Gamebirds from the past
Up until the late 19th century, game books often featured species that are no longer on our quarry list. David S. D. Jones looks at some of these gamebirds of yesteryear.
Today, our principal gamebirds are the pheasant, the partridge, the red grouse, the woodcock and the snipe, together with various species of wildfowl. Back in the late 18th and the 19th centuries, the quarry list was more diverse and included the great bustard, the quail, the landrail or corncrake, the wheatear, the heron and the coot. In fact, game books printed during this period often contained dedicated columns for quail and landrail as well as for cats and dogs!
The great bustard, Britain's largest gamebird, with a legal shooting season which ran from September 1 to March 1, was once highly prized by sportsmen, both for shooting and for coursing. Prior to the early Victorian period, when the bird became extinct due to habitat loss and over hunting, it was commonly found in many open tracts of countryside including the Brecklands of Norfolk and Suffolk, the Yorkshire Wolds and Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire.
During the 18th and early 19th centuries, sportsmen usually shot great bustards from behind a stalking horse or from inside a farm cart camouflaged with hurdles, occasionally even coursing them with greyhounds. The birds were even artificially reared for sporting purposes in parts of Norfolk and Wiltshire, with eggs being collected from nests by shepherds and gamekeepers and hatched out beneath broody hens.
Great bustard meat was a highly sought after delicacy in the early 19th century and was readily saleable to the gentry and aristocracy, who were prepared to pay between three and four guineas for a bird. Roast great bustard was traditionally served at important functions at this time, such as the inaugural feast of each Mayor of Salisbury in Wiltshire.
Sporting records concerning the great bustard are rarely found. What must be one of the largest bags was taken in 1808 when Mr. Agar, a gamekeeper employed by Mr W.H. St. Quintin at Scampston Hall in Yorkshire, shot 11 birds in one day from behind a stalking horse. The last great bustards in Britain are reputed to have been shot in East Anglia in 1843, 1845 and 1850. The final nest containing great bustard chicks was found on Thetford Warren in Norfolk in 1832. However, there were sightings of the bird both in Norfolk and Suffolk and in Wiltshire, either migrants or escapees from a menagerie, as late as the 1870s.
The quail, then a fairly common summer visitor to parts of Southern England, East Anglia and Ireland, was another popular gamebird with 18th and early 19th century sportsmen, and was either walked-up and shot over dogs or netted. Contemporary game books record that bags taken by Guns were always tiny due to the illusive nature of the bird. For example, over a period of 39 seasons between 1801 and 1840, the 2nd Earl of Malmesbury of Heron Court in Hampshire accounted for only 50 quail, his best year, 1814, yielding a mere six birds.
From the 1850s onwards, the number of quail visiting Great Britain each year declined dramatically, due both to habitat loss caused by changing agricultural practices and large scale netting operations being carried out in southern Europe – the latter to capture the birds for food purposes. Several attempts were made to artificially introduce quail on various English sporting estates during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with shooting in mind, but all of these attempts were doomed to failure.
The landrail or corncrake, another migratory visitor to Great Britain was far less scarce at this time, and was energetically pursued by sportsmen while out partridge shooting during the first two or three weeks of September. Although not a very sporting quarry, the bird was much in demand by the epicures of the day because of its delicate and toothsome flavour!
Record annual bags of landrail include 211 shot at Acryse Park in Kent in 1880, and 263 killed in 1919 on the Hillfield House estate near Dartmouth in Devon. The largest daily bag on record was taken on September 11, 1905, when Frederick Cavendish-Bentinck and Herbert Lyon brought down 57 landrail at Nine Barrow Down in Dorset within the space of four hours.
Even the tiny wheatear did not escape the attentions of 19th century sportsmen, who shot the birds during the annual wheat harvest, shortly before the autumn migration. Wheatear was something of a delicacy in Sussex, where the local shepherds augmented their income by shooting and trapping the birds – sometimes accounting for as many as five dozen in a day, which were then sold to the gentry in towns such as Eastbourne.
The coot, another popular sporting bird during the 19th and the early 20th centuries, was shot on a regular basis, often on specially organised ‘coot drives' held in January and February, with parties of up to 20 Guns taking part. Daily bags of between 500 and 1,000 coots were not uncommon on the Norfolk Broads and other large wetland areas. For example, game books for Hickling Broad reveal that on February 25, 1901, upwards of 20 Guns brought down 910 coots; on February 18, 1927, 20 Guns accounted for a record bag of 1,175 coots; while on January 27,1951, a team of 18 Guns headed by H.M. King George VI killed a grand total of 961 coots. Guns shooting on ‘coot drives' at Hickling Broad usually stood in specially constructed butts made of reeds and timber, mounted on stilts in the water.
Although rarely eaten by the gentry, coot meat was highly sought after by farm workers and other country people, for use in pies and stews. It has been said that birds shot early in the morning apparently tasted better than those shot later in the day!
Other popular quarry birds, which frequently appear in game books kept during bygone days, include the curlew and the heron. Curlew were traditionally shot for the table in September before they developed a ‘fishy' taste, while herons were usually killed as vermin if sighted during the course of a shoot.