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Despatching pricked birds – the best way to do it

Whether you are shooting, beating or picking up, a priest is essential, says Tony Jackson

beaters and pickers up

Pickers-up on driven shoots should be well versed in dealing with wounded birds

A vital aspect of shooting is the humane despatching of a wounded bird or animal, be it a pheasant, duck, pigeon, rabbit or squirrel.

The prime objective of shooting live quarry is to ensure, wherever possible, an instant death for the creature we are pursuing. We are, hopefully, taught how to shoot by qualified instructors, but inevitably there will be occasions, notably on driven shoots, when birds are wounded and have to be swiftly despatched. Well-organised driven shoots will have a team of pickers-up who should be handling competent gundogs and be well versed in dealing with wounded birds. Each will be armed with a priest, the essential tool for dealing with a wounded bird.

Nevertheless, anyone who has some experience of shooting will 
have witnessed some appalling sights when it comes to despatching wounded game. The head-twirlers are a case in point. Holding the pricked bird by the neck, they swing the unfortunate creature round and round until its neck eventually snaps, leaving a length of extended neck that means the bird is not only unsightly but also cannot be hung in the game larder.

hanging pheasants

Pheasants coupled and hung properly

Respect for the quarry is essential

  • This is an inefficient method of killing. Furthermore, it displays a lack of respect for the quarry, akin to the tossing of birds into the back of 
a wagon, rather than coupling 
and hanging them properly.
  • Then there are the head-bashers. Lacking a priest, they swing the bird by its legs against the nearest tree trunk, fencing post or even the side 
of a stationary vehicle in the vague hope that the unfortunate bird’s head will make contact. In the past some keepers and pickers-up were known to bite a pheasant’s skull to kill it.
  • To ensure our sport is as humane as possible, we train our gundogs to retrieve both dead and wounded birds to hand. In the case of the latter, it is essential to ensure that death is instant and painless, to optimise welfare. This is best achieved by 
a swift, hard blow to the outstretched bird’s head, while holding it with wings closed in the other hand. 
There will be a brief flapping of the wings, but this is merely nerves shutting down. The bird is dead.
  • A word of warning, however. Take great care if you are handling a lightly pricked cock pheasant, especially 
a survivor with long, sharp spurs. 
The bird will kick and unless you 
are very careful you may well end 
up with a badly gashed hand.
Priest for pricked birds

Using a priest to deliver a swift, hard blow to the back of a bird’s head will kill it instantly

Despatching pricked birds with a priest is the most humane way

The Humane Slaughter Association (HSA), while offering advice to poultry keepers on methods of despatch, notes that neck dislocation, if used correctly by an experienced operator, will cause extensive damage to the brainstem and render the bird instantly unconscious. Research has shown that this is not always the case, particularly where there has not been complete separation of the neck and destruction of the brainstem. It has also been revealed, horrifyingly, that there may still be brain function and awareness up to 30 seconds after 
a bird has been decapitated.

The use of so-called humane neck crushers, or pliers, is also condemned by the HSA on the grounds that there is no scientific evidence to show that neck crushing produces immediate unconsciousness and may be less effective than manual neck dislocation. I have, in the past, briefly used one of these instruments but soon discarded it on the grounds that it was not, in my opinion, efficient.

Continued below …

HOw to humanely kill a bird

How to humanely kill a bird

There are occasions out in the field when pheasants, partridges, ducks or pigeons are pricked (meaning wounded) so knowing how…


Every picker-up and Gun should carry a priest

However, years of experience 
in the field, coupled with running 
a picking-up team, has taught me 
that the most humane, swift and 
clean method of despatching 
a wounded bird is with a priest, an instrument which acquired its name as it administers the last rites.

Every picker-up should carry one and I see no reason why Guns should not also make provision for this handy tool.

There are numerous designs and weights on the market and one of the best, in my opinion, is made from a red stag’s antler, though wooden priests, weighted with lead, are equally as effective. While a wrist thong is normally attached to the handle end of the shaft, I prefer 
a longer cord that can be attached 
to your belt, allowing the instrument to be pocketed but ensuring sufficient length when in use.

Ground game

As far as ground game is concerned, 
a priest will also effectively deal 
with a rabbit or hare. This instrument will also effectively deal with a wounded duck or goose, but the blow administered to the bird’s head must be really forcible to ensure instant death.

A quick trawl through websites devoted to priests for the shooting field will reveal an extensive range 
of staghorn and wooden instruments, many of which will carry a 2oz lead weight at the lethal end. Prices range from £20 to £42.

Whether you purchase or create, 
if you shoot, beat or pick-up be sure 
to carry a priest in your pocket or game bag. You owe it to the wildlife 
we pursue.