away – a marked shooting peg only adds to the environmental illusion, testing the archer’s confidence in their shooting marks or field craft. One year a 50m target was set in front of a reed field, taunting the notion that an overshot arrow was never going to be seen again – a reality for a few archers I know.
This year’s competition saw the club’s organisers exploit every possible devious angle and setup that only the eyes and mind of a talented tournament organiser can see. The targets expected to pay-out on points, such as the 5m and short-range bunnies, short range multiples and short to moderate range 60 faces were found in dark spots with plenty of overgrowth between the shooting peg and the archer to make distance estimation on those unmarked targets more difficult. The slopes, of which there were no shortage, were hosting longer marked targets. A 20m multiple when placed up or down a hill looks much further away; the second guessing of back tension and whether you’ve reached your anchor point come into play to throw you off. And, both lakes shots – that’s right, two! – were present and magnificent. These are the sort of target set ups that make the jump to blue peg seem so attractive, washing over the anxiety of having to engage with farther reaching targets.
To the boon of field archery, there were many new members from Ballyvally Archers present, some possibly, taking part in their first field shoot. The majority were barebow archers, however at least one newbie junior was carrying an exquisitely crafted English longbow. As much as I am an evangelist for archery in general, I do want to see more wooden bows and more wooden arrows within the sport.
On day one I was placed with three barebow archers: George Ferguson from my own club, Neil Keeble representing Cuhulainn Archers, Liam McDonald, otherwise known as Ducky, which given the taunting we were receiving from the waterfowl was quite ironic.
As always, I was in good company even though I had not formally met Neil or Liam – and the advantage of shooting with barebow archers meant that we would not be spending much time looking for arrows – at least not theirs anyway. We hit the ground running, with an unmarked 60cm face that I am thrilled to say I got three good arrows on, followed by an unmarked 80cm face on which I again placed three good arrows. Normally on the traditional and wood-shooting side of archery I except what I call a ‘slow start’. Even if I get a start on the ‘nicer’ targets I won’t score as well as I could do, for the simple reason that it takes several targets for the archer to warm up and get the feel of that specific venue. As the bow styles venture into the wilder extremes of more traditional shooting, this warm-up period takes a bit longer. Obviously when placed in front of the harder targets, a ‘slow-start’ can test an archer’s resolve but reinforce their confidence and discerning nature as they begin to understand the need to warm-up first or that they’re lower scoring arrows are not a result of poor shooting or a lack of skill. I’ll leave out the fact that the third target, an unmarked multiple, was an utter mess for me, however.
The string-walkers, masters of the fine manipulation of thread work and the discernment of minute measurements, by comparison to my own intuitive shooting can sometimes seem more focused and in tune with their targets. If archery, broadly speaking, is defined as the perfection of many little steps, then string-walking is the perfection of many more smaller, little steps: analysing objects in the environment, or perhaps their own digits for a size comparison with the target to determine distance or face size; looking to the minute stitches of their finger tabs; counting the miniscule groves of the string serving and aligning them with their finger tab.
It is a fascinating blend of technical and form orientated shooting. Though – in theory – the point of the arrow should be on the gold of the target, this is no guarantee of a solid 6 – or even a 5.
By comparison everything I do is based around as little thought as possible, not to over-simplify it of course. However, the less I consciously perform each action necessary to shoot an arrow, the better I shoot – this includes not thinking about what the distance to the target is, either.
Day two and I was back with the woodies, and my father a barebow archer. Alan Craig, the very trad archer who I’ve been looking to now for years as a figurehead of traditional shooting and decorum was present, along with Tom Williamson, a flatbow user and member of Ballyvally Archers.
The pressure of living up to the first day’s hit-the-ground-running start was forefront in my mind before the competition even started. The unprecedented experience seemed more and more like a freak accident or a lottery win. However, putting it all out of my mind, I was able to forgo the slow start I often begin with and once more hit the ground running. I find from experience that replicating a good arrow is harder than improving a poor arrow. Often, I believe this comes from ‘trying’ to repeat what was done well, rather than just going ahead and shooting the next arrow. Sometimes you must put the better shots and targets behind you as well as the bad ones. As the infamous Yoda once said, “Do or do not. There is no try.” Come the second day, even with changes made to the course, the devious nature remained consistent. One target was an unmarked bunny shot from standing on a wall and just radiated despondency and apprehension – and bunnies are supposed to be the good ones! That’s where I get the big scores! And English longbow big could mean double digits! Overall, the weekend was great fun for all those who attended, whether it was one day or two. As I mentioned, Greenmount is the most serene venue here in the north, and that picturesqueness and stillness somehow instils itself into the archer. There is a unique atmosphere here that I haven’t found on other courses. Even the autumnal time of year adds to this atmosphere, and I can’t imagine shooting at Greenmount during any other time of year; winter, spring and summer just wouldn’t suit as well. But, to finish on with something very positive, Susan Agnew, Banbridge Archery Club member hammered in a new Northern Irish record in senior women’s recurve category, so a very well done to her from all of us at Irish Field Archery Monthly!