The English Country Life~ My First Traditional Pheasant Shoot
Since Downtown Abbey I have become obsessed with British period dramas, a genre I am now addicted to mostly thanks to Mathew Crawley (sigh) and Colin Firth (double sigh) as Mr Darcy. So in my binge watching I discovered you would be hard pressed to find in any aristocratic storyline some outing that didn’t have at least one scene around a shoot or hunt. The British elite, royalty, or even peasants (not pheasants) like myself dress in their scratchy wooly tweed and their rubber wellies as they step out on the English countryside, guns and dogs by their side as they prepare for one of England’s longest standing traditions, the shoot.
Being a pacifist by nature and raised by a mother who would rather rescue the spider in my bathtub than kill it, I was not too sure honestly how I would fair with this very old English sport in which wild birds are skillfully plucked from the sky by skilled marksmen. But as I was invited to this traditional shooting weekend at my dear friend Harry’s country estate I thought, I must experience this at least once, if for no other reason than to report back to you.
My First Shoot ~ Chilterns Hills
7:00AM Saturday morning, the smell of freshly brewed coffee got my attention.
People started arriving. Harry was hosting a shoot of 10 guns (shooters) and my dear friend Kate and I were invited to attend. First to arrive was the games-keeper, he is the man in charge of the shoot. Shortly followed, the gun-dogs with their humans whom I believe they call the “picker-uppers”. Lastly about a dozen “beaters”. Beaters, I learned are the people in the field that push out the birds from the forest or the fields. There was a buzz of activity as now the guests started to arrive. It was pheasant season (October 1-Feb 1) and this was my first shoot.
As I layered up wearing a Barbour jacket I had borrowed from my cousin, my Hunter wellies and a pair of old corduroys I dug out from the back of my closet I was transported back to the timeless wardrobe of our shooters or what they call “guns”. Traditionally brown and green toned breeches known as Plus Twos or Plus Fours depending upon the leg length were worn, paired with woollen knee socks and rubber boots (wellies). Most wore a tweed flat peak cap, the tweed was indeed plentiful. The “guns” also carried a leather bag attached around their waist for the cartridges.
All had their own shotguns generally in a leather or canvas holding case. To protect their ears they wore padded ear guards or ear defenders as they called them. The wardrobe looks like it has been the same for hundreds of years, which I am guessing it has.
After we all were dressed and caffeinated the guns all drew a peg number and given a brief safety reminder. The pegs would determine where they would be standing. In a driven game shoot as this was a line of 8 to 10 guns would be standing about 50 to 70 meters apart.
The beaters would walk through the woods and fields and drive the birds towards the guns. I had to ask if any of the beaters had ever gotten shot, I mean they are standing in the direction of where the shotguns are aiming. But luckily the guns are shooting the birds high in the air, poor sportsmanship to shoot them low… so no injuries. With the sound of a bell all was very quiet as the men carefully took aim, guns raised to the sky.
Within a few seconds the birds started flying out from the trees, the men would only take a shot at the birds that were closest to them. The shots were fast and loud as birds dropped from the sky. One nearly hit my head, would not have been happy about that. After the beaters had done their job and there were no more birds in that area another bell would ring to single the end of that drive. With that the dogs ran off collecting the fallen birds and returning them to the picker-uppers. It made me think of the time my dog Hunter caught a live rabbit. There was no way on earth I was able to pry that bunny out of Hunter’s jaw forget about him voluntarily dropping it at my feet. Loved watching the dogs diligently do their jobs. I did find the simple pageantry fascinating. Each gun would pickup up their scattered cartridges around their feet and put them in their leather case.
We hopped in the Land Rover that was older than me and off to the next drive. Between the 2nd and 3rd drive we stopped to warm ourselves with hot beef consommé spiked with someone’s homemade Sloe Gin, champagne, sausages, meat pies and cheese.
After the 4th drive it was time for lunch. Even though the sun was out I was chilled from standing in the field which made walking into the warm cottage with the fire burning even more inviting. The country table was set for 20. As we sat down we were served a traditional English fare of fresh homemade biscuits, cottage pie, mashed potatoes with root vegetables and of course an abundance of claret. It was the ultimate in English comfort food. With lunch done there were three more drives before we lost the light. The total bag (birds shot) were 188. A pretty good day I was told. With this sport now hugely popular with tourists you can expect to pay between £1000 to £2500 per person per day to partake in a shoot.
The birds I had learned are mostly cultivated on the estates and much work and expense goes into raising and feeding the birds throughout the year. Each gun left with two birds, already cleaned for them. The rest of the birds are given or sold to the local community so nothing goes to waste.
I feel fortunate that I was able to be part of this English tradition for which time has stood still. Until that weekend my total experience of “shooting” required camera gear and a full production crew. I don’t think I will personally be toting a shotgun next time as there is too much of my mother in me but very happy to be drinking Harry’s claret by the fire.