The young pheasants (poults) arrive in late August, but the date is unpredictable, as the first three days of their stay are key. If it is bad weather, they will be reluctant to feed, and will become susceptible to disease. If predators are constantly present in and around the pen, then again they will not feed, and the stress will only exacerbate their problems. After this initial period, they are still vulnerable, but will have recovered from the journey and will be a little more settled. As with all animals, the more mature they become, the more their chance of survival.
Over the ensuing weeks, the pens will be visited at least twice daily. The visitors (Mark, or the two other workers on the estate, the farmer and his assistant) make the same whistling noises every time, so the poults become accustomed to the noise and associate it with food and safety. This is something that comes in handy later in the year - Mark’s whistling easing their concerns, before they are pushed over waiting guns.
Shooting alone is something of a controversy. To those who know it and approve, it is lauded as a privilege and a right. To those outside of this circle, it can seem a ‘sport for toffs’ and is derided for its perceived privileged status and, most of all, that it is a cruel activity.
In comparison to the whole of the meat-eating industry, shooting pheasants for food is arguably one of the least cruel (assuming those shooting do so competently). In principal, shooting for your own food is something to be encouraged - if you’re going to eat meat, why not know exactly where it has come from? A well-shot pheasant will have had a considerably better life than any battery-farmed hen.
The ‘snob’ element is more complex, and it comes alongside the realisation that rural issues have immense socio-political implications. Those involved in shooting actually make up a variety of backgrounds and interests, it’s just the gun-holding proportion have a lot more money - shooting is prohibitively expensive.
History shows that shooting, especially on larger estates, was something of a jewel in the crown of a landowner, and symbolic of status. The more pheasants, partridge and grouse you could produce for shooting, the better. It would come at great expense so it is a real show of wealth and power to friends. It was a boast, as Dr Adam Smith of the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT), told me, “Grouse moors and deer forests were to a certain extent a display of one’s public wealth. They existed at least partly to demonstrate that one was so rich one could can stand under a cold shower tearing up money”.
Pheasant shooting goes back a long way in UK history, and it is deeply engrained in rural life. Contrary to popular belief, beating, dog handling and shooting are participated in by all strata of society (albeit somewhat imbalanced), and there is the hard fact that it creates all manner of jobs from gun and ammunition manufacturers to dog handlers, pheasant rearers and, of course, keepers.
So it is a potential force for good, especially if it is with the intent of a meal. This is not consistently the case though. It is overexploited in parts, with some shoots bordering on the grotesque. I cannot begin to imagine what the justification for a 4 figure bird day’s shooting is. It is big business, but money cannot be justification for ecological excesses such as these. Restaurants don’t even want the shot pheasants as there is danger of feeding customers lead shot, and the same goes for supermarkets and other potential outlets. Rumour has it that a lot of stock is sent abroad, or worse, not used for food at all.
These particular pheasants will be shot in late December over the course of three days. The excess pheasants are given to the local community, along with any venison to people who have been helping out. The number of pheasants shot is a lot less than the big commercial shoots – in the 100-150 range a day, and still they have sufficient to give them away. Imagine scaling that up by ten.
The step-change in agrictulture in the 20th century was such that, were it not for shooting interests, a lot of woodland would have been uprooted for other more profitable uses. Even some creation of new woodland has been credited to shooting, so there is actually some benefit to the ecosystem in this respect.
The £30/40 per bird in the air (paid by those shooting) pays for a lot more than sport. It goes into paying for the pheasants, their feed, the pens, preserving woodland, preserving areas from more intensive and more damaging farming interests. Without this input, where would the money go? What would happen to this pseudo-conservational intent? It doesn’t really matter, it definitely wouldn’t be there though, there would be somewhere else for the money. It would mean leaving these woodland areas and hedgerows, game crops and attendant jobs redundant, making way for other uses. The first to suffer would not be the pheasants (as foreign species, technically they wouldn’t be of much concern anyway); it would be the local wildlife that rely on the habitats preserved for sheltering game. This land is not publicly owned, and no government, be it local or national, will be prepared to fill the financial gap that shooting pays for. Furthermore, this money would not end up in the hands of the likes of the RSPB or similar charitable conservation bodies. Their work would still be invaluable, but shooting would constitute a great financial loss.
There is real room for improvement in the world of shooting, and excess is something to be strongly discouraged. As they are so closely tied to and affected by the habits and desires of their employers, it is in the long term interests of gamekeepers to curb these massive shoots.
The next post, Chapter 3: Trapping - it's like they're stealing, will be posted on this blog on Saturday 19th January 10.30am. To buy a copy of the book for £25 contact me.