PHEASANT SHOOTING UK STYLE
A Saturday in November….. and then it snowed!
One of my other passions, as some of you will have guessed is pheasant shooting, so here are a
couple of articles on the topic from both sides of the pond, explaining the differences between the
two styles of harvesting this colorful and good eating bird.
This one will be from the UK perspective and I’ll cover most aspects on the subject ranging from the Saturday afternoon out with your faithful friend through to the formal syndicate and commercial driven
As a boy I was lucky enough to have a Gamekeeper as my Grandfather so from an early age I grew
up with all facets of the backstage work required to present birds on the day of the shoot. Most
shooting takes the form of a formal driven shoot with anything up to 10 drives a day. All shooting
takes place on private land and is therefore owned by somebody who may, or may not, wish to use
his ripean shooting rights and shoot his own land or in some cases he will rent this “right” out to a
collection of sporting gentlemen who would pay for all aspects of the shoot.
Gamekeepers must keep the birds happy
Pheasant shooting starts in October and runs through January with NO shooting of game birds on
Sundays. If you are lucky enough to be invited to join a syndicate then the outlay can be considerable
to pay for your chosen sport. Normally a local farmer with a shooting interest will start a syndicate and
get around 10 guns to join in. Depending on what the “guns” are prepared to pay then chicks will be purchased and then put into release pens in suitable woods around the farm. Of course our little
feathered friends need to be fed and watered on a daily basis, kept safe from all nature’s predators,
and be given the right conditions to flourish as they grow. This will include the right temperature in the
woods, sunny areas, dusting bowls and grit areas essential for digestion. Then as they mature they
must be looked after, continuously attended to, let out to roam the woods during daytime and then
locked back in their pens around roost time after feeding.
A feed zone for the young birds, note the Albino
Apart from diseases the Poacher and the Fox are the biggest menace on the shoot! A fox if able to
get into a release pen will kill every bird in the pen just for pleasure which is no surprise that fox
hunting was such a popular sport in the UK to keep this pest in check.
Fox hunting as it was
Sometimes you might get lucky and find a piece of land that an owner doesn’t shoot and maybe that
will give you the freedom to get out with your own dog and see what can be found, this is what we call
“rough shooting”. As this small patch of land no doubt borders a farmer’s crops or woods you might
get accosted by the farmer or gamekeeper initially to make sure you know what you are doing and
have permission to shoot and sometimes this may be the start of getting invited to farmer’s shoots
which are a mixture of walked up and driven.
“I say, YOU fellow, do you have permission ?”
Out with the “best friend” for a bit of Rough Shooting, sorry Duke
When I was at RAF Coningsby I took over the Station Shoot and although we never put down any birds
there were a few thousand acres at our disposal which of course were adjacent to farmer’s fields and
many of their birds would venture onto our land and thus become “our” birds. I had one piece of land
on the approach to a runway which was used as a dump site and burning area and this was between
two farmers fields. By allowing the farmers to shoot across these couple of acres when they had their
shoots got me invitations to some of their offerings.
On the syndicate shoot the host would suggest all the details which would include cost of birds, gamekeepering, feed costs, and the cost of beaters on the shoot days. Back in the 80’s this would
work out at around 1600 pounds each member for around 4000 birds. As a UK average if you can
shoot 30-40% of the birds released then that is about right for the shoot as a good many will fly onto neighboring property, some will be poached, some victims of road kill and predation and others will
go we know not where! However, if we put down 4000, and shoot 30% that should give us 1200 birds
over 8 shooting days which means we should average about 150 birds per shoot.
Bearing in mind the Pheasant is not indemic to either UK or USA it is amazing that they do take over
areas that they enjoy and feature on many Christmas cards. I believe they are from China and
Mongolia and were originally brought to Great Britain by the Romans and then brought to America
by the early settlers. Types of pheasant that may be encountered on any shoot are the common Ring
Neck with its distinctive white ring of feathers on the cock bird or rooster as it is called in the USA. The Mongolian looks identical but does not have the ring and can sometimes be a giant bird. There are
green and black pheasants and the tougher Melanistic which can often be found in marshy areas
and near water. On our syndicate we would release 10 Albino birds, three of which were ringed. If you
shot one of the 7 without a ring then ALL syndicate members paid you 10 pounds each, but if it was a “ringed” bird you paid THEM 10 pounds each….. fair odds I think ?
