If it wasn’t for the dog I wouldn’t have been there. We bought a good pedigree labrador to make sure we got a friendly, biddable family dog. The fact that some of her family line are field trial champions was incidental, until she started getting spotted in the street.
People want to know who the breeder is or when we’re going to have puppies. One lady took one look and invited Tilly up to the pheasant shoot on her farm. There’s breeding for you.
So we went. Try anything once. Here’s how it works (for complete noobs, of which I am one). There are four groups of people on the shoot: the beaters, who drive the pheasants with flags and spaniels over the hill top; the guns, standing at the bottom of a valley shooting the birds as they fly overhead; the pickers-up, positioned behind the guns to watch where the birds fall and send retrievers to collect them; and the organisers, who set positions, provide refreshments, drive the game cart and make sure it all runs smoothly.
So at 9:30am a great congregation of waterproofed people and excited dogs assembled in the farm courtyard. The beaters, including two of my boys, rode in a horse box up to the first hill, while everyone else walked down to their positions in the valley. After the first drive the spoils were collected and the party moved down to a spinney for a cup of hot soup. The beaters travelled to the other side of the estate, flushing the birds over the valley further down (“one of the best drives in Somerset,” I was told, “they come like shit off a shovel”). The third drive was back near the farm after which everyone met in the barn. The wood stove was burning, packed lunches came out and port was offered around the tables. We left early but the shoot went on for another two drives before the group finished with supper.
It was a full day. It takes time to get everyone in position, including the pheasants: they have to be flushed out of the hedges into the main kale fields before being driven over the valley. Guns have to be unpacked and loaded, dogs have to be managed, and the nearest thing to silence achieved before the shooting begins.
And no one was in a rush. I was a little bored because my job was to stand with the pickers-up with the dog on a lead so that she could get used to the clamour. I kept thinking how they could run the operation quicker. On reflection, they probably couldn’t, but to speed up would be to miss the point anyway. The whole exercise was a social event. Most of the 7-8 hours were spent walking together through exquisite autumn countryside, chatting in the valley, eating together in the barn.
It put a dent in my assumption that this sort of thing is elitist. Here was a local family and their friends enjoying a day outside, mixing sport with catching up. There were three generations shooting together (how many other teenagers spend a whole Saturday doing a shared activity with their parents and grandparents?). Other people, like me, who’d come to join in with dogs or to help with the beating were welcomed completely.
Sport, tradition, socialising at an open event. I might feel differently about a large commercial shoot, or one of the celebrity events that also happen in this neck of the woods (latest sightings in the Wivey Gun Shop are Daniel Craig and Vinny Jones), but this shoot felt inclusive and positively egalitarian.
Even the clothes, which might look funny to outsiders, make sense when you’re there. My middle-class-national-trust-photographing Regatta fleece and waterproofs were okay, but for picking through dense brambles, or beating through shoulder-high kale, a thick wax coat would be much better. As would a light shirt, rather than a fleece, so you don’t overheat. And a hat with a brim – useful when hot shot is raining down (many shots are taken almost vertically).
At least I had the right wellies.
I get the appeal of the actual shooting – the birds rise up high over the bank, appearing to pause for a moment before arrowing overhead. It’s about predicting the line and getting an accurate shot away.
And the pheasants themselves? On this shoot, they all get eaten. I came away with two brace and cooked up cassoulet with chorizo and butter beans in the evening. Everyone in the party had their own favourite recipe. The birds start off protected in huge pens, before spending a few weeks in the wild, eventually being shot. They’re free range.
As for the dog, she loved it. There must have been 20 other dogs there at least, mainly labradors and small spaniels, and one young flat-coated retriever. She was giddy at first but the pack calmed her down, with experienced hounds modelling controlled behaviour and giving her the odd warning nip if she became too playful.
For the first drive we stood to the side watching, hearing the guns pretty close. For the second, we stood right between two shooters as they blasted away, and she didn’t bat an eyelid. So she’s not gun-shy. At the third we stayed with a more experienced dog, Tilly remaining on the lead, so that she could see him fetching birds and have a good sniff of the quarry when it returned.
The dogs’ job is simple: sit quietly until asked to retrieve a pheasant. But to train a dog to make no sound at all and sit without moving for half an hour while guns fire and pheasants fly overhead or break for cover on the ground takes some doing. Sometimes the birds are pricked – hit but not killed – and the dogs have to gather them carefully and bring them back still alive. I watched a small black lab do it effortlessly, finding the cockbird in the scrub and holding it up to his master, not dropping it at his feet so it could run away.
So if we go again, and I think we will, Tilly will need some training.