The Shooting Party
November 16, 2018
On a chilly November morning, somewhere in the English countryside, we assembled in a farmyard for an early briefing before the day’s action.
The captain who was to be our commander stressed that our safety was his primary concern.
Later that morning I was sitting in a cramped trailer with twenty armed men and their equipment, dressed in brown and green. I felt as if we could have been bumping across country to board a DC47 transport plane which would deliver us to a drop zone in the Netherlands in 1944, or even bussed to the Western Front for the final Big Push of 1918.
Even the banter and vocabulary of my fellow passengers added to my sense of being among a cohesive unit of specialists, comrades ready to go into action for a common cause.
I was indeed. For the first time, I was going on a pheasant shoot; the briefing had been accompanied by tots of sloe gin. There’s a specialised vocabulary on a shoot: “drive, pegs, cover, flush”, and the shooters are known as “guns”. They were hoping the day would start with ducks, which would be leaving the pond first thing in the morning to feed.
“They don’t know the clocks have changed, so we’d better get moving”.
For the first drive of the day, I was allowed to stand with an experienced “gun” on his peg, his place in the shooting line. From there, I was told, I would get a better picture of what was going on. If I went with the beaters to flush the birds out of their cover, “you’ll hear World War 3 breaking out, but all you’ll see is trees and a few dogs.”
We could hear the shouts of the beaters as they worked their way from both ends of the wood at the edge of the field, and sure enough a few ducks took to the air, climbing and changing direction indecisively as the guns opened up. Then as the beaters converged on the centre of the wood, pheasants started to break cover. I was told they are lazy birds, preferring to run, and only fly as a last resort. There were shouts of “over!” letting the guns know from which direction the birds were flying, making for the cover of a nearby field of maize.
For the second drive, I joined a group of beaters walking through a narrow strip of maize at the edge of a field. This felt more like hunting; the beaters can’t see each other above the corn, and pheasants have a habit of waiting till you’re right up close before taking off in a panic. I felt vulnerable when the shooting started.
Then came elevenses, laid out on a drop-down shelf on the side of the trailer: mulled wine or lemonade, with sausage rolls, wedges of pork pie, and slices of buttered fruit cake with Wensleydale cheese. Participants take it in turns to cater for the shoot, and appetites are sharp.
One gun claimed he hadn’t brought enough cartridges. When the shoot captain ribbed him for “making any excuse for bad shooting”, he said another stratagem would be to bring plenty, but of the wrong size, then say ‘I’m goin’ ter struggle wi’ these….’”
Another drive, then it was back to the “Shoot Shack” for a hearty lunch of stew and dumplings, followed by apple crumble and custard.
Musings from the field:
• Periods of waiting are interspersed with bursts of adrenaline, and the excitement as the birds break cover. Snap decisions are made, whether to take the shot, or leave it to your neighbour if he’s better placed.
• At one point I thought a gentle drizzle had started when I heard a patter on the ground, but quickly realised it was the sound of spent pellets falling around us.
• The shoot captain’s shout to a gun who was standing at the wrong peg: “Fookin’ move, Derek! Fookin’ move!”
• The trailer was ready to take us to the next drive, when someone noticed one of the beaters was missing: “where’s Alan?”
The shoot captain got on the walkie talkie: “Alan, where are yeh?”
“In the artichokes” came the reply.
“What yer doin’ there?”
“Lookin’ fer a duck.”
Great care is taken to retrieve all fallen birds, so that none are wasted; all the birds from this shoot are eaten. It’s not run commercially; it’s organised by a group of friends, and outsiders only attend by invitation.
As a town dweller, I want understand how food arrives on my table, and to take responsibility for where it has come from. I felt more comfortable taking home a brace of pheasant as “beater’s perks” than I would buying meat reared in a factory farm.
In my next post, “Of Pigeons, Pheasants, Pies and Flakey Flossy” – clay pigeons, a game pie, advice on how to deal with pheasants, and a recipe.
“The Shooting Party”
Set in 1913 on the verge of the First World War, “The Shooting Party” is a novel by Isobel Colegate, published in 1980. It was adapted for the screen in 1985, with a cast of British stars, headed by James Mason.