Rodger McPhail

roger mcphail partridgeMy first grey partridge, with legendary sporting artist Rodger McPhail.

More than 40 years have passed since I shot my first partridge but it is clearer in my memory than things that happened last week.

I was still at school and money was short. I had an ancient Belgian single-barrel 12 bore that was my pride and joy. Sellier & Bellot were my cartridges of choice; they were the cheapest available and you could buy them in packets of ten like Woodbines. They were rather unpredictable. Sometimes the recoil would send me staggering back a few paces and sometimes there would be a flatulent thud and the pellets would dribble out the end of the barrel.

I had obtained permission to shoot on a very scruffy farm next to a colliery. The farmer was even scruffier; a villainous unwashed character with brown teeth.

On the first day I arrived there with the old 12 bore strapped to the cross-bar of my bike, he lurched out and motioned me to hand him the gun. He loaded it and, to my horror, crept round the barn and shot a dog! “That bastard’s been hanging round here for weeks,” he said handing back the smoking weapon.

In those days, sparrows were in plague proportions and a serious agricultural pest. I was instructed to keep them off the barley. This I did with a will, my best effort being a punt-gun style shot as a brown cloud of them rose up into the hedge. I picked up over 60! I had read that sparrow pie was considered a delicacy but I can’t say I would recommend it. I would describe them as edible, but only just.

As well as sparrows, there were pigeons, rabbits, hares, crows and magpies and, of course, wild grey partridges.

In those days, every farm had a few coveys and their creaking calls were a familiar evening sound. I was desperate to get one, but they were very difficult to get near to, and on the few occasions that I got a shot, I missed.

Then, one glorious, crisp autumn day I was walking up the side of a hedge when a covey rose on the far side with a great whirr of wings, and to my great joy I managed to knock the tail-end Charlie down into the plough. Elation soon turned to despair – I could only cross the hedge 50 yards down and when I got back to where the bird had fallen it was nowhere to be seen!

I did not have a dog and was nearly weeping with frustration. After what seemed like an hour, I finally found the little body tucked into a cleft in the plough.

It was the first partridge I had ever held and its beauty took my breath away. The soft subtle intricacies of its plumage mesmerised me. It was the most perfect creature I had ever seen. I carried that partridge home as if it was the crown jewels and spent the rest of that day, and all of the next, sketching and admiring my prize.

I was tying flies for the local tackle shop to make a bit of pocket money in those days, and the breast and back feathers furnished many a March brown and partridge and orange.

Just one little grey partridge, but very few trophies since have given me so much pleasure.

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