Many years ago so many years ago that I prefer not to remind myself just how many of them it was a long time ago, anyway, I shot a partridge out at High Park. Even through all the intervening years I can remember the occasion very clearly. It was a cloudy day in December, my friend Austin and I had been walking the fields in search of a few pheasants and a rabbit or two. We, or rather Austin, had shot two pheasants and now we were in one of my top fields. Merlin, my big springer spaniel, was quartering the ground enthusiastically, when all at once the sky was full of whirring wings and a covey of grey partridge was crossing to my right. The first barrel dropped one of them and the second dropped nothing. I had bungled the chance of a right-and-left and I was not much bothered. I remember that Merlin collected my bird without waiting to be asked, which did not bother me either. I was so pleased to have put a partridge in the bag, so delighted by the subtle and understated beauty of its patterned feathers.
In those early High Park days, there were sometimes a few coveys of greys knocking round the fields. Only that one bird was
ever shot, and I rather think the covey from which it fell was the last covey that I ever saw. Perhaps the pheasants persuaded them to seek a quieter life in even rougher fields right on the edge of the fells. When I see greys now, and very few are seen these days in my neck of the woods, it is always in high and lonely moorland pastures. Partridges disappeared from High Park
and I never thought to see one here again. I did determine that, in future, if any sprang into the sky on a shooting day, they would be left to fly on; but temptation never came my way, or the way of any of my friends.
At least 10 years passed with no sight of a partridge, and then a few redlegs began to appear, refugees from the big shoot just over the road, where they were now being released in increasing numbers. From the time of their first appearance they were most definitely on the hit list, which never did them any harm at all. They were cunning birds. I would come across them round the pens when I was plodding here and there with a sack of grain over my shoulder. I would hear their rasping chatter and then they would leap into the sky, filling my heart with frustrated and predatory thoughts. On shooting days, if they were seen at all, it was always in the next field, skimming out of harms way long before we could get anywhere near them.
I concluded that I lacked the team and the organisation to get to grips with redlegs. I persuaded myself that we could not hope
to shoot a single one of them, that they were there only to mock us with distant visions of vanishing wings. We should have to content ourselves with pheasants and rabbits and a few cock, which are, after all, especially with the odd snipe and the occasional pigeon thrown into the days bag, more than enough for sporting contentment. I had abandoned hope of partridges, until last season brought a shock, almost a sensation; it brought something close to a miracle. Now you must not leap to conclusions it brought nothing quite so marvellous as a partridge in the bag, but on two separate days they lurked in the rushes until questing spaniels put them on the wing; and two whole birds flew over two of my friends and were both missed handsomely.
It was not time to declare High Park the partridge manor of the North, but it was progress, stirring the hope within me that some day I should, for the second time ever, include a dead partridge in the record of a High Park shooting day. It was the afternoon after this seasons first pheasant shoot and I was doing what I often do on such afternoons. I was wandering over my rented ground on what I call the outlands, flushing a few birds back to my little valley and lifting my gun to one or two that flushed the wrong way or rose so defiantly before me that they demanded a shot. I had sent a few birds back home; I had shot a snipe and an old cock with vicious, shining black spurs;
I was coming down a steep field when suddenly there was a blur of wings in front of me and a covey of partridge in the air. You will be expecting the proud announcement of a right-and-left, and I am sorry to disappoint you by admitting a double miss. I told myself that I had been too shocked by this sudden eruption of redlegs to shoot straight and I walked on feeling rather disappointed. When the same performance was repeated in the next field I was no longer disappointed. I was disgusted with myself. All the pleasure of an afternoon stroll with a shotgun, which is one of the best pleasures that our sport brings, had been chased away by four flustered and incompetent shots.
It took a better Shot than I to end the partridge famine, even as I write these words, a brace of them is roasting in the oven; I need to get a move on or they will be overdone. Every year I recruit a team of boys to help me, during school terms, with the work of running a small shoot. I think they enjoy it and I know for certain that I appreciate the extra pairs of hands, especially in the autumn and the winter when all the hoppers need keeping full. The boys labours are, of course, unpaid, which delights my stingy old heart, but they do get a bit of shooting now and then as a reward for their efforts. One of these bits of shooting came the other Saturday afternoon, when I took Tom and George for an armed excursion round the edges of High Park. It was a pleasant enough sort of afternoon and there were pheasants here and there. Some were shot and some were missed and, somewhere in the middle of it all, there was a sudden shout of Partridge! from Tom.
I turned and saw a covey in the air; I lifted the gun on to a bird and was about to pull the trigger when the bird fell to Toms shot. About an hour later there was suddenly a partridge in the air again and again he fell down dead just when I was about to do the business myself. We finished the afternoon with eight pheasants, all hens, two rabbits and those two redlegs, the first partridges shot at High Park for almost 20 years. I am already dreaming of September sport next autumn, with partridge jumping into the sky from every field. Meanwhile it is time to abandon the laptop and head off into the kitchen. It is time for two stuffed and roasted partridges, with a few game chips and a green salad and half a bottle of better-than-usual claret. I think I shall manage all this without too much effort and, somewhere in the middle of all the chewing and gurgling, I shall certainly raise a glass to the young sportsman whose quick eye and sure aim put them on my plate: Well shot, Tom Hinton; merry Christmas, happy New Year; cheers!