A Guide to Game Birds

every breed of game is different and deserving of our full respect

An expert guide by Jonathan Young, Editor of The Field. Click on each one for further detail.

Red Grouse

Lagopus lagopus scotIca

season: AUG 12 - DEC 10

Unique to the British Isles, the red grouse is the finest gamebird in the world. As such, it’s our only quarry whose season invades the national consciousness, with the annual celebration of the “Glorious” Twelfth (though shooting men always call it “The Twelfth”).
Its home is the heather uplands of northern England and Scotland, with a few scattered populations keeping a toehold in Wales and Ireland. All told, there are some 460 grouse moors in the UK covering 1,500,000 hectares, a precious resource of global importance: we have 75% of the world’s heather moorland.
The grouse remains the ultimate challenge due to its extremely fast, low flight, hugging the contours of the moor. This evolved over the ages to deny the peregrine, its main avian predator, air space for the falcon’s deadly 200mph stoop. This has resulted in a quarry species that often travels well over 60mph if there’s any wind (there usually is) and at head height.
Even so, some accomplished Shots regularly manage to shoot five, and sometimes, six out of a covey, using a pair of matched guns and a skilled loader.
Grouse are extremely wary, and their pursuers are careful to remain still in their butts and ensure their loaders and spectators do likewise. They also dress in somber hues. Chatter is discouraged, as total concentration is needed to shoot successfully and safely, an acute concern with low shots being the norm.
Paradoxically, the bird flourishes only where it is shot. Like all ground-nesting birds, it requires suitable habitat and protection from predators, and only keepered moorlands provide both. They are expensive to maintain yet there are always men prepared to spend millions on wild acres of heather and peat, rock and water. Like so many before them, they have discovered few experiences in life better a day’s driven grouse shooting, especially later in the season. Patrick Chalmers, the sporting poet, expressed much of the attraction in verses penned in 1931.

Proud August’s past her blooming,
In gullies and in cuts,
Down the big winds go booming
Upon some waiting butts,
Where, talented and tenty*,
Sit men whose custom is
To pick up five and twenty
For thirty cartridges;

Afar a flag is flipping,
A little flag and gay,
A mile of moorland slipping
Towards us, did you say?
A league of Perthshire heather
That moves – and moves amain,
A hillside, hell for leather,
That “comes to Dunsinane”?

*attentive

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The Pheasant

Phasianus colchicus

season: OCT 1 - FEB 1

Though dismissed by shooting’s opponents as an “alien”, the pheasant has adorned our countryside for at least a millennia. Like the rabbit and hare, it probably arrived with the Roman legions. Palladius, writing in the fourth century, advises on how to rear them and proof of its existence in Britain is provided in a Waltham Abbey Ordinance of 1059.

Also known as the longtail, it’s now our most familiar gamebird and the staple of driven shooting. It also provides testing sport. In 1905, 15 of the Edwardian great Shots were asked to name their most difficult bird. Ripon and Walsingham and a dozen others awarded the prize to the pheasant, especially the high curler dropping on motionless wings.

Today, the pheasant provides an even greater challenge. The shooting authority Sir Ralph Payne-Gallwey, in his High Pheasants in Theory and Practice (published 1913), describes an “ordinary high pheasant as being 28 to 30 yards above the shooter”. Some Westcountry, Yorkshire and Welsh shoots now specialise in showing far higher birds yet many Guns can routinely fell 50-yard cloudscrapers with a combination of 32- and 34gm loads of No 5 or 4 shot. This takes skill and judgment; these same Guns do not address an out-of-range bird, which is rightly considered unsporting.

Restraint is also required in January. The aggressive treading of hens by the cocks, and the latter’s superfluity to successful breeding, has led to the tradition of “cocks only” days in January, especially on wild-bird shoots. On such days, it’s a crime to shoot hens, though some cannot resist the temptation. At the turn of the 20th century, it’s reputed that Sir Somerville Gurney succumbed, the hen plummeting to the ground in full sight of the Guns, who included King Edward VII. The King was said to remarked wryly “Ah, Gurney, you always were a great man for the ladies.”

