The adventure began shortly before 10am on a cold but bright December morning the week between Christmas and New Year. In the back of the Land Rover, two jet black English Labradors; Ellie and Darcy, were a hullabaloo of excitement at the prospect of what lay ahead. It was their first pheasant shoot of the season and the weather was perfect.
In quintessentially British fashion, the group; a mix of men both old and young, gathered for hot coffee to banish the December chill. Around the makeshift table constructed in an old stone barn, the gentlemen made their acquaintances, laughing and sharing stories of Christmas festivities.
Glasses clinked as the tradition of consuming ruby red Port got underway. A cap filled with coins and a notebook of wagers slowly made its way around the cozy quarters, each participant making a jovial guess as to how many shots the group would fire by the end of the day and the number of pheasants they would yield. The barn was abuzz and despite the winter frost that blanketed the landscape that morning, there was a glowing warmth. A call to order shortly after everyone had arrived saw the organizing farmer speak briefly to the crowd; a synopsis of the day’s events and some necessary rules and instructions to regard. Everyone listened intently.
Soon after the introductions and formalities the group moved on. A mass of boots departed from the farm building as what little frost remained evaporated under the watery winter sun. It was a glorious start. Setting out on foot across the fields, the group divided and took their positions for the first drive. Overhead the sky was dappled with wispy clouds and the lush green land shone brightly each time the sun made a welcomed appearance. A silence settled over the shooters as the distant cries of the beaters erupted on the brow of the hill. Poised and prepared, the sportsmen stood like statues with their loaded guns, waiting patiently for the flighty pheasants to emerge.
Suddenly they began to flee from the woodland in the distance, soaring over the fields to safety. The shooter’s stares danced across the horizon in search of the bolting birds. The crack of gunfire echoed as one by one they sailed above, falling to the ground with a thump on impact. It was wonderfully exhilarating.
Every so often, a bird would successfully accomplish its bid for freedom, seeking refuge in the copse behind the line of sportsmen. The task of collecting the less fortunate feathery game was left to the obedient dogs that accompanied the group. Bustling through the overgrown brush to retrieve the fallen fowl, the exuberantly disciplined English Labradors and Springer Spaniels were quick to return to their owner’s side, birds clutched gently in their jaws.
After the first drive concluded, the animated chatter returned as the group gathered to share their experience thus far. Treasured pheasants in hand, the men set out across the pasture once more.
Two additional drives before pausing for lunch meant many more birds and an even greater number of shotgun shells. Back at the barn, the men gathered again around the table. Piping hot cups of coffee and tea were passed heartily around the room as the welcomed break provided an opportunity to dissolve the winter chill. The barn was warm and inviting. Baked pasties filled the hungry bellies of the crowd, washed down with a measure or two of sweet Port and sloe gin. The men shared jokes. Laughing infectiously in their pockets of conversation. A platter of the farmer’s wife’s homemade mince pies circulated the old stone barn. The mood was light and sincere.
Soon after refueling, the group gathered in the farmyard before dispersing via vehicles to the next shooting location. A mere three miles away, the team was briefly reunited before taking their positions in a field by the river. Excited anticipation set in once again.
Silence descended and before the whooping of the beaters began, nothing could be heard but the gentle flow of the stream and the occasional flourish of birdsong. It was momentarily peaceful. The crack of sticks underfoot in the woods up ahead marked the start of the shooing. With eyes to the sky, the men waited patiently for the frightened birds to make their appearance.
One by one they came. Flushed from the trees towards the shooters barrage, crowing loudly as the beaters disturbed their hiding place. Pheasants rained from the sky. Dogs frolicked with glee. It was a sight to behold.
Shortly after the day’s fourth drive concluded, the shooters once again reconvened with the beaters and their dogs. Passionate conversation ensued as the men trudged to the next location, congratulating the young man who had taken aim at a bird high in the sky. The day wore on and as the light slowly began to fade, the final drive saw the gentlemen assume their positions on the bank of the river. Dropping shells into their shotguns before snapping them shut one last time, the shooters carefully studied the twilit sky.
Again the pheasants came. Soaring over the meandering river towards liberty before plummeting to the ground in defeat. Gunfire reverberated up and down the valley as the last of the day’s birds fell from the late afternoon sky. No more than ten minutes later the shotguns fell silent. The pheasant shoot was over.
Despite the silence of the guns momentarily marking the conclusion of the shoot, the frenzy of collecting the last drive’s birds whipped up a final act of excitement. With the river acting as an obstacle between the group and some of their fallen pheasants, the men watched in anticipation as Ellie and Darcy swam desperately to reach the sandy shore.
Joined by a third dog; Tess, the three English Labradors fought tirelessly to reach the other side of the river under the guidance of their trusted owners. Cheers arose as one dog made it across. From afar, the group vigilantly observed the eager pup search the steep grassy bank for her prey. Up and down she ran, nose to the ground as she hunted for her prize. The unmistakable determination ablaze in her enthusiastic demeanor. Delighted applause broke out when she finally located the bird and began to make her way back across the water, her precious plumage held tightly in her mouth. The men watched in awe as she swam hard against the current. Calls of encouragement from her owner could be heard over the fast moving water and as she made it to the riverbank with her retrieval, the group erupted in celebration.
Back on dry land with the final pheasant, the gentlemen made their way to the farmyard to count their kill. Tied in braces and carefully hung inside a disused shed, 34 birds were proudly displayed for the group to marvel. Lustrous gold and copper plumage identified the striking male pheasants with their iridescent green faces. The females; a mass of earthy brown feathers were also easy to distinguish. As was the solitary woodcock who simply happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Mirth and merriment concerning the bird dubbed “the odd one out” began the day’s final festivity of determining a winner. Referring to the notebook that was passed through the crowd that morning, the organizing farmer hailed one of the lead beaters the champion. In doing so, he made little haste in exclaiming everyone’s heartfelt gratitude for the gracious offer to supply the first round of beers with his winnings in the local pub. Raucous laughter emanated from the crowd.
As the men departed for dinner in the warmth of the pub’s cozy dining room, darkness began to settle in. Tales of the day’s events would no doubt be told around the fire that evening and there would be no shortage of Port and gin to round out the entertainment. After all, it was in every way a quintessentially British pheasant shoot.