Mike Barnes

pheasantMy first pheasant... with Fieldsports editor-at-large Mike Barnes.

(Illustration: Rodger McPhail)

It was a tad over 50 years ago when I first got a proper taste of a real live fully loaded shotgun. The firearm in question was a non-descript boxlock, doubtless one of many thousands born in Birmingham, but to us three boys in our early teens it was pure magic. A side-by-side 12 bore.

The gun had been acquired by John, the village school headmaster’s middle son, who brought it home on trial. We were to put it to the test on some brown rats which according to John were in ‘swarm’ numbers on the riverbank. Well maybe not so much a river – it was better known as the School Drain as it ran alongside the school boundary and beyond, making its way across the fens to the Wash. It also had a proper title – the Ousemere Lode, a name which, unsurprisingly, was little used.

Humble, yes. But it presented us with a lot of fun and entertainment and drew us like a magnet. We built tree-top dens, from where we shot our air rifles. We fished, seeking out hidden pools which harboured monster roach (3oz), lifted stones in pursuit of darting sticklebacks and minnows. We followed our beloved drain up to three miles out of the village, where we would catch the real monsters (4oz) and slippery eels, for which we had a ready market (if of sufficient girth) to farmer dear Harry Brown and kindly Aunt Astrid.

And I always had a catapult (my favourite was of rosewood). We also made our own bows and arrows, using willows cut down at the long disused brickpits. My left hand still bears the scar from a cane arrow splinter.

Bird nesting was yet another passion. Inevitably the aforesaid School Drain seemed to be home to all manner of species, but we never took more than one egg, though in a three mile radius there was only ever one magpie nest, and sparrowhawks were beyond rare. Sand martins and kingfishers were a joy, though we never took an egg from either. 

I degress. Back to the blunderbuss. John would show us how. He loaded two orange Eley Impax cartridges bought at Ciggy Marshall’s barber shop (one of two in the village). A fine man and true country sports enthusiast who, beneath the shop window display cabinet, would stock Allcock fishing hooks and line, along with a selection of Eley cartridges – and packets of ‘something for the weekend’. Thursday was half-day closing and at 1pm prompt Ciggy would lock the shop door to tootle off on his moped with either a gun or rod strapped to his trusty steed.

Back at the riverbank. John crept forward before pulling the trigger, prompting a huge bang, a cloud of smoke and a smell which I loved – cordite. John didn’t look too steady with the gun, nor did his younger brother, Andrew, my pal on numerous escapades. Me neither. But it clearly did the trick, as there were no rats to be seen. Had they made a quick getaway (almost certainly) or been vapourised? There was a huge brown patch on the green riverbank opposite from which no creature could have escaped. They were long gone.

However, the exercise had cast its spell – my ears were still ringing but the intoxicating smell of cordite has stayed with me ever since.

The inevitability of the tale would see me shoot my first pheasant with that very gun. But though all three of us enjoyed the experiment, John decided against buying and took it back to its owner.

In fact I shot my first pheasant with my rosewood catapult, a cackling cock-bird which clattered out of the top of a hedgerow when roaming fields and hedgerows, one February on a dull and dismal Saturday afternoon. In range but out of season.

Meanwhile, my first pheasant with a shotgun... that’s for another day.

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