All gamebirds great and small
Woodcock, hares and the worry of small pheasants, by Mike Barnes.
At the end of last season I enjoyed a day's sport around a 100-acre wood on the edge of the Lincolnshire Fens. We were out for mixed quarry species with an accent on woodcock, of which 32 made it into the bag.
On a personal note, I was the only Gun who failed to take one, but no complaints. My tally included cock and hen pheasants, redleg partridge, woodpigeon, rabbit, hare and jay, but no woodcock. I could have shot two or three, but such was their canny flight fellow Guns would also have become ‘various.'
I love woodcock and they have given me some memorable moments over the years – shots, circumstances and settings I will never forget. But I have become less keen on shooting them. I am not sure as to precisely why. Maybe it is a result of reading details of their migratory journeys to deepest Russia and back. Maybe it's because of the near-magical way in which they fly through woods, their broad wings never touching a tree. And their silent flight.
So, I don't suppose I will ever become a member of the right-and-left club. I came close twice, both times in Norfolk. On the first occasion I shot my bird and then moved the gun's top lever to reload. Simultaneously, a second woodcock appeared. I closed the gun without reloading, moved the safety catch and completed the double. Lots of witnesses too, but it didn't count as I opened the gun between shots. Then a few years later, on a snowy day in North Norfolk, I was in a team of eight Guns when we shot 59, but I never got a chance of a right-and- left. In fact, no-one did.
I also rarely shoot hares. Like woodcock, the hare is a mythical-like creature. I don't mind other people shooting either of them – certainly their populations are not under threat.
Whatever, it's just a personal thing. Inevitably there was lots of woodcock chatter on the day, and as half of the Guns were game dealers they were able to confirm that there is a very healthy demand for woodcock, both at home and overseas. And it seems the birds are plentiful.
Pheasants however, were a different proposition altogether. The major concern is about the number of small pheasants being reared and shot, which may be bad for the sport.
Chrik van Wyck of Gourmet Game Ltd. feels very strongly about the matter. “The European market does not want these small birds – there is no meat on them. They are no use for food – people eat meat, not bones.”
Certainly if this is the case, and the European market is rejecting small pheasants, then we have a major worry. It is vital that all game stays within the food chain.
He added: “Everything was OK until the new strains appeared, each being billed as the best fliers. But it's not about size. Yes, small wild fen birds fly brilliantly, however it's a coincidence that they are small – they fly well because they are wild and fit.
“I give the example of a boxing match where you might have one contender who is big and heavily muscled, while the other is small and clearly weak.
“I know which one I would put my money on! The big boy will win every time. The same with pheasants – when it comes to flying ability it's fitness which makes the difference.
“I don't want Scandis or Americans – give me a fit traditional bird and it will keep both the Gun and game dealer happy.”
When big is beautiful
One game farm which has resisted the temptation to go down the ‘small bird, high flyer' route is Holme Park near Wokingham, Berkshire. Specialising in a larger, traditional looking bird, Tim Robbins, who runs the operation in partnership with his mother Ruth, has a good following of regular customers. Each year they sell 100,000 day-olds and 100,000 poults.
“There is the capacity for more, but operating as we do, we are happy that we can always deliver strong, healthy birds,” he explains.
In many ways it is a model operation, with two 25-acre rearing fields, alternating and reseeded annually so that the ground is always fresh and disease-free.
Ruth, who founded the business with her late husband Pat, has been working in game production since 1948. Tim very much shares his parents' philosophies, having joined the family business in 1991, previously getting a degree at Cirencester and managing farms.
I visited on a dull, damp day in early June and despite the dreary conditions it was very impressive, young pheasants clearly enjoying the long new grass.
The ‘A' frame panel pens give the birds lots of room, and the perches alleviate boredom, and encourage young birds to fly.
“If people buy purely on price, then we won't be able to match them. But what we do guarantee are good, healthy, fit birds. Customers come back year after year, very happy with how our birds fly.” At all points they pay attention to detail, including delivery. And with a closed flock of 8,500 hens they know precisely the strain and source of their pheasants. Absolutely no caught-up hens.
So what is the original source, you might wonder? The pheasant is after all an immigrant. The answer? From Chinese and Mongolian blood – and the enclosed flock ensures they keep that traditional look and instinct.