Pheasants á la Francaise
Nicholas Watts travelled to a shoot near Dieppe where birds are presented in the English style but with French flair.
Until recently I thought all driven shooting finished on February 1st. But there is one area in France where redlegs can be shot until the end of December but pheasants are on the cards until the end of February. And not only that, they can be shot on a Sunday. I was sent to investigate.
A day was booked at La Mahomet, only a few miles from Dieppe, where I would be joining a Belgian team of Guns for a day's sport on Sunday, February 26.
Setting off from home in Lincolnshire at 6.30am I hoped to beat the traffic and see a bit of France on the way. There is of course a ferry from Newhaven to Dieppe - which takes four hours and runs twice a day - but I thought I could spend my time better in France than on the ferry, so I opted for Dover. I rather enjoyed the ferry journey as the channel was like a millpond and there were ample sea birds around for me to watch.
There is plenty to see and do in northern France, particularly from a historical point-of-view as there can't be many Brits who don't have a relation who lost their life in Northern France during either the First or Second World War.
That evening, I arrived at La Mahomet and was greeted by estate owner Olivier Wallaert whose large brick and chalk country house is set back from the road with a generous gravel drive - all very impressive. I was shown to my room on the second floor and over dinner Olivier told me about his shoot. Established in 2005, and very much based on the English way of doing things, the hilly topography of the mixed ground naturally lends itself to the presentation of high birds. The proof of the pudding would be in the eating…
The following day, when the all-Belgian team arrived - it is not wise to mix nationalities on a shoot day as every country has its different ways and customs - it was still foggy but by the first drive, the fog had cleared and the sun was out. The shooting room is in an old barn with wooden beams and walls tastefully adorned with trophies.
La Mahomet is not a big estate, in fact only 500 acres in total, but there are two days of shooting on the ground with about 25 shoot days a year. As the shooting season was nearly over, I did wonder how many pheasants would be left, but Olivier took care of that by releasing a second batch around Christmas.
Transport for the Guns is rather novel. It is by horse and carriage, which all helps to make the day a special one. The first drive was reached in about five minutes and soon the Guns were spreading out on the grass strips between apple trees. It is traditional for the beaters in France to shout and call and blow horns from time to time so we could tell when they had started and when the drive was nearly finished.
The pheasants were very silvery in colour and the smallest I have seen, the breed being specially selected for their ability to fly high.
The second drive was also on short grass between rows of apple trees. The apples had not been picked and were very weedy. All done to provide food and insects for wildlife but particularly for the pheasants. There were a few low birds but the majority were at a good sporting height, some of which the Guns thought were out of range. Curiously, there were no flushes - the pheasants were just trickled out in ones and twos. Nonetheless, at times, the Guns could not reload fast enough and there were a few desperate shots at going away birds. As most Guns will realise, it is a good keeper who can produce drives with good numbers of birds but without flushes. Earlier, Olivier told me how good Pascal Penet, his gamekeeper, was. In fact several of his bookings had supposedly materialised because Pascal was now working with him.
Olivier had recently shot in England and must have appreciated the elevenses because after the second drive, out came the glasses and a bottle of Gordon's Sloe Gin. Apparently difficult to get hold of in France, the Guns certainly approved and soon emptied the bottle.
The third drive was only a short distance away in a valley bottom where pheasants streamed over the Guns presenting a variety of shots as they headed in different directions. The blowing of horns and the shouting of the beaters certainly reminded me that I was not in England but living it up in France.
One further drive stood amongst the apple trees before lunch afforded me the opportunity to properly study my surroundings. There was a great variety of habitat, some established and created and I realised that this estate was totally committed, not just to pheasants, but to wildlife in general. It was a pleasure to be out there.
The horse and carriage was soon heading back for lunch, and with no wind and the sun shining, chairs were brought outside for drinks. Was spring really on the way? It was a good chance to relive the morning's sport and compare tales from various shooting trips. Boar shooting in Turkey seemed to be a favourite for this team of Guns. Lunch was every bit as good as the setting in which it was served - a small seafood starter followed by lamb cutlets with beans and a salad and washed down with some excellent French wine.
The first drive after lunch could easily have been in England. The pheasants were driven from a piece of cover on the top of a small escarpment above the Guns who stood in a meadow, giving them not a lot of time to get both barrels off in front.
The Guns had enjoyed lunch and were ready for action, but I think they might have coped better if we had shot through – which Olivier sometimes opts to do. On to the fifth and final drive, where once again the Guns stood among apple trees and good, high birds trickled out with no flushes.
One thing that is done differently on the continent is the ceremony at the end of the day. All of the pheasants are laid out on the ground, usually in a circle with a pattern in the centre.
Some estates, like La Mohomet, end the day off with the playing of hunting horns and others have a fire in the middle of the circle of birds – a respectful and fitting end to a special day's sport.
Season: October 10 – February 28
Typical bag: 250
Phone: +33 6 07 88 16 80