There?s no reason why pheasants can?t be a sporting proposition in mid-October if they are fully grown, well feathered and driven properly. But who wants to shoot in waistcoat and shirtsleeves, when trees are still in leaf and bluebottles are buzzing about the place? It just doesn?t feel right.
By all means disagree, but aren?t those mellow autumn days best filled with partridge and grouse, driven or walked-up over dogs? Pheasants, to my thinking, are birds of winter that only show their real mettle when the November frosts loosen the last of the copper beech leaves and a gale or two strips them from their branches. From then until the end of January, birds get steadily stronger and faster on the wing, becoming more of a sporting challenge as the season draws to a close. And this is particularly so with cocks ? even reared birds become as sharp and wily as any hatched in the wild at this time of the year. Unless they?re tagged or from a particularly distinctive strain, you?d be hard pushed to tell a reared cock from the real thing. That?s because both share the same trait ? a well-developed sense of self-preservation.
?Birdbrained? is not a label that?s easily pinned to a January cock pheasant that has survived everything man and nature has thrown at it so far. He is now in the prime of life, one not to be given up without a battle ? in this case, of wits.
Having gone over the Gun line once or twice and escaped unscathed, even your average cock bird quickly learns that safety isn?t necessarily to be found in taking to the skies. Instead, it?s all about running like the clappers, head down, to avoid trouble. As any beater or stop knows well, if a cock bird doesn?t use legs or wings to give us the slip, then it resorts to a third line of defence: concealment.
Harry Houdini has nothing on a cock pheasant when it comes to doing a vanishing act. One moment you see several skulking forward through the undergrowth or covercrop; in the next instant, nothing. Rather than dodge through a gap in the beating line or run out at the flanks, our wily bird has learnt that the odds on escape are still in his favour if he tucks up under thick cover or simply claps down on the floor and doesn?t move a muscle. It never ceases to amaze me that a bird with such brassy plumage can become virtually invisible against even a bare piece of ground. As long as the bird remains motionless, a beater can pass just inches away, oblivious to its presence, and the tighter it sits the less chance there is of a dog getting a whiff of its scent.
Sometimes, when a bird or two flush and the line stops for a few moments to let them get over the Gun line, our eye might be drawn to a patch of ground close by. Keep looking, don?t move and give your eyes time to focus. Gradually, you might be able to make out the shape of a cock bird sitting stock still. However, the moment eye contact is made you can be sure it will be away over your shoulder in a blur of wings, emptying the contents of its backside all up the front of your coat as a sort of parting gesture.
One of the things I enjoy most about driven days in January, especially cock-only days, is the subtle changes a keeper might have to make because the cocks have rumbled his usual game plan. Whereas before beaters had only to keep a straight line and push slowly forward through covercrop or wood, now an operation of military precision is required. Outlying hedges and fields are quietly blanked-in while other beaters hold back until told to move, and stops take up their place. Without them a procession of cock birds will quickly spot the escape routes.
Now, instead of the usual eight-Gun team, the shoot captain might (and often will) add another four ? two to walk with the beaters and shoot cocks breaking out at the sides, the other two standing at the back of the wood to take birds curling over the heads of the beaters.
Instead of hoping to be in the middle of the line on the best drives, savvy Guns now hope that it?s their turn to do some walking with the beaters, then standing back to shoot what comes their way. And thank goodness they had the sense to stuff an extra dozen or so cartridges in both coat pockets?
Cream of the shooting season
Organised cock-only days are very much team affairs involving Guns, beaters, stops and pickers-up. This bird is always a challenge especially when you go it alone, with only a dog. Walking-up hedgerows, ditches and stream sides is the cream ? the real deal where shooting is concerned.
You might be lucky and stumble on a cock bird within a few minutes of starting on the first hedge, but things are rarely that easy. You need to know your ground and work to a plan that keeps the birds your side of the boundary at the same time as positioning them for the best chance of a shot. Frustration is never far away. Just as you think you?ve got the job nailed the bird flushes tantalisingly out of range. Yet when a plan does work, your sense of satisfaction goes completely off the meter. A covering of snow always adds to the excitement ? now you can track your quarry?s every move, following not just his footprints but also the tell-tale line made by the tip of his tail feathers.
In places with scant cover the problem, often, is the bird running and not tucking up to give the dog a chance of a flush. Here, role reversal can work: the dog sits and acts as a stop, and you walk the hedge in its direction. Or you can sit the dog up, walk in a wide arc to the other end of the cover then let it work its way back to you.
When I lived on the Cambridgeshire fens, where pheasants can see you from miles away, the only way to get a bird was to work with a friend and his dog. He would go off to one side of a field and work the ditch down while I did the other, the sight of us enough to push birds forward and into a suitable drain connecting both sides of the field. Then, it was a case of one standing, hidden in the ditch while the other brought it in with his dog. If the plan worked you might both only get off a shot or two but, just occasionally, we would hit the jackpot with a dozen or so cock birds flushing singly along the length of the dyke, in range of our guns. It doesn?t get better than that.