Pheasant shooting in Britain is nothing if not traditional. Practiced with bow and arrow long before the invention of guns, enjoyed by Henry VIII and mentioned by Jane Austen, the sport has been a part of British culture for centuries.
Today it may not be hugely widespread, but in some areas it is still going strong.
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The men, all local farmers wearing every shade of green, adjust their breeks and grab their shotguns.
For me this has been a year of photographing new sports. Most were Olympic and Paralympic sports, but this past week it’s been a country sport: pheasant shooting.
It’s funny but it’s only now as I sit down to write this blog that I’ve realised the connection. The Olympic sport of trap shooting was originally developed to provide a method of practice for bird hunters: even the targets were called clay pigeons.
However, unlike game hunters, I doubt Olympians start the day with a glass of sloe gin or cherry brandy. But now, on a cold December morning, it hits the spot.
Land Rovers are lined up outside, while Labradors and Springer Spaniels whine in anticipation because they know what’s coming next. The men, all local farmers wearing every shade of green, adjust their breeks and grab their shotguns.
The conversation takes a more serious tone as pegs are taken and guns are loaded. The “beaters” – whose job it is to drive the game out into the open – are seen in the distance approaching an area of long grass. They wave flags and make enough noise to disturb any wildlife.
The “guns” – the hunters waiting with their weapons – are placed evenly around the area in a semi circle, and as the birds take flight they hope to get a bird at the right angle to shoot. Pheasant that fly too low or too close are left alone: a shot like that is considered unsporting.
The pheasant are wild birds so no two shots are the same. No one knows how many pheasant will be released from a run, which direction they will go in, or at what height or speed they will fly. Even trickier is shooting on a foggy day, since you don’t see the bird until it’s almost above you. So the skill and the challenge is certainly in following the flight of a rising or curling bird and picking your shot.
The dogs are tied to a stake or to their owners and they get very excited once the shooting starts and the birds begin to fall.
Once the shoot is over and the whistle goes, guns are unloaded and the dogs are released to retrieve the birds, which they carry very gently in their mouths and then drop at the feet of their owners.
After the second run, the drinks reappear and it’s then that you get the feeling that this is a very social affair. Here I was witnessing a way of life that has passed down the generations. A chance for friends to get together, enjoy the sport of shooting and bring home the dinner.