They’re everywhere. Littering the lanes like loose bowling pins, startling out of the undergrowth when we walk past, adorning fence posts and gates, picking their way upright through the fields.
It’s the month of the pheasant. Not long ago they were chicks, hatched in their thousands and nurtured in enclosures around the countryside. Soon they’ll be flushed into the air by slobbering spaniels and shot before they know it. I won’t touch a gun but some will end up on my plate courtesy of my beater friend.
In September the birds are released into the wild to fatten up, grow tail feathers and deepen the hue of their plumage. They don’t stray much further than the feeding stations scattered about the hills. Where the food is close to a road, the fowl spill all over it, bringing traffic to a halt. Some roads are virtually closed. Many carry warning signs. They are stock for the shooting trade: please don’t liquidate them.
I’ve found that driving really slowly doesn’t make them shift. They simply walk ahead of the car with no apparent sense of danger. You have to get the engine bellowing a little, approach with a bit more speed, to scatter them left and right. Just be prepared to brake.
Every day you’ll see a car or two that has a rugby ball sized amendment to its bodywork; airborne pheasants leave a surprisingly big dent. There are plenty dead on the roads, despite the signs. I’ve avoided them so far but it’s only a matter of time.
The dog thinks it is wonderful. Some walks, like the ascent from Waterrow to Chipstable, are so bedecked with cocks and hens that she spends the entire walk darting here and there, flushing out, chasing only a few yards before another bird rears up for her attention. It’s clear that she doesn’t want to catch them though. She has no killer instinct. When she gets close to her prey she slows down, gives it a chance to take flight or squeeze though the fence. Then she speeds up again as though she almost had it this time.
I think pheasants are beautiful. When the male plumage is mature it is a rich suit of colours. Now that I appear to live in the pheasant capital of the world, it’s not such a rare treat to spot one, standing erect like a firebrand in a meadow, but they are handsome creatures nevertheless. I’ve noticed occasional black pheasants and even a single white one in the melee.
September is their heyday. They’ve got it made. Few will survive the autumn but they don’t know that. They’ve had sheltered lives and have now been released into the wild. But they don’t ever really become wild. They never were.