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The not so humble pheasant

This article, written by Tim Bonner, first appeared in the Shooting Times.

When I have rid myself of turbulent children and employers I will retire to a quiet room and contemplate, amongst other things, the pheasant and in particular when it became commonplace. In the second half of the 20th century the pheasant went from being a rare and venerated quarry to a workaday commodity. I am certainly not suggesting this was entirely negative, in fact it opened up game shooting to a huge number of people for whom it would otherwise have remained out of reach, but it did fundamentally change our relationship with what can still be a most fabulous gamebird. Put simply the pheasant became so common that to shoot one, or many, became unexceptional, and there is nothing romantic or epic about the unexceptional. There is no great literature of pheasant shooting, as there is of wildfowling or fox hunting, largely because it is entirely predictable. We all know what is going to happen when we go to stand on a peg, the only outstanding questions are how many come over and how straight we shoot. In fact, the great literature that involves pheasants tends not really to be about shooting at all. Think of Isabel Colegate’s ‘The Shooting Party’ or Roald Dahl’s ‘Danny the Champion of the World’. The fact that the one famous book about actually shooting pheasants most of us could think of would be Payne-Gallwey’s ‘High Pheasants in Theory and Practice’ shows quite how dry pheasant shooting can become.

The start of the pheasant shooting season is an opportunity to mull over the strange contradiction that for many of us the quarry that is the easiest to bag is ultimately the least satisfying to ‘hunt’ even if that activity has all the environmental, economic and social benefits that we know driven game shooting has. Nor is it easy to explain that strange phenomenon of loving the thing that we seek to kill. I find it difficult enough to justify to myself my obsession with hunting woodcock, wildfowl and wild brown trout, which I adore compared, to my indifference towards reared pheasants or farmed rainbow trout.

Yet, the not so humble pheasant can still be an extraordinarily sporting bird in its wild state and deserves more from us. You will not be surprised that the memory of shooting pheasants that stands out for me did not involve a a straightforward driven day. It was in the North in the autumn on a wonderful estate which is primarily one of the finest driven grouse moors in the country. There are any number of species, some on the quarry list some not, that benefit from the careful management of habitat and predators. When shooting the moorland fringe after the main grouse season anything can appear, and most things did on that day including a magnificent black cock, red grouse, grey partridges and pheasants for which the rule was strictly cocks only. I was on the right of a loose line of 5 or 6 guns, there was a long horizon and the beaters were bringing in a huge area of in-bye, hedges, rushes and scrub. When I saw the first high dot in the blue sky I told myself not to rush and stick to my track, mount, kill technique. As it closed I saw it was a cock and, belatedly, realised that it was higher and travelling even faster on the stiff breeze than I had anticipated. The gun went up and I distinctly remember pushing the barrels through at the last moment as it disappeared above the perpendicular and squeezing off a shot that killed it stone dead. Two more cocks followed as if on tracks and both fell to a single less hurried shot, and then a last bird took a line along the hedge line to my right at the very edge of my old Cogswell 16 bore’s range and amazingly it too died.

My old dog picked that first bird well over 100 yards behind me and the rest without me having to move a muscle. I have a photo of him with those four dead birds, the Cogswell and four empty blue cartridge cases. All the pheasants ever bred are not worth those four wild beauties.

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