The Christmas card Ring Neck
One of the many colors of Melanistic
A normal syndicate shooting day will start at the main farmhouse with a few libations of sloe gin or
similar and the drawing for “pegs” which we believe is where the expression “The luck of the draw”
comes from. At this stage our “gentlemen” will be attired in collar and tie, Tattershal shirt, waistcoat,
and traditional plus fours and brogue shoes. On this shoot we have 10 “guns” so the pouch is offered
and we all draw a number for the first drive and then get the briefing which may be something like this:
” No shooting before the whistle is blown, no low shots, no ground game with the exception of foxes
and no shooting after the final whistle. We are shooting 10, 1 & 10 will walk with the beaters and we
will be moving up 3 on each drive.”……… now what that means is that with 8 standing guns at their
pegs in an arc, then in theory the majority of the birds should fly over pegs number 4, 5 & 6 thus giving
them the best shooting and hence the “luck of the draw”. At the end of the drive we will move up 3 so
anyone on peg 2 will now become 5 and so on and number 7 will become 10 while number 8 will
move to the number 1 slot. All sounds fine in theory but sometimes the birds don’t cooperate and it
seems one or two people are getting all the shooting on every drive!! ….and indeed I have been on
both the good and bad end of the stick.
Standard shooting attire
Out in the parking lot the beaters are all off in the farm tractor trailer with dogs various and all
dressed in full waterproofs of traditional barbour suits and wellies. The host usually surveys the guns transport and suggests you, you and you go with John, you two with Tristian (usually the London
Lawyer whose Range Rover has never been off road)…… and the rest with me.” Now everyone is
getting into their posh green wellies, donning barbours or the improved Musto gortex jacket which I
favour, cartridge bags, guns (no automatics, pumps or belt fed 12 bores here!) and slips and of
course the goofy ill behaved labrador.
“……..Tony and John with Tristan, the rest with me”
Tristan, our London Lawyer, in his new clothes, let’s hope he can shoot
Just a note here on guns, the reason WE don’t allow autos or pumps or a UK shoot is SAFETY ! Any
of these single barrel contraptions can’t be seen to be unloaded unlike the side by side or under and
over and indeed many accidents have happened with dire consequences. Never cross ditches, or
climb over barbed wire fences will a loaded gun, unload and pass the “broken” gun to someone while completing your task. Personally I’m never overly happy with anyone using a hammer gun either as
these can accidentally catch on branches and clothing and go off unexpectedly as happened to John
Hunt a farmer friend of mine when he blew off his own red setter’s back leg! Amazingly this setter
continued shooting after surgery as though nothing had happened!!
Unloaded and safe
“You must be American, are you from Texas?”
Loaded or unloaded ? my worst nightmare
None of these either!
Any gun should be tailored to the individual just like a suit especially if stock guns do not fit you. This
is a both eyes open technique and every mount should produce the same sight picture, which if you
are fitting someone else means that when the gun is mounted 1/2 the eyeball should be visible
looking down the rib. Any other solution will mean a miss below or above. The choking of a British
game gun will normally be Improved cylinder for the first shot and then 1/4 or 1/2 choke in the other
barrel. Most American sold guns are too tightly choked often being sold with 3/4 and Full which will
mean the bird is “soup” if the shooter connects. Depending on the shoot and the height of the birds
choking can easily be adjusted if you have screw in chokes. Staying with my recommendations the
choice of cartridge would normally be either 6 or 7 shot for birds and maybe 5 shot for hares and
With an unloaded gun, look straight down the rib
You should see 1/2 an eyeball
At the first drive a few birds take off from hedgerows as we walk to our pegs. Seems some of the
guns can’t remember their number and are wandering around aimlessly until directed by the host. In position, gun removed from the slip and a few elegant practice swings and mounts. Now settle down, cartridges in and gun broken over the crook of the arm.
“Anyone know who drew Peg 4 ?”
