When everything old is new again
English pheasant have been prized by hunters for millennia and fine traditions have grown around their pursuit, but for an Australian visitor like Mark van den Boogaart, it was a new experience.
For me, a big part of my hunting life involves visiting different places, experiencing new approaches to hunting, and meeting like-minded people. Along the way, I have made friends in Australia and abroad, and so I’m lucky enough to have a number of standing invitations to head out with shotgun, rifle and fishing rod.
On a family trip to England in 2014, I took up one such offer to shoot pigeons over crops from the comfort of a wellconcealed and well-built hunting hide.
During the day, we took a number of birds, and at some point, I spotted a pheasant. Enquiring if they were fair game, I was very politely informed pheasants were out of season. To which I replied, well, there is always next time.
So, with a family holiday to England planned for Christmas 2017, I began a conversation with two Uk-based friends, Jonathan Mcgee from Shooting Photography and ex-pat Aussie, and long-time hunting mate Steve Kelly from Raytrade UK.
Obviously for me it was all about pheasants, and with nothing more than an idea we got to work and put together a couple of days hunting and shooting in North Yorkshire, including taking part in a driven shoot for high pheasants.
Arriving with my family in the second week of December, we headed to our home base in the Midlands and got ourselves settled. With the shoot fast approaching, it would be reasonable to say I had very little idea about the mechanics of a driven hunt, and even less about the traditions, so I decided to make a couple of calls.
The good news was that it sounded like we were in for a real treat. With the guns, the hosts, beaters, gamekeepers, and a whole team of dogs and their handlers, as guests we would be shooting from a shared peg, waiting for the high pheasants to dart through the air above us. The shoot, or correctly, event, would also include a team breakfast, canapés and whisky, >>
>> lunch, an early afternoon dinner, and a whole lot of more. As part of it all there were also some serious traditional aspects to be acknowledged, most specifically shooting attire. As a guest, I would be expected to be presented in moleskins, check shirt and tie, gilet, high-lace boots, hunting socks complete with tassel, tweed shooting jacket and flat cap. Now, it would be easy to dismiss the importance of the tweed, tie and tassels, however, after all the effort in making it happen, a little bit more didn’t seem that unreasonable. Eventually it was time to head to ‘The North’ as the English say and with Steve providing the lift we arrived at our accommodation for the next couple of nights at around 7 pm. After getting ourselves sorted, we had something to eat and then enjoyed a few drinks around the fire. The next morning we caught up with Jonathan and headed to the shoot team breakfast with the other guns. After eating through a breakfast far bigger than I was used to we all headed outside to await the pre-shoot briefing. Standing there with Steve and Jonathan I initially felt a little bit of an outsider, then a strange thing happened. I started to notice a particular reflective look, an unconscious scraping of the toe of a boot, and hear a slightly nervous laugh. While a long way from home I began to pick up on the sense of camaraderie, and anticipation about what the day would hold, which reminded me of standing around a campfire before heading out for a day chasing game. With the appearance of the head gamekeeper, the briefing began. It was all pretty straightforward: the gist being the day would include five drives, each with eight pegs. The pegs would be rotated over the day to ensure everyone got a chance to shoot across all positions on the line. Each drive would be for high pheasants that would appear above the tall timber. We were also advised that track conditions were ‘icy’ and that vehicles needed to stay at least 100 m apart to avoid collision, which was certainly something different for this Queenslander. Arriving at the first peg and never being one to miss an opportunity I happily agreed to be first gun. To match my shooting attire, I was furnished with a very fine English shotgun. It was in fact a Longthorne Black Action High Bird Sporter, which was a little more refined than my Spanish-made Lanber. With the sound of ‘get up’ coming from the beaters, a speck appeared in the washed-out blue sky. A pheasant had presented itself, and it was a high bird all right. With an initial burst of activity, the pheasant began a glide over our heads and continued to drop down and follow the contours of the land. While it sounds like an easy shot, shooting time was mere seconds, the birds stratospheric and moving at speed. More appeared and after a couple of clean misses, I started to think, rather than just throw shot. I needed to pick my target and give it some serious lead. It paid off as I managed to connect with a hen that tumbled down behind us, and was quickly retrieved by a black labrador. The Longthorne proved a real gem, and even though it wasn’t shaped for me, I was enjoying the shooting. A warning sounded letting us all know the drive was over. Being more than a little happy with myself I headed over to the food and drinks table, enjoyed a whisky, something to eat and thought this wasn’t too bad a way to go about hunting.
Steve was up next and it was obvious he had spent some serious time in training. Dropping four birds in a row he was shooting cleanly, folding the birds in the air, and on one occasion, nearly dropping a large male right at our feet. It was exciting to watch someone make a good show of it and soon Jonathan and I were happily congratulating him on each successful shot.
With the end of Steve’s drive, we made a return visit to the refreshments table for drinks and canapés. We then moved onto the next peg where Jonathan would be shooting. As a local, expectations were high and he proved he was up for the challenge, cleanly dropping three good birds in quick succession.
We were three drives down and it was time for lunch, all served on the side of the track with the rolling Yorkshire Dales as a backdrop. The fourth drive, my second for the day, proved a little light on, with only one pheasant in range. Luckily, I managed to take in with the second barrel, and with it being a male bird I had myself a brace of pheasants for the table.
Reaching our peg for the final drive, both Jonathan and Steve decided to share the shoot, and with the sun appearing for the first time that day, the birds became active. Both Steve and Jonathan managed a couple of birds, which was a great way to end the shooting part of our day. With a combined bag of 50 birds for the shooting team there would be plenty to go around for those wanting a brace or two.
Heading back to our accommodation we enjoyed an early dinner, a few rounds of drinks and, of course, some fireside conversation. While not your typical day in the field, a driven shoot is something well worth experiencing and I am happy to have travelled so far to take part in the tradition of it all.
Steve on point