Walked into the pub where "the guns" that is to say the men doing the shooting were meeting. There were about a dozen guns along with a gamekeeper and deputy gamekeeper, "beaters" (who flush out the game) and "pickers up" with dogs (who find the birds which have been brought down). Walking into a pub full of men when you are wearing tweed breeks that make you look like you ate a rhino is daunting - the daylight equivalent of that dream where you realise you are naked in the office. The shoot starts with coffee and bacon and sausage sandwiches and there was much shaking of hands and making of introductions before the alcohol came out at around 9.30 am. It is my belief that country folk have larger livers than townsfolk due to the inordinate amount of alcohol they consume while still remaining sober. Ideally the more dangerous the past time, the more alcohol is consumed.
Riding a horse? "Pass the hip flask."
Zipping along on the quad bike - without a helmet? "The bar is in that cardboard box on the back of the bike over there."
Firing a loaded weapon? "Would you like whipped cream on your Tia Maria coffee?"
There was at least an administrative reason for this first round of alcohol - the local Percy special of cherry brandy and whisky. Thinking about it, there often is a reason for a drink in the country; reasons which include "I'm here" and "Well, if you're offering."
The pewter cups extracted by the captain of the shooting syndicate from a tan leather "field bar" were all engraved with numbers on their bottoms. The idea is the chap knocks back the drink and turns the cup over to read its number which tells him where he is standing in the line of guns. Anyone impatient to know his number raises the cup high in front of him as if to make an extravagant toast and peers underneath it. (If it were not the first drink of the day, I imagine a lot of them might get rather wet.)
After the number draw and the safety lecture from the gamekeeper which included strict advice to "keep plenty of blue sky under the target", we all piled outside into the 4x4s and headed off into the cold and misty morning. I was extraordinarily glad of the extraordinary number of layers I had on although I wished I had a balaclava as the only part of me exposed was my face which felt as if the skin was being carved off my skull by a pick axe. There were to be four "drives". A drive is where the chaps with the guns stand in their line across a field. The beaters have flags (made of metal poles and plastic feed sacks) as well as dogs and very loud voices. They walk along making a terrible racket and chase the birds out from the coppices or game plots where they feed. The captain explained that the "sport" is to shoot the bird high in the sky - about 30 yards up. I would have thought there was more sport if the bird had its own gun but I did not like to make the point in case he shot me.
It is considered not the done thing to shoot your neighbour's birds, his dog or indeed the neighbour himself although these things happen. A guest of one of the regular members of the syndicate shot the gamekeeper's black Labrador in the belief it was a fox in the grass. (You are not supposed to shoot something you cannot see.) The gamekeeper said: "The dog had a hundred pellets in his face. They had to shave his head to get them all out - he looked like a dartboard." I said: "What was he called?" He said: Bracken." I thought: "Well it wasn't going to be Lucky."
The captain and I headed out into a barley field to our allotted spot towards the end of the line. He nodded towards the strip of grass growing wild at the edge of the field. Farmers no longer plough right to the hedges, they leave a border of uncultivated land which has encouraged the English grey partridge as well as wild pheasant. As we stood on our spot, I tried to time my conversation so it was not a distraction but every time I started to talk a bird would fly overhead and he would shoot at it and miss. I kept saying: "Sorry, I'll shut up" and he kept saying: "That's fine". I thought: "I really don' t want to irritate this man." After the drive, there was a pause for a chat and bramble whisky, made from sugar, whisky and brambles you gather from the hedges. (I am never making jam again.)
The next drive we were in a better position and I tried to let my host concentrate on his shooting. We were next to a thicket and on a slight incline but the shooting was complicated by telegraph wires that striped the sky. Four years ago, someone shot through them and more than 103 phones were off in the village for a week. It allegedly cost "The Man Who Shot The Phone" £20,000 to repair the lines. I looked across to the gun next to us - a local dentist. My own dentist is an hour's drive away. I watched him fire into the sky and a pheasant cartwheel down to land close to his feet. It fluttered up from the ground, collapsed back, attempted to fly again and fell back in a flurry of beating wings. He stepped across, leaned down and broke its neck. I thought: "I am so not having you for my dentist."