A bag of pheasants, unlike grouse, is counted singly, though the keeper presents the Guns with a ‘”grace brace” at the end of the day. It’s good manners to accept it, not least because it reinforces the connection between shooting and food on the table, which is, after all, the essence of our sport.

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Grey Partridge

Perdix perdix

season: SEPT 1 - FEB 1

In America, where it was introduced, the grey partridge is known as the Hungarian partridge or Hun. In Britain it’s often referred to as the Englishman, an indication of our affection for the “little brown bird” and its past ubiquity.

Wild partridge shoots, correctly known as “partridge manors”, were common before the Second World War in the Home Counties, East Anglia, Lincolnshire and East Yorkshire. Shooting records show that these areas commonly supported bags of more than 20 birds killed per square kilometre. Some of the bags were prodigious. On October 18-21, 1887, at The Grange Estate, Hampshire, seven guns shot 4,109. A decade later, at Houghton, Norfolk, the guns bagged 4,316 in four days.

Not all birds were driven in this golden era. For many Guns, prior to the Second World War, walking up partridges over stubbles was the mainstay of sport, which is why English game-guns traditionally have less choke in the right barrel, a configuration best suited to dealing with going-away birds.

The wild grey partridge has declined massively in modern times, falling by 82% between 1970 and 1998. There were more than a million pairs in the Fifties; in 2000 there were just 75,000. The decline was caused chiefly by the adoption of monoculture cereal farming, leading to a loss of insects on which the young chicks depend. The reductions in nesting habitat and increased predation have also affected them adversely.

Sportsmen lead the efforts to restore the bird’s fortunes. In 2007, first prize in the Purdey Awards for Game and Conservation was given to the Duke of Northumberland’s Ratcheugh Project, where the Duke, his keepers and Velcourt Farms, built up the population from five breeding pairs to 200 in four years. The Duke of Norfolk emulated Northumberland’s success in 2010, winning the Awards with his conservation project at the Peppering Shoot, West Sussex. In just seven years, spring partridge pair counts rose from three to 262, allowing a bag of 56 wild greys to be made in October 2010.

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Red Legged Partridge

Alectoris rufa

season: SEPT 1 - FEB 1

The red-legged partridge is native to the Iberian Peninsula, Italy, Corsica and France. Its origins probably explain why it’s also called the Frenchman, though its decriers claim it came from its preference for running, unlike the “brave little native” – the grey or English partridge – which more readily faces the Guns. Others maintain it was so christened because its red legs match the crimson trousers worn by French infantry prior to the First World War.

The redleg first arrived here in 1673, with introductions in Windsor and Richmond. These did not “take” but in 1790 the Marquess of Hertford imported thousands of eggs from France and the bird began to colonise.

As the grey partridge’s numbers have declined, the redleg now provides the majority of partridge shooting in the UK. They are mostly reared, though it breeds freely in the wild given the right habitat and predator control

Where topography allows, redlegs are often presented as high “mini pheasants”. These can be especially challenging when  there’s a wind and they curl. On flatter land, redlegs are shown like grey partridges, over hedges, and shooting them successfully requires a grouse-like approach. The gun should be carried at high port, ready to address the coveys the moment they appear. As soon as they reach a safe height, the birds should be taken as far in front as possible. This makes a very sporting shot but requires instant action and neighbouring Guns should not dither over “ownership” of birds.

Spain is renowned for the quality of its redleg partridge shooting and many sportsmen extend the home season with a visit in February. Blue skies and a generally high level of accommodation and service add to the attraction. Few Spanish shoots now offer genuinely wild partridge shooting and bags are often far bigger than in Britain. The use of double guns is common, with a “cargador” acting as loader and a “secretario” as a personal assistant, who counts the Gun’s tally on each drive. It’s common for the top scorer to be lauded at dinner but this can be an expensive honour: on many commercial shoots Guns are individually charged for every bird they kill.

other game

Woodcock

Scolopax rusticola

season: Oct 1- Jan 1, England, Wales and Northern Ireland, Sept 1 – Jan 31, Scotland

The woodcock provides the only trophy in British game shooting, the two pin feathers that lie along the shoulder of the wing. They are sported in hatbands and in former times painters of miniatures used them to apply fine detail.

