Sporting tails from France
Nicholas Watts enjoys a day of fine cuisine, cosmopolitan company and Reeves pheasant shooting at Château de Montchevreuil in northern France.
(Photography: Léopold Amory)
There is no doubt that the British know how to put on a driven pheasant shoot, but it can be done in other parts of Europe as well, and with different species of pheasant.
There is one such place where you can shoot driven Reeves pheasants, about an hour's drive north of Paris and just south of Beauvais. It sounded interesting and I have been looking for something a bit different in the shooting world, so I explored the possibilities and finally took the plunge.
I travelled the full distance by car, although a flight into Paris would have been the quicker option. Im fond of France and particularly the French boulangeries and the way of life in general. Indeed, motoring through France it seems that every village has one or even two boulangeries, crammed with rich and tantalising homemade goodies. In England you have to be in a small town to find a bread shop!
I had soon arrived at the large gates of Château de Montchevreuil, from where I cut up along the driveway, through the trees and into the park. I could see the ruins of the château all lit-up as I neared the house. Alexandre appeared to greet me as the car steadied to a halt, showing me to my room shortly after, which was in an annexe to the main house, just 200 yards from the château in ruins.
Dinner was served at 8pm during which the history of the château began to unfold. In the 17th century it was the home of Madame de Maintenon, the second wife of Louis XIV. He ruled France for 72 years, longer than any other monarch in Europe. A superb dinner was served with other guests from Denmark and Belgium who were also to be shooting the next day.
Thankfully, the night was uneventful – there is nothing like getting a good night's sleep! I was up and about at daybreak, looking around and trying to capture a few photographs in the dawn light before breakfast, a choice of Continental or English.
Reeves pheasants, like the ring-necked variety, originated from China and were first introduced into the UK in 1831 by the naturalist John Reeves. They are more of a woodland bird than their ring-necked cousins, and they are a bit heavier with a much longer tail. The older they get the longer their tail is – an adult cock bird's longest tail feathers can be up to 6ft long! They will usually make a ticking noise when they are taking off, so you know when they are coming.
There were seven Guns and we were each given a card at the start of the day telling us which number we were on each drive. Our transport for the day was a purpose-built trailer towed by a left-hand drive Army Land Rover, although we could have walked the distances involved quite easily. Travelling in a vehicle of course does keep everyone together and arrival at the next drive is without stragglers, so it has its advantages.
It was a beautiful morning, the woodland was full of autumn colours and, as we arrived at the first drive, there were a few Reeves with their gigantic tail feathers just disappearing into the woodland. We were shown to our stands by our host Anne Sophie, Alexandre's partner and wife. Alexandre was in charge of the beaters and it wasn't long before they were in full cry – it is normal for the beaters in France, you could say, to give tongue. You certainly know where they are!
I could hear nuthatches calling and a great spotted woodpecker knocking away but I soon forgot about these as the eagerly anticipated ticking of Reeves caught my attention. Before long one came hurtling over my neighbour, falling to his second barrel. Some more followed and most of us had a few shots and bagged a few. To see the cock birds in flight with those really long tails makes them look like a big bird, but of course in reality there is not much more of a target than the pheasants were accustomed to in the UK.
The second drive was similar to the first, but by then we had all worked up quite a thirst and, as is typical on a shoot day, we stopped for some local firewater (peach brandy) which was gratefully enjoyed.
For the third drive, we were stood in a woodland ride. The trees were quite tall which made for some challenging birds, despite the tell-tale ticks of the Reeves as they launched themselves into the air.
Lunch followed and, as one would expect in France, we certainly didn't stand around a vehicle eating it on the hoof. It was done properly and in the best surroundings. Canapés were eaten in the wine cellars, in arched rooms that form part of the foundations of the house. I did wonder at one time if there was a sit-down lunch to follow as the canapés kept coming. Indeed, they were so excellent that by the time the call to the lunch table came I'd already eaten quite a lot and could easily have gone back out into the field again. We were escorted to the downstairs dining room, a room beautifully decorated with various hunting trophies as well as some English fox hunting scenes. With such delicious food, it should come as no surprise that I put on weight in the shooting season!
We were told that the pheasants would get higher as the day went on, so I was looking forward to some excellent sport. As we motored to the fourth drive I appreciated how fortunate I was to be an Englishman; there were people from three different nationalities all talking together in English, and just one Frenchman who was not able to join in the conversation.
The drive that ensued was in a small valley with woods on either side. Soon after we were in position I could hear the beaters in the distance and it was not too long before there were Reeves pheasants on the wing. The first soared over the trees, a good bird by anyones standard, and was saluted by four shots but flew on unscathed.
The next was not quite so lucky, my fellow Guns just beginning to catch up with their quarry. It was soon my turn and I was glad see the bird come down to my first shot, landing with a thud behind me. The pheasants kept coming, one or two sneaked out low as they do, but the majority of them were good birds and before long the beaters were nearly with us. When you are really enjoying yourself, a drive never seems to last long enough and this was one of them. Afterwards, just as they had done throughout the preceding part of the day, the pheasants were laid out neatly on the ground in rows so that they could be examined by all. A nice touch.
The fifth drive was similar to the fourth, with plenty of nice birds, but on the last drive the trees were a bit taller and the valley a bit deeper. The beaters started their march from further away this time and the first birds to cross the line of Guns were two French (yes, redleg) partridges, flying at a tremendous height. They were untouched. A single partridge soon followed on a similar line and that was how the drive continued, most of the partridge bordering on being out of range, whilst the pheasants were slightly lower but made excellent birds – many of them still climbing.
Both the afternoon weather and my barrels were soon getting quite warm – it was superb sport and they'd certainly saved the best until last – in fact, I was quite relieved when the drive ended as I was getting short of cartridges!
With the birds picked-up, there was an important part of the day remaining; to await the display that shoots in Europe are renowned for. Here the birds were arranged on a frame, hung individually and all in view of the whole party, before the bag was announced. A total of 144: 76 Reeves, 34 common pheasant, 33 redleg partridges and a woodcock, and a very nice day for seven Guns.
I could have stayed the night and made a leisurely drive home the next day, or even set off on the three-hour drive to Calais, but I had an appointment with some boar the next day, south of Paris.
I set off towards my next adventure with pleasant memories of Montchevreuil.