column By: Jack Ballard | January, 20
The burnished body of a pheasant cleared a yonder tree line, its wings beating strongly in the radiant sunlight of a morning not far spent. Once clear of the branches, the bird settled into a long glide, carrying it from the timbered ridge top to a lighting place on the far side of a deep ravine. A ravine in which I stood with a shouldered shotgun.
“I’m supposed to shoot that?” I muttered to a gentleman on my left elbow. His face broadened in a smile.
“Get on with it.”
Encouragement hinted in the command of the Englishman. Twin tubes of steel swung skyward, their trajectory lustfully following the long tail feathers of the bird high above. I fired, then fired again, each shot woefully behind the rooster in what seemed a futile attempt at a too distant target. I glanced skyward to behold another soaring pheasant, this one slightly higher than the first. Thirty paces to my left, the shotgun of another hunter arced
smoothly. A single muffled report sounded in my “ear defenders,” and the hen’s flight halted like the dash of a pointer pup reaching the end of a check cord. Ian’s smartly downed bird rearranged my notions of the improbable and possible. I fired on the next target with some modicum of confidence.
The region of Exmoor in the south of England is a giant, geological catch basin from which flows the river Exe. Tributaries branch from this broad stream into the countryside, welcoming rainfall from the lush pastures and hedgerows and finding more permanent sustenance from seeps and springs. Cleaving the contours of this quintessential countryside in Devonshire are numerous deep ravines. Streams wind through their bowels, dashing over limestone and pooling quietly along narrow green meadows. Towering oak, beech and evergreen trees thrust from their canted sides, creating hideaways for red stags and roe deer.
Into this landscape is woven a sporting tradition dating to the 11th century. The woodlands of Exmoor were claimed as royal hunting forests where monarchs and their entourages might pursue red stags or foxes. In the mid-1800s, a new pastime for the nobility and privileged outdoorsmen emerged. The driven bird shoot eventually evolved into
a magnificent spectacle, presenting shotgunners with supremely challenging overhead shots for pheasants, sometimes mingled with red-legged partridge. Three features came to differentiate the highest quality shoots from the lesser: exceptionally high and difficult targets; strong flying, locally raised birds; and sufficient volume to satisfy the most aggressive shooters.
For perspective, consider these details. On a recent trip to the region’s Haddeo shoot, our party of 11 guns killed 220 pheasants and red-legged partridges on a single drive. One effusive young fellow fired 187 cartridges to claim his share of the birds.
It’s an order I endlessly endured for three days. Maurice, my loader, stuffed cartridges into the empty shotgun when two were fired. But like others skilled at the task, he was much more than simply a reloading mechanism in a woolen flat cap and trousers. He also called my shots. High and Ahead were nearly bereft in his corrective repertoire. Low and more frequently Behind described most of my attempts to his discerning eye.
Halfway through the first drive things began to click, at least occasionally. Downing an overhead pheasant at altitude is a multistep process. My first bird epitomized the sequence. Within a burst of some two dozen soaring targets, I marked a single, long-tailed rooster passing directly over my position. The over-under 12-bore shotgun nestled smartly on my shoulder, my left cheek snugged against the stock. Both eyes open, I swung the muzzle to track the bird’s “line” in the deep blue sky. The trajectory of the firearm overtook the bird’s tail, then whisked beyond its pale neck ring and gaudy emerald and crimson head. Without slowing the swing or stopping it, I broke the trigger and followed through. The cock shuddered in midflight. Before I could discharge the second barrel, its glide transformed to a plummet.
A strong hand softly slapped my shoulder. “Well done,” concluded the man whose previous vocabulary consisted primarily of Swing and Behind.
The Haddeo experience, like its counterparts across the United Kingdom, is a shoot not a hunt, a concept as foreign to most North American sporting folks as the attire commonly worn by its participants. At the conclusion of a drive, shooters clad in breeks, knee-high stockings, fine wool sweaters and neckties convene to swap stories, eat and drink.
Shooting concluded, I strolled toward the party gathering around a sturdy, vintage Land Rover at the rear of the line of vehicles parked just off the narrow road beneath a verdant pasture bounded by an ancient hedgerow. The Rover, a charming creation, disguised a clever blend of functional brawn and dietary extravagance. At its rear the cover pulled back to reveal a small blackboard with “Aggie’s Bar” stenciled at its top in flowing script with white chalk. The handwritten menu offered a variety of drinks, hot and cold. Aggie, the lithe, smiling barkeeper, managed to indulge the shooters’ sipping tastes while also finding time to pass about a selection of warm seasoned niblets of venison sausage on a wooden tray.
The third drive occurred in a vale whose contour was less consistent than the previous. Prior to shooting, each participant drew a number. The lottery, conducted after breakfast with no less elegance than other aspects of the shoot, entailed pulling what appeared as a broad metal toothpick from a flat leather case. Each of the silver markers contained a number stamped on its lower side. One’s number determined his or her peg position on the initial drive. On subsequent drives, the shooter shifted two pegs to the left. Having pulled #5 for the first, I shot from peg #1 on the third.
My position afforded a fine view up the line. The left-hand portion of the hillside from where the birds flushed contained sparse cover, deciduous and evergreen saplings reclaiming a slope that appeared to have been logged sometime in the last decade. To the right, the ground rose more abruptly, nourishing a copse of taller trees.
