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HERE THEY GO - Banging on
Posted 1 November 2001
The following article about pheasant shooting appeared in The Times on Saturday 24th November 2001.
Those of us who live where the fields outnumber the carparks tend to hear more hunting than we ever see. After dark we hear owls and foxes at the kill, while daylight brings the occasional crack of a shotgun. Recently, however, I have heard thunderous volleys of gunfire that would not disgrace a reconstruction of the Battle of Waterloo. My neighbours are shooting pheasants.
We moved into this backwater of Kent two years ago, so I no longer drop my secateurs at the odd bang of a gun. I carried no anti-shooting baggage to my new home, and even flirted with the idea of joining in the "sport". Unfortunately, I now know enough to realise I never will.
My first encounter with roaming pheasants left me rather bemused. Driving home one September afternoon, I pulled onto the pot-holed track that leads to our cottage. Mindful of loose dogs, possibly our own, I slowed down to a crawl by the potato field, whereupon a fat cock pheasant ran straight into my front bumper, bounced, and scuttled past. To my amazement, another dozen golden birds came tripping over each other on their way down the lane. I drove home smiling at their guileless behaviour.
Within a few days, however, the alarming scale of the pheasant invasion was revealed. We met pheasants in the bushes, in the orchard, on the lawn, in the garage. We hosted pheasant assemblies in the garden, and ogled as nervous groups strutted across the B-roads in single file. (As I write these words I can see three large cocks and one hen within 20 yards of the door).
It emerged that over 20,000 of these ungainly creatures had been released onto neighbouring land in preparation for the shooting season, which began on the first of October and lasts four months. I had enough local geography to know this meant a very large number of birds per acre, and became curious. I was more than a little surprised by the fruit of my enquiries, as I had previously assumed that shooting pheasants was an ancient country tradition, integral, no doubt, to the rural ecology.
Barney, who is 16 and works in the farm shop, has few romantic notions.
"It's all about money. It's these new landowners - they stick a load of birds into the woods, and get the tourists and townies in to shoot them. You can't blame them, there's big money to be made."
The truth of this statement was confirmed by a straw poll conducted in the bar of the Eight Bells, although opinion was divided about what constitutes "shooting". A youngish cider enthusiast with first-hand experience of the local shoots explained how there were, to his mind, two different activities going on.
"Rough shooting is the real sport. You go out with a few mates, shoot whatever you come across, take it home, eat it. Half the time you come back empty-handed.' He had also worked as a beater and a dog-handler before he had "a spot of bother with the Bill", and was much less enamoured of the large commercial shoots that dominate the woods.
"Amateurs. Cowboys. Half of the 'guns' don't know what they're doing. Some of these guys are more likely to shoot their own leg off than hit a pheasant."
As the beer and the conversation flowed, my sepia-tinted image of a flat-capped farmer potting away at wild birds with only a collie for company was replaced by a picture of something more like a shooting-range with live moving targets. Shooting, it appears, has evolved into a major corporate leisure activity, and the bulk of its £600-million annual turnover is generated by wealthy weekenders and Japanese and American visitors. Naturally, customers paying between £500 to £3,000 for a day out will not be content to go home empty-handed. So the birds are driven in hundreds, then panicked into the air en masse to present the kind of target anyone could hit. The consensus in the pub was, "if you can't lose then it's not sport", and it was hard to disagree. We drank a toast to the dwindling number of genuine sportsmen who take pride in waiting for the "difficult" bird that flies high and fast. No one doubted these marksmen were now heavily outnumbered by weekenders who will shoot anything that moves.
To counter these gloomy thoughts, I made my way to the supermarket, as I can usually eat my way back to happiness. Inevitably, the shelves were stocked with oven-ready pheasants. At least, I consoled myself, the birds were getting eaten. But a turkey-farmer informs me that supermarket pheasants are often factory-farmed imports, as the chain stores don't want customers cracking their fillings on particles of lead shot. Ironically, a waiter from a posh restaurant that shall remain nameless confessed that there's a little pot of lead shot in the kitchen to add to farmed birds when cooking.
"Punters won't pay 20 quid unless they believe it's a 'proper' pheasant," he said.
It was a game-dealer who revealed the most startling aspects of the pheasant business to me.
First off, he claimed that around 13 million pheasants were shot in the UK last year. While I was struggling to get my head round that, he explained that his business was being ruined by the sheer glut of birds, relating how he was recently offered "any amount" at 50p a brace. He continued: "I explained that I'd be lucky to get that price myself, and they said 'go on then, have them for nothing'. They threw 500 in the back."
It is said that sometimes they are buried or burnt. Village butchers buy their fowl from shoots, but one admits he sells only a few dozen a week. The Countryside Alliance has launched a campaign to "heighten public awareness of the quality of game meat and to promote it as a cheap and healthy product", but I doubt they really expect us to swallow 13 million pheasants between now and the end of January.
- Pheasants were brought to the UK from Asia by the Romans.
- Commercial "driven" shooting in England began in the late 19th century.
- The shooting industry has an estimated annual turnover of £600 million and employs 25,000 people.
- Large pheasant populations can inflict severe damage on hedgebanks and soil.
- A day's shooting can cost anything up to £3,000, with accommodation and catering as extras.
- The industry's Code of Good Shooting Practice requests participants to: "Respect your quarry" and warns "Don't be greedy".