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
“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