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
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