Strange "hunting’ of English birds |

Strange "hunting’ of English birds

Alan Braunholtz

Male pheasants are handsome birds, with a trailing distinctive brown and black zig zag patterned long tail feathers behind a rust speckled body, bright white and green hoops of color around the neck, a head that shimmers mauve and black in the warm autumn sun around a fleshy red eye patch, they make a distinctive sight on any walk in the countryside.

The males vaingloriously strut their colors in front of the dowdier females and can be seen scurrying down the back roads, scratching through the stubble fields and mobs mill about in the dappled shade of the woodlands.

These large, sluggish birds show a reluctance to fly and fearless or stupid (in the wild it’s the same thing), they only acknowledge threats at the last second.

Feather-splattered splotches adorn the black tarmac, and a child with a butterfly net can catch them if bored. Flights are short, noisy affairs, all wing beats and fluttering feathers, an ungainly straining against the plump body, followed by a brief glide to the ground. In short it’s a large, slow-moving bird that stays around – perfect targets for doddering old English gents to shoot. And that is the October tradition on English country estates.

Pheasants are reared in cages, released in August, and shot in the autumn and winter. Gamekeepers used to wage a virtual war on any creature possessing a sharp tooth, hooked beak or curved talon: “Destroyers of pheasant chicks all of them.”

Pampered, protected and well-fed, these pheasants resemble cruise ship grouse out for a day in the forests, strolling around, tourists in a wildland they can no longer understand.

Pheasants are a cash crop in England these days. Everyone wants to be a country gent. City bankers, pop stars and tourists will pay a lot for the privilege of visiting an estate, sampling the trappings of inherited land and wealth and bagging a few birds. Fees range from $600 to $3,000 for use of the estate and $45 per bird. This is split among the whole shooting party.

Of course, for this one doesn’t expect to actually walk and find a pheasant by oneself. Instead, shoots are set up. The servants act as beaters and herd the birds out of the copses toward a suitable field or open space where the shooters wait for the laborious targets to take wing. It’s your basic convenience/fast-food hunting.

Shoots vary tremendously from small traditional friends of the family type, run with a strong regard to conservation, to big industrial operations charging silly money to kill a lot of birds. For some, the number killed becomes the major factor in the enjoyment of the day. A party can kill over 1,000 birds a day. This seems less of a sport and more an exercise in tactical killing. This is tradition, too. A hundred years ago, a Lord Ripon with help from reloading manservants cycled three shotguns, killing up to 28 birds per minute with up to seven falling from the air at the same time. Impressive in its own way, but pity his poor gun dog.

Birds cost $15 to rear, and smaller estates don’t want them all shot on the first day. Some have to be around for the January bookings. Ideally, shooting lines are set up so one bird can fly through several stations with overlapping fields of fire and everyone gets to shoot at the same bird. More bang for the buck (or bird).

Do this too much and complaints about not enough birds shot may be heard at the end of the day. These can be quickly squashed with a “well you fired a lot more shells than that, though these are wild-reared birds and may be a touch difficult to hit. We tend to find them more sporting, but you can blast away in the pens if you want.”

These “more sporting” birds then become a matter of pride. No one doubts the word of an English gentleman.

Commercial hunts can be a godsend to country estates. Dollars are raised from unproductive woodland, and it provides an alternative revenue source. About 36 million pheasants are guestimated to be raised this year. Only a third of these will be shot. The rest escape the shoots, only to fall victim to predation, disease and starvation. Few have the smarts to survive in the wild for long.

Of those shot less than half end up in a pot. What do you do with 1,000 dead pheasants at the end of the day? Some are given away to charities, but many end up quickly buried in pits.

These birds are reared in crowded conditions and gamekeepers use a drug (Emtryl) to keep disease down. This drug hasn’t had a safe level set for human consumption and is banned in Europe. (England is still ambivalent about conceding to geography and its place in Europe.)

Birds are supposed to wait 28 days from eating Emtryl to being shot and ingested, but they’re just birds and aren’t sticklers for rules and no one else knows what they do. Maybe it’s best not to eat them. On big shooting estates, the number of birds raised can be overwhelming. They damage fencerows and soils. The whole focus becomes pheasants, and it becomes a shooting monoculture.

It’s a strange phenomenon, in which punters are paying to kill birds worth nothing, which they won’t eat. The real value is the chance to enjoy the pleasant beauty of a country estate with the camaraderie of a boy’s day out.

Men still seem to bond best when playing with weapons and destroying stuff.

Western hunting looks great in comparison. It’s cheaper, the meat is edible, the hunts can take days with increased time for comradely drinking and camping, and there’s a lot more of that skillful walking and stalking.

A pheasant shoot seems to have forgotten the challenge of matching wits with the wild. It’s a kill fest.

Old-time rifle and bow hunters here can be heard muttering the same thing when watching ATV-bound “sportsmen” tearing around, taking potshots at distant deer. Hunters regard themselves as sportsmen, and sport has the connotation of fair play. The more we limit our use of technology, the fairer our head-to-heads with the wild become.

Alan Braunholtz, ski instructor and raft guide, writes a weekly column for the Daily.

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