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Pheasant shooting in Tuscany

The English-style driven pheasant shoot has been present in Tuscany for many years. During the end of the 19th century the Niccolini family introduced the sport to their home, Tenuta di Camugliano, in the province of Pisa, where it is still going strong today, as well as being enjoyed at a few other estates nearby. However, there are numerous differences between the challenges faced by gamekeepers in the UK and those in Italy.

The legalities of pheasant shooting vary greatly compared with the UK. In Italy, the pheasant season starts on the third Sunday of September and ends on January 31, with Tuesday and Fridays being silent as these are legally non-hunting days. Unlike the UK it is common and legal to shoot on a Sunday as this was traditionally the only day that working men would have free time to go hunting. But the complicated bureaucracy really begins with a key difference introduced by Mussolini – the shooting rights and the pheasants themselves do not belong to the landowner. They are publicly owned and therefore a grant or concessione must be obtained by the landowner to allow the pheasants to be shot on the estate. This provides a Hunting Reserve status within a designated area that must be signposted around its perimeter to clearly indicate to local hunters that it is a private azienda, meaning public hunting is not permitted within. This does not, of course, eliminate the problem of having rough shooters waiting longingly on the boundary for a pheasant to venture over, where at once it becomes fair game – one for the pot!

Most Italian dogs are trained to be shot over, so fewer gundogs are present on a driven day, but they are not entirely absent.

As unusual and frustrating as this can be to an English keeper, the most effective way of dealing with it is by employing of a full-time, registered guardia, who patrols the boundaries and prevents incursions from hunters’ dogs that are trained to flush birds back over on to the free-hunting ground. This allows the keeper to continue with his daily routine of feeding and dogging in.

A few more Italian rules and regulations

The rearing of the birds themselves, from the pen to the wood, also differs from the UK. Depending on the classification of the concessione that the estate holds, the poults have to be in the pens by a particular date: at Camugliano the legal obligation is to get them into the pens by August 31. Once the birds are in the pens, it now becomes illegal to feed medicated food, presenting another unusual situation. In conjunction, the Tuscan summers arrive with force. The skyrocketing temperatures and humidity result in the land becoming extremely arid. As a result there is great demand for a continuous supply of fresh, clean drinking water. Even the permanent siting of a release pen can be construed as creating a reserve within a reserve. So the entire pen is removed once it is no longer in use, long before the start of the pheasant shooting season.

The creation and development of drives are also influenced by many specific regulations, such as not being able to fell any trees over 10cm in diameter and the prevention of clearing or using a swipe on indigenous understory vegetation.

The pegs themselves must be at least 150 metres away from any occupied dwelling, even if it is estate owned. Visits are regularly made by a division of the provincial police who work solely to ensure all the rules and regulations relating to hunting are adhered to. In Italy it is illegal to sell driven pheasant shooting directly to a potential client – therefore syndicated clubs are formed to address this issue.

At the start of the season there can still be bright, sunny days that are warm by English standards but getting cooler for the average Tuscan. As the season progresses the temperature can plummet and the distant view of the snow-capped Apennine Mountains provides a glorious backdrop.

The 130-plus people involved on a shoot day start arriving before daybreak. ‘Stops’ are strategically scattered around the boundary. The older guys who are less able to do the walking wait in a small room primed to start cleaning out the birds on their arrival back to the villa after each drive, ready to be displayed on the final tableau at the end of the day. Up to 60 beaters gather in designated teams, armed with flags or a small pair of bamboo sticks that are tapped together to create a noise whilst in the line.

The villa is the perfect sporting base.

No dogs are allowed in the beating line, and for that reason more people are required. The vast majority of hunting dogs in Italy are trained to be shot over, so fewer dogs are used during a driven day. Many more people are needed to help run the day.

Those helping to pick-up stand behind the gun line and gather dead birds after the drive. Those dogs present are used further back for pricked and running birds. Following the end of each drive, a tableau is arranged on the ground to allow the guns to view their quarry from that drive.

Umbrellas at the ready

Each shooter has double guns and a loader. There is often a large entourage that appears with the visiting guns and the gun-stands soon fill up with these spectators. And one cannot help but notice the number of umbrellas carried by absolutely everyone. Beaters will often be spotted with an umbrella strapped to their backs, just in case of a shower. Slowly and surely the populace of helpers escalates to a small army, all of whom must be fed. A shoot day runs continuously without a lunch, but with a brief break for ‘elevenses’ consisting of a bread roll with prosciutto ham and, of course, red wine, water and coffee.

At the end of the day the tableau is carefully arranged on the floor outside the main villa, cocks one-side and hens the other. Each bird will have been gutted beforehand. Cameras are soon on show and photos snapped casually and then more formally, with numerous pictures being taken of the visiting guests with the pheasants shot that day. The birds are shared among all the beaters, pickers-up and other helpers, and the surplus is then sold to a local game dealer.

Finishing off the day, the guns retire to the villa and everyone else heads to a great feast, in true Tuscan style. The especially long tables are laid ready for the banquet. There’s antipasti to start, consisting of cold meats and pickled vegetables, followed by a pasta and ragu course. Next comes roast pork and slow-cooked beans, with plenty of fresh bread on the side.

Dessert is usually a tart served alongside fresh fruit. Red wine flows and the atmosphere buzzes with friendly chatter, mickey-taking and the various stories from the day. This type of chit-chat is not that different from the sort heard on a shoot day at home! Only it’s in Italian.

The end of the day sees a tremendous feast put on for the 130 plus people involved. It starts with antipasti and ends with grappa.

The meal is rounded off with wonderful Italian coffee, plus Vin Santo and grappa for the more hardened drinkers. Considering the amount of alcohol on offer, no-one over indulges and the whole dinner is about the sharing of good food and the sharing of good company.

So, despite the plethora of legal obstacles and the fact the beaters drink Chianti rather than beer, a shoot day in Tuscany is a truly unique experience.

Julie Toft is a gamekeeper’s daughter who has married a gamekeeper. They both worked in Tuscany on an English-style driven pheasant shoot.

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