Shooting is all about etiquette. At whatever age you take it up, you must first learn how to behave. It starts from the moment you arrive on a shoot and take your gun out of its case. As you lift the shotgun out of its sleeve you must release the lock on the hinge so that the barrel hangs down and you — or anyone looking over your shoulder — can check that the gun is empty. For most of the day, and for the same reason, you carry the gun ‘broken’ like this over your arm.
You never, ever, ever point your gun in the direction of another person, dog, car, tree, hedge, building or any object that could disguise another human being, or even at any level where one could conceivably be. You point your gun only at the ground, or high in the air, or towards the quarry. Even if it is unloaded. If you break any of these rules eyebrows will be raised and you will quite possibly be politely asked to leave the line.
I like this strict etiquette. Like most cultural taboos it is rooted in good sense; in this case making sure everybody goes home alive. I like the dress code: the ridiculous plus-fours and gorgeous tweeds. It makes a day’s shooting feel like you’ve gone back in time or stepped on to the set of Downton Abbey. I like the more modern rules too, such as turning off your phone. I heard of one shoot where if you leave your mobile on and it rings, the gamekeeper will remove the device, throw it up in the air and invite the best shot in the line to shoot it. Sounds like an excellent plan to me.
Perhaps I am being romantic, but I think these rules give shooting a unique fashion and a timeless-ness that makes Britain the envy of the world. That is why it pains me so much to see them broken. The most important rule in shooting — apart from ‘never ever let your gun be pointed at anyone’ — is to respect the quarry. This means not only being a safe shot, but trying to be a good shot. A bit of practice on a clay shooting ground will ensure birds are shot cleanly. Mark any birds you shoot and make sure they are retrieved by a picker-up with a dog. If you are lucky enough to shoot and then retrieve a bird, handle it carefully so the meat does not bruise.
At the end of a day shooting pheasants, you may be offered a brace to take home. Even if you have no idea how to pluck and gut a pheasant, always accept the birds. The reason this is such an important rule is it shows shooting is not just for fun: it is for dinner. Despite all the emphasis on genteel manners, you cannot get away from the fact you are there to shoot birds. Most pheasants are not even wild. Some 35 million are released into the countryside every year to be shot at. For many people this makes shooting an unforgivable ‘blood sport’ that should be banned. Every year the debate becomes more heated and, with social media so dominant, there is more pressure than ever to prove that pheasants are going back into the food chain.
Pro-shooting organisations have long been aware of this, and the 2014 report ‘The Value of Shooting’ claimed that this £2 billion industry supports about 350,000 people, full- and part-time, and that 97 per cent of edible quarry is, in fact, eaten. More recent guidance in ‘The Code of Good Shooting Practice’ (both reports are available online) has called on those who shoot not only to eat game but report estates that overstock birds and fail to ensure that the quarry is fed into the food chain.
Recently Sir Ian Botham waded into the debate by suggesting that pheasants should be given away to food banks. This is not a bad idea. Pheasant can be a nutritious and delicious meat. But it’s not for everyone — and just because you are poor does not mean you should be forced to eat something you disapprove of. Pheasant should be an optional extra and food banks should not be used as a way of getting rid of the excess. If the shooting industry wants to prove it cares, and thus survive the annual criticism on social media, then the first step should be making sure that those who shoot eat pheasant.
It is not only good manners to take a brace of pheasants home; it could help ensure the survival of the industry. But what if you do not have a clue how to pluck a pheasant? Don’t worry. Courses are popping up that promise to teach newcomers the skills, such as Vale House Kitchen in Somerset, and YouTube is also incredibly useful.
Cooking them is simple. Chef Tom Kitchin has just come out with a book dedicated to meat and game in which he states ‘if you can cook a chicken, you can cook a pheasant’. True, except pheasant is leaner, more likely to be free range and (arguably) tastier. It is also an incredibly versatile meat. A young bird quickly roasted and well basted, or covered in bacon, will retain its juices and is delicious served a little on the pink side.
An older bird benefits from slow cooking using a traditional coq au vin recipe or pot roast in cider. If you are unsure of the age, check the feet. On younger birds they will still be soft, whereas older pheasants will have hardened claws. Pheasant can also be a simple dish to serve midweek, or to feed to children. Use the breast meat to make pheasant fajitas or pheasant kiev. Try it in spicy dishes such as curries or stir-fry — pheasant is after all an Asian bird.
People who rely on food banks may also want to try pheasant curry, and if shoots want to help local charities, then great. But it should be just that — charitable — not a way of getting rid of an excess that should really have a place in the food chain already.
I am sure Sir Ian was trying to be helpful but if you want to prove this industry is sustainable, then this season give a generous tip to the gamekeeper, take home more than one brace and get excited about the recipes, not just the size of the bag. It’s only polite.
HOMEMADE SLOE GIN
Have some in a hip flask to warm the cockles and share with fellow guns or beaters. Keep an eye on the hedgerows for next year’s harvest, too.
A heavy red wine is often served with a hearty shoot lunch. But don’t drink too much if you want to be allowed out in the afternoon.
Another option for the hip flask or for passing around after dinner during the hunting exploits or shaggy-dog stories.
A shot at the end of the day can be a good way to toast the quarry. If you are driving, a bottle makes a nice gift for your host and hostess.
Louise Gray is the author of The Ethical Carnivore.