Ready and waiting
The whistle sounds, guns close and everyone patiently looks in the area where the beaters are
shouting and bawling about and dogs are barking. Very soon the first birds flush and we watch to see
where their flight path will take them. A few calls of “no bird”, “low bird” as some of the immature birds
elect to fly low between the guns. Usually some wild shooting from the less gifted with guns stopped
in mid swing or trying ambushing techniques. Now a good time to assess the skills of your neighbors
and hope they don’t swing on a low bird and follow it through “the line” making us all targets. No
Dick Cheneys allowed in the shooting field this side of the Atlantic !
The whistle blows, the guns are ready
None of this please!
All too soon the whistle blows, guns are lowered and unloaded and the line of professional
“picker-uppers” who have been standing about 50 yards behind the guns with their dogs begin their
diligent work collecting both downed birds and those that were seen to be “pricked” but flew on to land elsewhere. The picker-uppers are not normally paid but volunteer their services to train their
working dogs. Most of these helpers are armed with two dogs to deal with all retrieves and usually
work a labrador and the robust springer spaniel. Labradors are great retrievers but they don’t like
nettles and are not too keen on briar and bramble patches so the spaniel is deployed to collect any
skulky bird trying to find refuge in the brambles.
Yes, I’ve met her at the shoot
Classic pairings of labs and springers
Back to the transport and on to the next drive remembering the number change. About 4 drives before
lunch then depending on the syndicate perhaps lunch in the field or at the farm barn, or a full blown
affair with drinks and wine at a local pub. Personally this is not my favorite as it can be disruptive and
go on too long and therefore limit the shooting time in the afternoon as we should finish around 4′ ish
as the birds will soon be going to roost. In my opinion a short 30 min stop for lunch is good then
finish off with a full meal and drinks at around 1630.
My preferred choice of coffee and sandwiches in the field
The formal lunch in a pub is better after the shoot in my opinion
By lunchtime our new boy, Tristan’s Range Rover is a real shit tip as guns with muddy boots and wet labradors have deposited crap everywhere and steamed up all the windows leaving the pleasant
aroma of “wet dog” with just a hint of cow shit, for his drive home!
“Did you step in something in the Rover ? ….man it stinks”
“Don’t worry Tristan it SHOULD wash off”
The afternoon continues with the host reminding some of the “newbies” on shooting etiquette and
low birds, whistles etc. The final drive is done, guns unloaded and the game counted. Everybody gets a “brace” of birds and now the gamekeeper will be tipped at aound 10 pounds per hundred shot. The
rest of the birds are sent to market and suppliment the syndicate’s funds.
“No shooting before OR after the whistle”
At the end of the season it is normal to have cocks only shoots in January and a Beaters shoot to
wrap up the season.The reason we shoot only cock birds in January is an attempt that some of the remaining birds will mate and suppliment next years shoot. Unfortunately if we leave too many cock
birds they will fight and in many cases will kill the hen bird after mating. In a perfect world we would
like 1 cock bird to every 10 hen birds so that the lucky bugger can have his own personal harem.
January fights for Harem rights
As a member of a syndicate you may invite a friend to shoot in your place, which is a good way to
increase your own shooting experience as hopefully the guest will return the favor and invite you to
his chosen shoot.
Guesting on a friend’s shoot is always fun
Moving on to the Commercial shoot where you can book any number of birds to be harvested on any
given day. Of course the price is directly proportional to the number of birds being shot and you may be offered 200, 300 and 500 bird days and once in a while a 1000 bird day is offered. Nearly all of these
shoots run 8-10 guns so worth asking how many there will be. The only problem with these shoots is
that you do not know the experience and ability of the other paying members. Of course no unsafe
shooting will be tolerated and people who fail to meet the required safety standards will be escorted
back to the parking area and asked to leave.
Only for the very rich! A “Double Gun Day” with matched pairs and a
professional loader who takes from the right, and hands in the loaded
gun over the left shoulder or vice versa… a bit like a golf caddy
Some of the more famous UK shoots offer commercial days and also have their own syndicate so if
you are an avid bird man these can be your opportunity to enjoy excellent shooting in near idyllic surroundings……. and if you meet the standards you might just get invited to join the syndicate.
A wonderful sport enjoyed by Royalty and us commoners alike……. Oh, to have been born a Prince!
“Jan 31st, well another season over, now where’s that Harem ?”