Pheasant shooting has been popular in Britain since the 1500s. CALIBRE speaks to a panel of experts to find out how to get started in this thrilling sport.
Pheasant shooting is a sport with serious heritage. It became popular in Britain with the arrival of practical hand-held firearms in around 1500; Henry VIII (1941-1547) was known to enjoy pheasant shooting and it has continued to be a royal pastime.
Until the late 17th century, birds were shot when stationary – on the ground or perched. The 18th century saw better guns and ammunition, and the introduction of the double-barrelled breech-loading gun, and so the driven shoot was developed in the mid 19th century. A new concept at the time, instead of walking towards the birds, these shoots were formally organised, with the guns at fixed positions or pegs, while the birds were driven towards them. This technique, as used today, allows for more of a challenge with a variety of high-flying birds, and the gamekeeper is able to control the amount and general direction of the birds.
The modern-day season runs from 1 October to 1 February, although no shooting is allowed on Sundays and Christmas Day. There is normally a line of eight to 10 guns on pegs on more formal, traditional driven shoots, although the smaller, wilder shoots remain popular and are more accessible price wise.
What makes a good pheasant shoot?
“The best pheasant shoots in the UK are categorised by so many different factors and each gun will have his/her own list of priorities when selecting a shoot,” says Gordon Robinson of the Royal Berkshire Shooting School. “Some will simply demand a consistent height of bird based on their ability and equipment (guns/ammunition) and others may prioritise the standard of wine served up at lunch!
“I like a warm welcome by a jovial shoot captain/host who is punctual, organised, prepared and confident in his role, plus a happy team of loaders, beaters and pickers up who seem genuinely pleased to see you,” Gordon continues.
“The shoot lodge/house should be clean, spacious and fit for purpose, where guns can meet, relax and dine in comfort with all the facilities required. Beautifully kept estate grounds with a certain presence give the feel that you have arrived somewhere special, and there needs to be good access around the estate with ample parking at each drive.
“The birds should be strong, fit and well presented, with drives carefully planned drives to take into account the weather conditions and the ability of the guns on the day. There should be a consistent quality and quantity of birds presented throughout the day, of a good, challenging height but still killable with the standard guns and cartridges that the majority of shooters will use.
“Food wise look for a good elevenses (more than a soggy sausage); a wholesome shoot lunch – nothing too fancy and nothing too smart – and a good quality of wine served with lunch (the price of one pheasant will equal a decent bottle for the table).
“Above all, the day should be relaxed, fun, challenging and well run, with each gun being offered oven-ready game to take with them at the end,” he finishes.
Any advice for first timers?
If you’re nervous about your first attempt, try using an in-field instructor.
“Holland & Holland offers a bespoke in-field instruction service, in which one of our trained instructors can accompany a client as a loader and in-field trainer on a driven game shoot,” says Chris Bird, chief instructor at Holland & Holland Shooting Grounds. “Often the instructor has built up a relationship with the client over a number of sessions at the grounds.” Holland & Holland is the only British gunmaker with its own shooting grounds in London; just 17 miles from Marble Arch.
“We help people starting out, who might be nervous about their first shoot, as well as the highly experienced wanting to fine-tune their skills,” he continues. “The instructor can be there for a whole team or just one person. Many find it useful to carry on benefitting from the expertise of our instructors in the field after having lessons. For an additional price, we are also able to provide a Holland & Holland gun to shoot with on the day.
We believe this service is a natural progression from beginner’s clay pigeon lessons to shooting game,” he finishes.
What gun should I use?
We spoke to James Horne, chairman of London gunmaker James Purdey and Sons, and Douglas Pratt, gunroom salesman and Holland & Holland, to learn more about guns that are typically used in the field.
“In the UK, the 12 gauge is still the most popular,” says James. “The 20 gauge started to grow in popularity in the late 1990s, driven by significant improvements in the variety, quality and availability of ammunition for this gauge. Equally, for many a shooter it offered less recoil and the challenge of shooting a smaller gun. The 16 and 28 gauge have always enjoyed a much smaller but passionate following, but for many a shooter the choice is between a 12 or 20 gauge.”
What is Purdey’s most popular model for pheasant shooting?
“It is equally split between our classic Side-by-Side, our Sidelock Over & Under and our Sporter Over & Under,” James says. “Barrel length is a fascinating topic. It is influenced by many things, not least the quarry you are shooting, your style of shooting, your height and your experience. For classic driven game here in the UK we would always advise a minimum of 28” barrels; likewise for a less experienced shot. But for somebody with more experience shooting higher birds, then a longer barrel provides consistent and steady swing. It is less whippy and helps to hold the line and speed of a bird, especially at distance. But if you are shooting walked up game in the United States then undoubtedly the shorter, faster barrels of a 26 or 27” guns will help.”
