Go­ing for gold

Hot on the heels of a Brittany spaniel, Mark Hedges heeds the purist’s call of la chasse when walk­ing-up re­splen­dent Reeves’s pheas­ants in France

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Mark Hedges heeds the purist’s call of la chasse when walk­ing-up Reeves’s pheas­ants in France

The tin­kling of the bell on the dog’s col­lar in front of me sud­denly stopped and my heart rate did the op­po­site—si­lence is the trig­ger for ac­tion. My Brittany was on point, as if turned to stone. I tip­toed for­wards and, with a flick of the han­dler’s wrist, the dog sprang for­ward. The pheas­ant shot sky­wards and flung its neck back­wards as it fell to the pine-nee­dle-strewn ground, the

sun­light catch­ing the golden feath­ers as it tum­bled.

This is just how captivating and ex­hil­a­rat­ing the thrill of shoot­ing walked-up wood­cock, partridge and pheas­ant—in this case, the splen­did long-tailed Reeves va­ri­ety—over Brittany spaniels in north­ern France is.

In stark con­trast, driven shoot­ing as we know it to­day be­gan in Britain as a con­se­quence of the in­ven­tion of the breechload­ing gun in the mid 19th cen­tury. This new type of shot­gun al­lowed ready-made car­tridges to be placed in the bar­rel of the gun and vastly in­creased the num­ber of shots that could be fired in any given time, in sharp con­trast to the hith­erto la­bo­ri­ous process of reload­ing with black pow­der.

This new fash­ion for driv­ing large num­bers of game birds over guns de­lighted the na­tion’s landown­ers and aris­toc­racy, so much so that the land­scape of Britain was changed to ac­com­mo­date the nec­es­sary copses and cover to hold the game birds. Shoot­ing, along­side hunt­ing, be­came the fo­cus of the coun­try-house party and, since then, driven shoot­ing has steadily re­placed tra­di­tional rough shoot­ing.

For me, the rough shoot­ing of my child­hood is a much-missed al­ter­na­tive. It’s the sport of a by­gone age, that of 1,000 tablemat il­lus­tra­tions by artists such as John Fred­er­ick Her­ring, with a top-hat­ted man shoot­ing a partridge flushed by his spaniel-type dog.

Across the Chan­nel, due to the pe­cu­liar­i­ties of the Napoleonic Code and other French laws fol­low­ing the Rev­o­lu­tion, shoot­ing has re­mained a far less money- or class-dom­i­nated sport and is a much more pop­u­lar pas­time than it is here. La chasse is al­most al­ways walked-up and it thrives, so when the in­vi­ta­tion to shoot in Brittany came, I jumped at the chance.

Our host, Jas Saini, is a re­mark­able, charm­ing man and a suc­cess­ful busi­ness­man; his fa­ther left In­dia pen­ni­less and worked ev­ery hour he could on Bri­tish Rail to earn the money to bring his fam­ily over. Now, Jas shares his time be­tween Switzer­land and Brittany, where he owns Château du Val, a neo-gothic house dat­ing from the late 19th cen­tury, which is avail­able to rent, along with other sep­a­rate ac­com­mo­da­tion in the grounds.

Jas’s shoot day be­gan with crois­sants and the grad­ual ar­rival of bat­tered cars, out of which ap­peared a stream of Brittany spaniels and their own­ers. The Brittany isn’t re­ally a spaniel, but the small­est mem­ber of the HPR (hunt, point, re­trieve) tribe. Most fre­quently orange-roan in colour, it’s ideal for this sort of sport and will work more closely with the sports­man than other point­ing breeds.

Ex­tremely en­er­getic, some on this shoot were fit­ted with sweet-sound­ing bells on their col­lars, so that you could lis­ten to where they were or, oc­ca­sion­ally, where they weren’t.

Set­ting out from the château, we walked into a for­est of sweet chest­nuts and fir. The ground was sur­pris­ingly dry, mak­ing scent­ing dif­fi­cult. A team of six, in­clud­ing five pay­ing guests from the Chan­nel Is­lands, fanned out into a line, each track­ing a Brittany and its han­dler in the search of game.

Soon, to my right, a whirl­wind of feath­ers launched a pheas­ant into the sky be­fore a sharp crack rang out and the bird fell just in front of me. It was a Reeves’s pheas­ant, the spe­cial­ity of the es­tate and quite un­like any­thing we shoot in Britain, not only in size, but also es­pe­cially in the length of the cock bird’s ex­tra­or­di­nary tail.

Other shots res­onated across the glades and the bag slowly in­creased as the day pro­gressed—each gun is al­lowed three birds. I walked on, full of hope, but out of luck. This was proper, hard-earned sport.

Later, we went duck flight­ing, which was an added bonus, how­ever, our quarry evaded us by wait­ing pa­tiently un­til the dark­ness to­tally shrouded my eyes be­fore splash­ing into the gloom.

Back at the château, we cel­e­brated our great day’s sport with a fine din­ner. I’d shot just a sin­gle bird and missed three oth­ers, al­though some in the party had been more suc­cess­ful. How­ever, these days shoot­ing are, for me, less about num­bers and more about mem­o­ries and this was an ex­pe­ri­ence to rank along­side shoot­ing snipe on South Uist or teal on the Wash: un­for­get­table.

For de­tails of shoot­ing breaks at Château du Val, 35550 Saint Just, France, tele­phone 00 41 7 99 48 52 22 or visit www. chateau­val.com

‘These days shoot­ing are, for me, less about num­bers and more about mem­o­ries

Left: The neo-gothic Château du Val. Above: In the bag: a hand­some Reeves’s pheas­ant with its ex­tra­or­di­nary tail

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