Leaving to one side the slightly messy fact that birds are being shot and killed, the captain explained that the guns are keen to avoid unnecessary suffering. Soft-mouthed golden retrievers find the Chinese ring-necked pheasant, French red-legged partridge and woodcock which have been shot and if they are still alive, the picker up holds them by both wings, they stretch out their neck and are knocked on the back of the neck, just below the head, with a big stick. If I was a bird and someone shot me and I then plummeted to the ground from a great height, was found and carried along in a wet doggy mouth, I would definitely figure my number was up about the time I saw the guy lean over me with the big knobbly stick.
We broke again after the second drive this time for a Tia Maria coffee. I needed it. An overloaded picker up handed me a pheasant to take back to the cars. I tried to behave as if there was nothing unusual in walking along holding a dead pheasant by the neck. I was slightly less casual when the damn thing twitched. Eeeeeeuuuuuuow. I needed a drink to wash away my complicity. I was told that it was indeed dead but sometimes nerve impulses or tics made the birds twitch for some while after. I think I too would acquire a nervous tic if someone shot at me with a 12 bore.
During the third drive in scrub land by a wood my host let me hold his gun. I did not know how my husband would feel about me holding another man's gun but he was not there so I did it anyway. The captain stood close behind me to stop the recoil knocking me to the ground. My arms trembled slightly with the weight of the barrel. I contemplated saying. "You have a very big gun" but I thought my husband really would not like that. I fired his Beretta twice. I missed. To fire a gun, you stand with it tucked tightly into your shoulder. You slide off the safety catch, look along the barrel for the brass bead at the end of it, sweep the gun around, aiming ahead of the target and pull the trigger, still following the direction in which the bird is flying. It makes a boom noise. I did not hit a bird; I did get a Percy special as a consolation prize.
I spent the fourth drive with a picker up and her three golden retrievers. We were some way behind the guns in a field behind a wood. As we walked towards the wood following one of the dogs who had bounded in after a free fall pheasant, there was a pitter pattering sound. I thought: "Is that rain?" It was not rain. It was the sound of shot falling through leaves. I said to the picker up I was with: "Why is there shot falling through the woods when we are behind the guns?" She said: "They turn round to shoot at the birds sometimes." If there had not been so much mulch on the ground, I would have walked back on my knees. Fortunately I could revive myself with the damson gin.
Shooting of course costs money. A decent gun costs around £1,000. A very good gun can cost £7,000. The men I went out with included farmers, a solicitor, the dentist, a chef and a couple of financial advisers from the local market town as well as the captain who runs his own game farm selling 80,000 game birds to estates. They band together to buy six to seven days shooting of around 150 birds through the autumn and into the winter. Another bigger syndicate of bankers fly in from Monaco, Guernsey and London, one of them in a private jet. These men shoot for around 14 days.
The cock pheasant is a riot of colour, a blue and green head, red circle drawn around his eyes, white neck, bronze and copper brown body with a duck egg blue close to the wings. Partridge are a more discrete grey and buff while woodcock are a small bird with a long beak. The dead birds are brought back noosed and attached to a strap called a bird carrier, or in a bag if they are a bit mushy, or held by the neck between the fingers of your hand with the head tucked into your palm. Back at the cars, a hen and a cock pheasant are lashed together on green string then dangled from the cross hatched iron bars of a trailer. Their heads knock together in consolation.
The guns brought down 196 birds. The gamekeeper extracted four small pin feathers from the wings of a pair of woodcock - traditionally you get them when you shoot your first woodcock and stick them in your hat - hence the expression "feather in your cap". He gave them to me and I shall treasure them - it is some time since I have had a feather in my cap. I can see the attraction of shooting. It is sociable and outdoors, there is free booze and bang bang toys. Of course, I am not a bird. As a bird, I would be less keen. They do occasionally get their revenge. The gamekeeper was once knocked out by a cock pheasant falling from the sky. The gamekeeper who did not have a dog called Lucky that is.