It’s early december – a beautiful, crisp, sunny winter’s morning – and what better way to spend it than to go out on the moor and kill something?
it’s degenerated somewhat, the sport of kings, from the good old days of the gormless, the chinless, the talentless, and the titled gathering to see how many brace of birds they could bag before luncheon. the aristos themselves – crippled by death-duties, poor dears – can only afford their traditional pleasures now by hiring out their killing fields to the corporate upstarts, the meeja hoes, the rock stars, the pimps, the visiting sons and daughters of the Russian mafia – and the usual americans. these people have to have it explained to them that it’s a sport, of course, otherwise they’d come onto the moors blazing away with uzis and M47’s.
children, of course, are brought up to understand that ‘sport’ is something involving skill and rules.
a typical driven pheasant shoot (anything between £600 and £1,000 per gun per day) involves waiting around with a loaded shotgun in your hands and the other in your loader’s whilst the birds fly overhead. (guns are sold in pairs – the Holland & Holland ‘Royal’ side by side sells at £96,250 plus VAT per pair – but you commoners can probably pick up a pair for three grand or so.) you’ll be one in a group of six upwards – in the good old days a line of Edwardian shooters would extend over half a mile or so of gorse and heather, but things were less well-regulated then, and they did tend to accidentally shoot each other with tedious regularity. at a given signal, the beaters – hired for the purpose from the local Surly Mumbling Locals Agency – who have been waiting invisibly and silently in another long parallel line opposite you some half a mile or so off – start moving forwards, noisily. between you and the beaters is a confused flock of pheasant. this is their day, this is what they were hatched for, and cosseted in well-appointed pens supervised by the only person in the present assembly with any skill at anything – the gamekeeper – a curious atavistic hybrid of naturalist, stock-keeper, farm manager, tracker, vet, and policeman. having raised the birds to maturity, he has earlier supervised their release from their protective cages into the concealing shrub of their moorland habitat.
pheasant spend most of their lives on the ground. they are designed for protection on the ground. they are better at hiding and running than at flying, and are, in fact, unwilling to fly unless all other methods of escape from predation (ie concealment or running) have failed.
right now, they are a little dazed and confused. they pick listlessly at the grit. they are not hungry – they have never been hungry – just a bit nervous.
naturally shy, as the beaters’ line gets nearer, they start to run away.
when they realise that the beaters are getting even closer, the first of them decides to take off.
they are slow to take off – they are powerful creatures, with well-developed leg muscles (good for chomping down on later) but insufficiently developed wings for prolonged flight – so their method of flying is to flap up to around ten metres or so, then glide, when they arrive at a top speed of about 40 mph.
perfect for game.
as soon as the first bird arrives overhead, you fire.
you don’t have to be particularly accurate.
a typical cartridge case contains about a hundred little lead balls the size of a small bead – the shot – packed tightly into a fat four-inch tube. once the firing pin strikes the percussion cap at the base of the cartridge, the shot is propelled from the barrel at a muzzle-velocity of around 1,400 feet per second. depending on the barrel’s ‘choke’ (the amount of constriction in the barrel’s bore), this mass of lead spheres spreads out in an expanding conical pattern, so that at a distance of 40 metres (or the ‘killing range limit’ of 35 yards) it is scattered over a distorted circular lens about 1.5 – 2 metres in diameter. at that range, and with that degree of spread, you only need to wave your gun vaguely in the right direction and pull the trigger at the right time to stand a fair chance of hitting a bird. it’s rather like throwing stones at a tin can. some smartass will always end up grabbing a handful of pebbles and flinging them all in a spraying arc in order to knock the can over. you really have to be a complete moron to miss. on a driven shoot, the average expectation is a ratio of four shots to one kill.
the velocity of a non-aerodynamic projectile such as a piece of lead shot decays rapidly through air-resistance after firing, and has lost more than half of its original speed – the lost energy converted to heat through friction – by the time it reaches a distance of 40 metres. however, a pea of hot lead travelling at nearly four hundred miles an hour is more than enough to inflict devastating damage on a bird averaging 3lb in weight.
it is never a clean kill. this is one of the myths of game-shooting. think about it. the chance of a single piece of shot entering the body of the bird at a point which would cause instantaneous death is so slight as to be negligible. what happens is that the piece of hot shot tears into a wing-muscle, or penetrates some part of the torso, causing sufficient damage to interrupt the bird’s capacity to fly, so that the injured bird falls from the sky, still alive, flapping frantically to no purpose. this stalling fall isn’t vertical, of course: depending on how high it was when you shot it, and how fast it was flying, it describes a parabola that will finally thump onto the ground as much as a hundred metres away behind you. you, however, have better things to do right now than to walk over and retrieve it – that’s what gun-dogs are for.
the beaters have now advanced well into the field, and half of the flock has been flushed, flapping noisily towards you, each bird gamely fulfilling its destiny, doing exactly what it’s supposed to – flying directly over a line of blazing guns. you and your neighbours are banging away as if your lives depended on it. you’re experiencing the kind of rush that’s associated with all the defensive postures of sport – the batsman facing the fast bowler, the goalie facing the penalty, the tennis player waiting for the ace serve, the full-back facing the winger. it’s irrelevant that the ‘threat’ is threat-less – that this isn’t a charging sabre-toothed tiger. the point is that it’s alive, it’s moving, and, unlike in most other sports, you’re allowed to kill it to stop it.
as soon as you’ve blasted off both barrels, you reach behind you and exchange your smoking gun for the freshly-loaded one that your loader has ready: he will then re-load whilst you shoot again, and again, in a bang-and-swap relay, until the air reeks of cordite, your ears are ringing, your shoulder is bruised from the recoil, your cheeks are flushed with arousal (you’ll laugh it off as the heat of the barrels), and all the birds have, finally, lifted and been dropped.
a few will escape, of course – they’ll eventually make their way back to the safety of their pens, until the next time.
meanwhile, once the mayhem subsides, the dogs are sent to find and retrieve the bodies littering the moor behind you (lifting the dying birds in ironically gentle jaws), necks are finally wrung, whisky flasks are unscrewed, the banter about whose bag is best begins, the beaters trudge on to their next starting line, and the gamekeeper’s landrover moves discreetly in, rocking over the tussocks with a fresh batch of birds in tow to freshen up another part of the moor for the next drive.
roast pheasant is an-over-rated, acquired taste: the stall price of game is kept artificially high for its snob-value. and the meat has other, hidden drawbacks: aristocrats have famously bad teeth, easily and frequently cracked on the pellets of shot left embedded and undiscovered in the preparation of a shot bird’s carcass. cave venator.
the hunters ‘n’ shooters are fond of blathering their mealy-mouthed protestations that it’s ‘unsporting’ to kill an animal unless it’s for the table or for culling purposes. the truth is, pheasant as food is not the point. who really needs that excuse? the point is, it’s early december – it’s a lovely, crisp, sunny winter’s morning – and what better way to spend it than to go out on the moor and kill something?