“The early birds will come from there,” Maurice explained, gesturing upward and to the left. “We might also get some partridges crossing overhead before it gets busy.” As if on cue, a brace of red-legged birds erupted from the ridge on the port side. They set their wings directly overhead, offering what seemed a simple shot. I discharged both barrels without ruffling a feather, as did two fellow shooters down the line. “Those birds are dropping,” coached the loader. “They’re really, really fast.”
For my part, I came to appreciate the partridges as a pleasant appurtenance to the pheasants. The smaller birds more frequently flushed skyward, then looped back into cover or changed directions in flight in contrast to the mostly direct lines of their long-tailed counterparts. More personally, they forged a poetic link in scaly, rosy legs between the humblest of hunters reducing his footwear to rubble in the pursuit of chukars on public land in Nevada and the opulently outfitted shooter standing proudly on a peg in Exmoor.
On the next flush, a single partridge soared on a direct line to my right, a perfect target for a left-handed shooter. Ahead of the bird and slightly below it, I cast a net of leaden pellets, broad and deep, into which the speeding partridge could make no escape. It crumpled, leaving a tendril of drifting feathers in its wake.
As the pace of the drive quickened, partridges and pheasants cascaded above the shooters. Pick a single target. Don’t stray from the bird on the second barrel if the first is a miss.
As the gliding partridge I caught with the first barrel thumped onto the dark soil nearly at my feet, I shifted my swing slightly to drop its follower on the second. The drive brought two more doubles. A whistle blast and a nudge from Maurice terminated the shooting. Vaguely aware of a quickened pulse, my perception more singularly focused upon the approving smile of the loader.
The ride to the final push of the day skirted an ancient stone bridge spanning the Haddeo River. Civilization in these parts traces to the Roman Era. The Bury Bridge was constructed in medieval times for packhorses. Its masonry, according to some sources, dates possibly to 1066. The bridge is no longer used for vehicles, and our caravan passed through a ford in the modest river immediately downstream from the bridge. The structure is constructed across four archways, two pointed and two more rounded, through which the river flows unfettered.
An air of history and permanence permeated the Exmoor landscape from the bridge and beyond. The gnarled trunks of closely planted trees in the impassable hedgerows of Devonshire might conceivably trace to that time. Within the framework of sheep pens and cattle pastures bounded by artfully stacked stone walls, one can’t help sense a legacy spanning numerous centuries. Viewed from a height of land, the tidy patchwork of field and pasture, woodland and glen, appeared to be the work of some master quiltmaker with an entire landscape as the fabric for her covering.
It is, in fact, not the creation of a single artisan but that of the many generations of farmers, noblemen, foresters and come-back-home soldiers who molded the countryside into its current form. For example, the final evening of the shoot, my wife Lisa, our host Ian and I dined in the company of an old friend of Ian’s from his time in the British Special Forces. Francis’ home has been in his family for more than 20 generations. Woodcarvings in a drawing room of the manor house depicted his ancestors contending for the crown in the Crusades.
The last drive of the day took place in a narrow draw bounded on either side by mature trees. A small stream gurgled a few paces in front of the shooters, mostly separated by large, single trees whose roots burrow greedily into the soil near the stream, nurturing them to greater stature than their fellows on the hillsides. The shooting was tricky. Each angle from my peg offered precious little time to catch a winging pheasant before trees to the rear screened its flight.
After a few minutes, the sound of beaters and flaggers on the offside of the ridge broke the stillness. The perfect drive is a work of art. Under the direction of Alan, the shoot’s seasoned gamekeeper, a team of some two dozen beaters and flaggers nudged birds from outlying areas toward flushing points above the guns. Alan communicated with his crew via radio, hastening the steps of some beaters, slowing the pace of others. Ideally, the drive offers a consistent presentation of birds, enough to keep the shooters active but avoiding a situation where the majority of the targets arrive in a too brief, overwhelming rush.
By the time bronze-bodied roosters and pale hens began streaking between the treetops overhead, the acrid scent of gunpowder tickled my nostrils, and a lingering blue haze wafted in the air. A most satisfying shot occurred when a rocketing cock eluded my first barrel. Bending backward to the point where I stumbled for balance after shooting, I folded the bird on the second barrel just before it disappeared behind the trees on the rear side of the ravine.
Drive completed, the phalanx of “picker-uppers” and their canine helpers captivated my attention. Energetic cocker spaniels dashed about in search of birds, their ranks bolstered here and there by a few Labs and retrievers of uncertain lineage. Both the dogs and their masters performed their duties as a labor of love. Beyond the occasional scolding, the wagging of stubby tails and the satisfied smiles of the humans to whom the birds were delivered belied a strong sense of satisfaction with a job well done.
On that day we chose to “shoot through,” meaning lunch transpired around 2 o’clock, after the final drive. The meal was served in an expansive tent replete with two restrooms, a floor of pine planks and an elegantly set table. Near the entrance, a smartly outfitted bar with platters of sizzling sausages, nuts, pickled peppers and other alluring finger food lured the shooters inside. After drinks and hors d’oeuvres, we retired to the long table to devour beautifully roasted potatoes and savory carrots. The main dishes consisted of roasted partridge and a shoulder of lamb. As the meal wound down, Alan the gamekeeper announced the day’s harvest. Our party of eight guns had taken 458 pheasants and 187 partridges for a total of 645 birds. My cartridge count exceeded 500.
Some years ago, a dear friend and neighbor departed for South Africa on what he described as a “once-in-a-lifetime hunt.” Last spring, he returned from a fifth trip. Haddeo, I fear, is among such destinations, places where “just once” isn’t enough.