I went on a pheasant shoot for The Independent
The British have rediscovered game. Marks and Spencer increased its sales of venison by 340 per cent between 2010 and 2011, while last year wood pigeon sales rose by almost 40 per cent in Waitrose. The UK Game Company says overall game sales were up 30 per cent last year. And this year, for the first time, M&S has started stocking pheasant, rabbit and partridge.
It’s easy to see why. Partridge and pheasant are more interesting than chicken, venison than beef. Game is leaner than farmed meat; it’s free-range and sustainable; and many Britons eat more adventurously than they used to. But many of us are still unsure about game, nervous at its perceived cost, worried that it’s difficult to cook or concerned about its problematic association with bloodsports. I went to a shoot in Sussex to see for myself. M&S, who paid for me to go, say that the shoot is typical of the meat that ends up in their stores.
It starts with the kit. Jeans were outlawed. “A tie is not essential,” they said, so I knew it was. I bought a woollen pullover in what I hoped was a rural shade of green, and a hideous checked shirt. With these, a pair of brown cords, a red tie and a charity-shop Barbour, I felt pretty ridiculous. When I arrived, I was the only man not wearing plus-fours.
Who were these people? Someone who introduced himself Daniel Day Lewis-ly as “an oil man” and lived in Kazakhstan. A partner at a City law firm. A hotelier. A grey-haired, solitary German. And Tom Harvey, M&S’s avuncular meat buyer, who was to teach me to shoot.
All blokes, and blokey blokes at that. The oil man’s Kazakh wife arrived later and stood dutifully behind him, complimenting his aim. But no woman fired a gun, and the only other women I saw were ‘beaters’ or ‘picker-uppers’. The beaters are local people paid to stamp through the undergrowth where the birds are hiding and drive them towards the people shooting; the picker-uppers have trained dogs that collect the wounded and dead. The beaters and ‘guns’ seem barely to speak to each other. There’s also a man directing things: he communicates with the beaters by walkie-talkie and blows a horn to signal the start and end of each drive. The slaughter is remarkably efficient.
There would be six drives that day: I was to watch Harvey for the first, then have a go myself. The guns were positioned perhaps 20 feet from each other. The horn blew, we put our earplugs in, the beaters started beating. Nervous, you notice the landscape properly: a beautiful autumn morning on the dipping downs. Nothing happens for ages, just the whoomph-whoomph of the beaters, the crackle and chatter of the walkie-talkie, the odd caw of a crow.
Suddenly, the first frightened bird comes flapping over the corn. Harvey lifts his shotgun – bang – it tumbles and thumps to the ground. But it’s only wounded, and flaps about in panic and agony. “Grab it and wring its neck,” shouts Harvey. Somehow I catch the bloody, terrified creature and ineptly strangle it. “Leave it. The dogs’ll get it.” The bird’s shit is on my hands.