Should Guns and pickers-up be wearing hard hats these days? It’s a question those excellent fellows at the Health & Safety Executive might well be considering if they knew how heavy some pheasants can be. Towards the end of a day picking-up last year on Kepwick, one of North Yorkshire’s top shoots, I noticed that my first-season Labrador was struggling with a particularly big cock pheasant. It was only when I took it from him that I realised how big it was. It felt as heavy as a greylag. I showed the bird to the headkeeper, Trevor Bailey, after the drive and asked if it was okay to take it home and weigh it, as I’d never seen one bigger. “Yeah fine,” he said, probably thinking “crafty so and so just wants a big dinner”.
Trevor has seen many thousands of pheasants but even he was amazed when I showed him the pictures the next shoot day and told him the weight. It weighed 5lb 13oz, twice the weight of the average cock bird. “Too much maize,” said Trevor “that’s what puts the weight on.”North Yorkshire shoots are famous for their high pheasants and that’s because the birds are driven off the top of the hills with the Guns down below in the valleys. A monster pheasant like this one just needs to glide. On a flat-land shoot I doubt that it would be able to get off the ground.
What is certain is that once it is up there you do not want it to fall on you. Guns are usually looking up so they can see it coming and, as I’ve seen many times, leap out of the way. Loaders and pickers-up are the ones in most danger since they are usually peering at the ground. Like most shooters I’ve had some near misses over the years and so have my dogs. The nearest was not a pheasant but a mallard I shot one dark, winter evening, which turned out to be a very high pinkfoot which stopped, then got bigger and bigger, then frighteningly bigger and crashed on to the frozen stubble by my side. I’d have been dead if it had landed on me!
The only capercaillie I’ve ever shot, when our Scottish shoot had a lot of them, did me no harm but it very nearly hit the next Gun on the head and as it was a 12lb cock that could have been nasty. My suffering came later when, against all advice, I tried to eat it. Leather soaked in turpentine was the most accurate description! A few years ago, the Kepwick shoot manager, Geoffrey Consett, took a smack on the head from a falling pheasant and it laid him out and put him in hospital. When he came out next, the beaters presented him with a hard hat which, for some reason, he declined to wear it was bright yellow. The time can’t be far off, though, when you’ll be able to get a hard hat in camo or, for the classier shoot, one covered in tweed.
As for the giant pheasant from Kepwick, well we did eat it, and very good it was too. But the edible bits weren’t considerably bigger than a normal pheasant. It was actually a standard-size bird enclosed in just over 3lb of yellow fat!