Douglas Pratt of Holland & Holland agrees. “Our clients still tend to choose 12-bore shotguns for pheasant shooting. That said, we have seen a rise in interest in our 20-bores, mainly from the international market.
“Holland & Holland’s Royal Over-and-Under 12-bore Shotgun remains our most popular bespoke gun for pheasant shooting, followed by the Royal Side-by-Side,” he continues. “We advise an average barrel length of 30” for high pheasants, along with a heavier cartridge load.
“On average we sell 65% over-and-unders to 35% side-by-sides.”
Featured shoot: Bettws Hall
Bettws Hall is a family business specialising in high, driven birds over seven iconic estates in Wales and the West Country. It was founded by Gwyn Evans in mid Wales 30 years ago and has also diversified into hotels and a game farm.
“We can offer the complete package, from airport transfers through to accommodation within our luxurious shooting lodges and refined hospitality out in the field,” says Gwyn, when asked what sets Bettws Hall apart from other pheasant shoots.
“We take our hospitality seriously, employing top London chefs and ensuring our staff attend to your every need – the champagne is always on ice! Due to the location of our estates you can stay in our lodges and all estates can be reached within a 40-minute drive, making Bettws Hall the ideal base for a driven shoot excursion, as it allows you to take in a variety of different shooting from one base. All of our estates have helipads so are easily accessible from all of the UK
Brigands is our best-known estate, famed for its ‘extreme pheasants’ but a classic pheasant shoot would be Vaynor Park or Kempton,” Gwyn continues. “Both are well established within the Bettws Hall stable, having been with us 12 and 21 years respectively. Both estates see a lot of the birds flushed from woodland cover and over rolling banks surrounded by parkland and pasture-land views.
What would a gun expect on a typical day?
“Our hosts put the enjoyment of the guns at the forefront of the day,” Gwyn says. “They have between them over 81 seasons of experience so are fully prepared for all and any eventualities.
“We typically run four drives on our days. Following morning coffee at the lodges, guests depart for the first drive in a convoy of 4x4s behind the host. We have a champagne elevenses in the field between drives, and guest can choose to stop for lunch after the third drive or ‘shoot through’ and eat their main meal at the end of the day, weather and daylight allowing. At the end of the day guns are invited to meet the estate head keeper and are given a gift bag of oven ready game to take away with them.”
Featured shoot: The Arundell Arms
For a different experience, The Arundell Arms is a country hotel in Devon, offering a wild bird / rough shoot run by Jeff Reynolds.
“I shoot on various pieces of land deemed suitable to weather conditions at the time,” says Jeff. “The land is around the Tamar Valley on the Devon and Cornwall boarder, between and on the edges of Dartmoor and Bodmin moor.
“A typical day would be a meet and greet, before heading out to land that’s suits the guns’ requirements. Ideally we’ll do one piece of ground in the morning for driven wild birds, then stop for a hearty pub lunch with a bit of banter and local insight. We’ll then do another piece of land in the afternoon for driven wild birds, then if the conditions are right maybe a bit of woodcock or duck flighting. A wild bird shoot means birds that are wild. Snipe, teal and woodcock are migratory; pheasants, golden plover, pigeons and mallard are non migratory.
“Depending on the number of guns and how they shoot, a nice day would be a woodcock each, a few snipe, a couple of ducks, a couple of pigeons, a few pheasants for a bit of filler and a golden plover if they’re lucky! I think this shooting is special because the birds are unpredictable and testing. You just never know what the day holds.
“The ideal season would be a proper winter with cold, dry days, so you aren’t dealing with too much water lying everywhere and it isn’t too mild, which would disperse the birds. Not bitterly cold though as it’s not fair on the birds because they can’t fly as well.”
The costs are £200 per gun including lunch and VAT. Book directly with Jeff on 07813 715694 or [email protected] All game shot on the day is given to the guns to be cooked at the hotel for dinner or taken home.
If you’re after a gunbox with quality and style in the field, look at Balindore Gunboxes. Balindore was established in 1997 when cabinetmaker and country sports enthusiast Craig MacNiven saw a gap for traditional yet contemporary, practical solutions for the shooting industry.
Each individually commissioned piece is handmade in Balindore’s workshop in the heart of Scotland, with the gunboxes exhibiting the same hallmark of quality and style established in the company’s interior furnishings. All materials are high quality and Balindore prides itself on sourcing around the globe, bringing together the finest timbers and leathers, such as walnut, ostrich, shark, crocodile and elephant, to produce timeless goods that can be passed down through generations.
Balindore also offers a wide variety of bespoke accessories, ranging from hunting knives hand engraved by in-house staff, to snap caps designed to protect firearms by relieving the stress of the firing pin. There is also a cleaning kit range, which comes in a variety of leathers in an easy roll case, and a walnut tantalus unit. See www.balindore.co.uk.