Standing around for hours in the icy countryside, with a cocked gun, a bag of ammunition and an unpredictable dog for company, could make for an existentially challenging weekend. So just why return to the muddy pastures of England every winter in vain pursuit of pheasant, ponders William Sitwell.
Midwinter. I’m standing in a field. The earth is hard and dusted with frost. A chilling wind lashes my side, bringing with it hard flecks of hail that sting my cheeks. My toes ache with cold. I wiggle them; then stamp my boots on the ground, to no effect. Meanwhile, my fingers are also freezing, despite my thick gloves. As I stand there dreaming of somewhere hot – an almost impossible vision of a beach, the sun, with a warm sea lapping gently onto the soft sand – something stirs ahead.
I’m brought to my senses. There’s a cry of ‘Over!’ from ahead in the trees. A flap of wings, and out of the cover comes a pheasant, dark against the grey, clouded sky. As it rises in my direction, I clench the shotgun that’s in my right hand. My left hand comes out of the pocket shielding it from the dreadful cold to hold and balance the gun. As the bird approaches, rising higher, directly in front of me, I close the open barrels, a cartridge loaded into each. I move the gun up and then through the bird as it closes in. With my right thumb I push forward the safety catch, then fire. I don’t connect quickly, so pull the trigger again, firing off the second barrel.
The pheasant continues to climb as I turn around and watch it fly off to the safety of another wood.
Bollocks, I think to myself. Dammit. I’m cold. I’m missing. I’m also hungover and tired. Dinner last night cascaded into a port drinking, cigar chomping, snooker-cum-darts championship. I may have won; I may have lost, but I know one thing right now, standing cold and miserable in an open field in Northumberland in early January, and it’s this: I fucking hate shooting. Which is a strange thought given the weekends I devote to it each year, the miles I drive, the money I spend on ammo, not to mention tips (don’t even go there…). Then there is the effort I put into organising my own shoot days in Northamptonshire.
I know I’m not alone in this situation. Indeed, once, on a similarly cold day, mid-morning, the host of a shoot looked at me miserably and said: ‘God, I hate shooting.’
It’s not just the cold and being a terrible shot that has me wondering what the hell I’m doing. There are dog issues. If at the end of a day every other Gun (my fellow shooters) and every beater (the guys who bash their way through woods and other cover ‘putting up’ birds) know the name of my dog it is not because he is a beautiful specimen – a lean and friendly, ginger Labrador (which he is, by the way). It is because I have spent much of the day yelling ‘Maxton!’ at the top of my voice, as if he’s that other Labrador, Fenton, of YouTube infamy.
I never had the patience to spend long summers throwing socks around the garden for Maxton to fetch. Shooting etiquette has it that your dog should sit beside you obediently during ‘drives’ (each set piece part of the shoot where you might stand by a peg on a particular piece of land while the beaters walk and flush out the quarry, preferably so it flies over your head).
A good gundog should not retrieve fallen birds during the drive, that’s bad form. He should wait until the end of the drive and then run off and retrieve your birds (and your birds, not someone else’s).
To avoid the tedium of training I bought a large corkscrew. This is attached to my cartridge bag (where I keep the ammo) so I don’t have to carry it around loose or lose it.
It is therefore a little embarrassing when Maxton, so excited at the sight of a fallen bird (as excited, by the way, as I might be should I actually hit the target) that he leaps up, yanks the corkscrew out of the ground and pelts off, dragging the cartridge bag behind him, ammo spraying everywhere as he runs. And, of course, he doesn’t pick my bird, he runs across the line of guns and fetches someone else’s – someone whose dog is so well trained it isn’t screwed to the ground and who doesn’t find my dog’s antics funny, not least the fact that Maxton doesn’t actually fetch the bird but instead decides to eat it. Still, over the years, Maxton’s behaviour has improved, and his enormous ginger head holds a very large mouth into which he has been known to cram three whole pheasants.
Naturally I regard fellow guns whose pairs of sleek black Labradors sit obediently at their feet only to rise at a mere whistle from their owner, with contempt. Nerdy bastards! Losers!
Shooting etiquette, meanwhile, extends much further than the behaviour of dogs. It is impolite to raise your weapon at a fellow gun’s head – shooting another guest or a beater with lead shot can significantly raise the level of the tip you are expected to leave the keeper when he hands you your brace (or pair) of pheasants at the end of the day.
It is considered far ruder, however, if you shoot that which you have been specifically asked not to shoot. ‘No ground game, please,’ your host or the game-keeper might say at the morning briefing. This means you don’t fire at rabbits or foxes or deer, or anything running along the ground (that means wounded pheasant too). And woe betide if you shoot the special gold melanistic pheasant reared by your host’s wife as an ornamental specimen.
And, strange though it may seem, it is viewed as equally appalling if you turn up for a shoot in clothes that are too new, as is sporting a tie with pheasants on it.
Yet despite the bad weather, bad dogs and bad behaviour, there are reasons I find myself returning to the fray, praying for good invitations, spending months planning my own shoot. To start with, there’s the lunch. It may be a hurried hour (and God forbid those who ‘shoot-through’ delaying lunch till 3.30pm, which screws up tea, of course, and leaves you confused about dinner), but that hour is so often laced with lovely casseroles, red wine, pudding, cheese and port. What bliss to greet the late afternoon air with a good lunch in the tummy, a cigar and a little light killing in the offing.
And so, come October, and then again in January, a succession of friends, often with a good chef in their midst (Mark Hix, for example) tread a path to my little patch in Northamptonshire.
Johnny, the keeper, leads us out across the fields, praying for a good day. We walk for hours, stopping for drinks at a nearby lake, then return home for lunch. If the late afternoon sees pure blue sky, a flurry of partridge among the pheasant and we connect with a few, we’ll come home for tea, laughing our stupid heads off with silly chat as the evening draws in. I’ll ponder what delicious casserole or roast the partridge might make – delicious stuffed with apples and flamed in calvados. Then, when my pals have gone, I’ll sit back with a long drink, look down at Maxton and he might just reckon that actually I bloody love shooting.
(reproduced courtesy of HIX magazine) www.hixrestaurants.co.uk