The Pipe­line Twelve

Con­cerned that the rough shoot he shares has be­come an out­door sur­vival school for game­birds, Ed­i­tor Jonathan Young is forced to change tac­tics

The Field - - Opening Shots -

“ANY sign of the Pipe­line Twelve?” asked my farmer friend af­ter I’d scouted the stub­bles for glean­ing pi­geon.

“not a feather. They’re in Mex­ico liv­ing un­der false iden­ti­ties,” I replied. “Or hack­ing the farm com­puter from a safe house in Kur­dis­tan.”

To out­wit them re­quires a full ops room staffed by WAAFS dressed à la Su­san­nah York in Bat­tle of Britain. But as there’s a lo­cal short­age of WAAFS it had to be the two of us with an es­tate map held down on the kitchen ta­ble with mugs of tea and two trays of eggs. The Pipe­line Twelve were out there some­where, un­der deep cover.

“If we go in here,” said the farmer, with a hope­less Field Mar­shal Mont­gomery im­pres­sion, “and cut in here, we should be able to sur­round them.”

“We tried that last time,” I noted. “And the time be­fore that.” In fact, we’ve de­ployed ev­ery tac­tic short of tak­ing them out with a Bar­rett .50 sniper ri­fle, which is prob­a­bly the only firearm up to the task.

The Pipe­line Twelve form a crack pla­toon of pheasants that have eluded the game cart for three sea­sons. named af­ter their favourite field, the orig­i­nal mem­bers were from reared stock and are now re­in­forced with wild-born off­spring. They are con­stantly re­cruit­ing and we ex­pect their strength to in­crease to a score once they have taught this year’s re­leased birds their se­cret of sur­vival.

It’s not com­pli­cated. The Twelve spend most of the sea­son lolling around in a strip of game cover ad­join­ing a neigh­bour’s pas­ture, din­ing on the corn from the hop­pers. The mo­ment they hear a pick-up or spot a tweeded head they gal­lop into the field cor­ner and over onto the neigh­bour’s land.

As we don’t have that many birds on the rough shoot – we’re thrilled when the bag reaches a score – their un­will­ing­ness to con­trib­ute to the day’s sport is irk­some. And they’re not alone in their eva­sion of armed con­flict. Far­ther north on the shoot lurk the Phan­tom Par­tridges. We re­leased a cou­ple of dozen redlegs a few sea­sons back, of which three have graced the ta­ble. As with the Twelve, the Phan­toms have been swelled by wild-reared young and now form a sig­nif­i­cant covey, the sort that ap­pears in charm­ing Game Fair wa­ter­colours clip­ping over neat spin­neys to be bowled over by chaps in plus-fours. Ex­cept our par­tridges don’t do that. They pre­fer to fly at a max­i­mum height of 3ft, which would not pose a prob­lem for walk­ing-up guns were it not for the Phan­toms’ tac­tic of ris­ing 400yd out of range. And that’s if we can find them; usu­ally we’re lucky to see them thrice in a sea­son.

Our shoot has, it seems, be­come an out­door sur­vival school for game­birds. Ev­ery year we re­lease enough to pro­vide six days’ walked-up sport for four guns with an av­er­age bag of 20 to 30. Some do in­deed end their days casseroled but, in­creas­ingly, we’ve found the new­bies fall un­der the wings of the Pipe­line Twelve and Phan­toms, un­der­go­ing in­ten­sive train­ing in gun eva­sion.

To com­bat that, we’ve had to change tac­tics. Rather than walk in line abreast, we now ap­proach ev­ery cover in a pin­cer move­ment, with an­other gun 300yd out to deal with birds clat­ter­ing out of the game crop early.

It’s not a style of shoot­ing that ap­peals to many covert shots used to pegs, plenty of blue sky around birds, po­lite leav­ing of low stuff. There’s no such thing as a low bird with us. If it’s 3ft above the ground and safe, we shoot it. Af­ter all, a 40-yarder’s a 40-yarder, whether mea­sured ver­ti­cally or hor­i­zon­tally.

Some covert shots also strug­gle with hunt­ing in­tu­ition. We can’t ex­plain to guests ex­actly where to stand, we can only give a roughish idea where we think the birds might break. When they do start hurtling across a cer­tain line, we ex­pect our guns to run and cut them off at the pass. This be­fud­dles many.

A fur­ther awk­ward­ness is the very pub­lic na­ture of the shoot­ing. no one re­ally no­tices what you hit or miss on a proper driven day, your neigh­bours con­cen­trat­ing on their slice of sky. On our shoot, a 20-minute ma­noeu­vre might pro­duce a sin­gle cock and as he hur­tles sky­wards, his progress is watched by ev­ery­one – guns, press-ganged beat­ers, in­or­di­nately keen dog han­dlers des­per­ate for a re­trieve. The pres­sure is just too much for some guns and we’ve seen a few pol­ished covert pro­fes­sors miss ev­ery bird of the day.

Those bagged, how­ever, are trea­sured in the man­ner of our boy­hood, when pheasants were glo­ri­ous tro­phies to be held and ad­mired, the win­ter sun gleam­ing off cocks’ green and gar­net, the hens’ buffs and creams.

These rough days re­mind us that the pheasant is an ex­traor­di­nar­ily splen­did quarry. He’s not some­thing that de­serves to be called a “tar­get”, who’s only worth some­thing if part of a large num­ber or killed by a fluke pel­let at un­sport­ing range. And he cer­tainly doesn’t war­rant be­ing chucked into a heap at a drive’s end, bruis­ing his flesh for the ta­ble.

We usu­ally con­sider our Euro­pean cousins oddly quaint with their end-of-shoot cer­e­monies – all that cer­e­mo­nial lay­ing out of game, the fol-de-rol of horn salutes and burn­ing bra­ziers – but now I think they may have a point. It’s not our tra­di­tion, of course, but nei­ther is the grow­ing habit of guns walk­ing off the pegs without col­lect­ing some birds or the airy dis­missal of the grace brace at the end of the day.

Our glo­ri­ous pheasant de­serves more – even if he’s one of the dread­ful mem­bers of the Pipe­line Twelve.

They have formed a crack pla­toon of pheasants that have eluded the game cart for three sea­sons

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