From the start it was clear that the shoot at Lathuy, in the Walloon region of Belgium, was a shoot at the heart of the community.
Most of the Guns were locals: tradesmen, craftsmen or retired people, and the sense of fun was just like that on so many DIY gameshoots here in the UK. The structure of the shoot was not dissimilar, either. The syndicate employs a retired gamekeeper to feed and look after the 300 pheasants it puts down, and it shoots over 1,000 hectares. But whereas we in the UK might expect the land to be the property of two or three farms, here, thanks to Belgian inheritance law, it belongs to 70 different owners from whom sporting rights have to be secured every year — an organisational nightmare in itself.
Thankfully this was the Frenchspeaking part of Belgium, which at least gave me a chance to catch most of our instructions. My schoolboy French is pretty rusty, but it is better than my Dutch, and I gathered that we were to be shooting cock pheasants, woodcock, pigeon, duck, rabbits, hares and especially corvids and foxes, which Directeur de Chasse Arnout Vandevyvere was desperate to bring under control.
Arnout told me of his plans to boost the wild game population. Already, improved predation management has greatly increased the number of hares on the shoot. Hares are greatly prized for the table in Belgium, so that is a big bonus. But achieving more success with wild gamebird production has been a harder nut to crack. Few farmers here are interested in the environmental land management schemes that we take for granted in Britain. There are no grass field margins, no covercrops, no corner spinneys or hedgerows. In fact, the arable land is pretty much devoid of anything that is game friendly, and at this time of the year the shoot focuses exclusively on the woodlands that lie at its heart.
Wild pheasants in the woods
So it was to these that we gravitated for the first few drives. Here another of the differences between shooting in the UK and shooting in Belgium became evident. We were to be shooting 15 Guns, all of whom surrounded the first wood, an overgrown poplar plantation. There were no numbered pegs. Instead, numbers were permanently affixed to the trunks of trees, leaving little flexibility for the shifting of Guns in the event of an adverse wind. We had already drawn for numbers in a rather unusual way. With all the Guns arranged in a circle, one member at random was asked to face outwards and give a number between 1 and 15, upon which the Directeur de Chasse, also at random, nominated a Gun to be that number, with the remainder of the Guns numbering off clockwise from him. In this way, it is possible to maintain the element of chance while enabling everybody to choose who they will be shooting next to. My neighbour was another of Arnout’s guests, Belén Pinilla Romeo from Spain, and between us was picker-up Hanneke Kruizinga with her two Labradors.
Hanneke had driven that morning all the way from Rotterdam. A keen dog handler, she is unable to work her dogs in the Netherlands because of the restrictive legislation and the consequent lack of gameshooting, and so she travels instead to Belgium where the shooting laws are more relaxed.
There were several chances at hen pheasants on that first drive, but no cocks flew in my direction and only a handful came out of the wood. Those that did, however, presented really testing targets in the stiff breeze and just three ended up in the bag. Things looked up on the second drive, where another mixed plantation of pine and poplar was being pushed towards a boggy wood that lies at the centre of this part of the shoot. There was plenty of action for those who were stationed between the two coverts, though not much risk of dirty barrels for those on the windward side of the wood with 500 arable acres at our backs.
Inside the boggy wood for the next two drives it was a different story. The beaters, all wearing orange, as is the custom in continental Europe, worked the wood block by block as the Guns were moved around to stand on narrow rides. Here it was snap shooting at pheasants as they zipped across the tops of the poplars and alders, while several woodcock showed up. Woodcock are legal quarry in the Walloon region, though just a few kilometres away in Dutch-speaking Flanders they are protected. Curious to us, perhaps, but no more so than the differences in shooting seasons and quarry lists between Scotland and England.
More worrying are the restrictive Belgian firearms laws, which insist that guns are fitted with trigger locks both while in their storage cabinet at home and in transit to and from a shoot. Gun owners are even required to padlock their gunslips, and I was assured by Arnout that the police actively operate spot checks, targeting likely looking 4x4s on the motorways around Brussels during the weekend. Those in breach of the law risk losing their precious hunting licence. In this respect at least, UK firearms law is definitely more hunter-friendly.
The Belgians take the prize in the catering department. Lunch was taken back in the shoot room at Lathuy. The repas de chasse was a bring-and-share affair, but what wonderful delights were brought out of bags and hampers! Charcuterie including the delicious local boudin or pork sausage in both its red and white varieties, bread straight from the nearby boulangerie and, of course, French wines. And if that was not to your taste, then there was plenty of Duvel beer.
A suitably refreshed shooting party then headed for the afternoon down to the grounds of the local chateau. With a large ornamental lake in the centre, there were two woods which spread outwards from it, and each of them had plenty of pheasants in residence, as well as rather too many foxes for Arnout’s liking. Two were accounted for, but when the pheasants started flushing, the sport for those Guns on the far side of the lake was excellent, with high birds coming out over the lake with the wind under their tails.
Standing beside a marshy tangle of reed, willowherb and rank marsh grasses on the edge of an alder wood, I watched as a roe doe crept out in front of me. Though we had been given a couple of rounds of Brenneke for just such an occasion, I had no safe angle of fire, and was content to watch as she skipped through the line of Guns. In doing so, I was nearly too late for a splendid cock which rocketed over me. Nearly, but not quite, and it splashed into a ditch to my second barrel, a further bird crashing a few moments later beside the ride on which I stood.
A bird lost and found
Towards the end of that drive, one of the beaters picked a bird from the ride. “I’ve got your bird,” he told me in French, and though I was not entirely convinced, my language skills were not quite good enough to interrogate him. After the final drive, therefore, I asked Hanneke to make a full sweep of the area with her Labs. It was lucky that I did, for her dog thrust his head straight through a mat of grass and emerged with my cock pheasant. It was a great moment both for Hanneke and me.
We ended the day with a mixed bag of 24 pheasants, four woodcock, two hares, five duck and two foxes, new friendships forged and a taste for boudin. It was different to your average UK shoot but as they say in Belgium, vive la différence!