The majority of British birds are winter migrants, many making the North Sea crossing on the first full moon in November. Occasionally, large numbers arrive in one spot and this is known as a “fall” of woodcock.

A right-and-left at woodcock is considered an extraordinary feat. Two birds are seldom seen together and their flight is erratic. There is much debate about what constitutes a true right-and-left. Some maintain the gun cannot be removed from the shoulder between shots, but this is erroneous: many dismount before firing the second barrel. The critical factor is whether the Gun knows two birds are in the air and therefore the prized “double” is on the cards.

On 20 November 1829, the renowned, one-eyed sculptor Sir Francis Chantrey shot two woodcock with one discharge of his muzzle-loader, the feat being commemorated with a marble tableau at Holkham, Norfolk. This created a spate of witticisms, not all of them kind: “Luckless our fate – a doubly luckless lot! A sportsman carved us whom an artist shot.”

Woodcock were the favourite quarry of George VI. Every ’cock was recorded in his Sandringham game diary in red ink. At the time, the birds were traditionally presented to the Guns with the lower leg removed. This enabled the sinews in the thighs to be carefully withdrawn before the bird reached the table. Woodcock are served undrawn, so that the cooked intestines – known as the “trail” – can be savoured.

The correct call, to alert fellow Guns, is not “Woodcock forward!” but “Mark woodcock!”

Some shoots, such as Lanarth in Cornwall, are keepered entirely for ’cock and pheasants are regarded as troublesome intruders. To minimise disturbance, these shoots tend to have few days, and bags can be impressive. On 21 December 1920, at Lanarth, seven Guns accounted for 106.

other game

Teal

Anas crecca

season: Sept 1 – Jan 31 inland, Sept 1 – Feb 20 below highwater mark

The teal is our smallest duck and a most difficult mark: a trip of teal coming into foreshore decoys provides an easy enough shot for the first barrel, but their reaction to the shot is remarkable. The “Springing Teal” stand, so common at clay shoots, is a tribute to their extraordinary ability to stand on their tails and rocket skywards.

Inland, it’s often shot on flightponds, announcing its presence with a repeated peep-peep. The next thing many Guns hear is a plop as the teal alights on the water.

In poor light, it’s often possible to hear wildfowl before seeing them. Experienced Shots use hearing protection that does not muffle ordinary sound.

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Common Snipe

Gallinago gallinago

season: AUG 12 - JAN 31

The Twelfth is not exclusive to the grouse; it also marks the commencement of the snipe shooting. This diminutive wader also breeds on the moors and its appearance over the butts inevitably creates a frisson.

Together with the woodcock, the snipe is classified as a wader but enjoys gamebird status due to its sporting and culinary qualities.

Owners of specialist driven snipe shoots generally consider the average Gun fires eight cartridges for every snipe bagged. The snipe zigs and it zags – and does one shoot on the first tack or the latter?

Its erratic aerobatics evolved to win the dogfight with its predators, the peregrine and merlin. Once they have shaken off real or perceived danger, such as a beater’s flag, the snipe settles into more level flight. Guns who take trouble to conceal themselves will find the birds fly over relatively straight.

Sometimes they will appear so high as to be little more than specks but this is deceptive. When directly overhead they are seldom truly out of range.

This does not hold with walked-up snipe and sensible Guns keep conversation down and dogs in check. A rising bird emits an alarm call similar to the sound of a gumboot being pulled from a bog and success comes to the Gun who does not hesitate. Take the shot immediately.

Mark fallen birds carefully. They are notoriously difficult for dogs to scent and their small size and excellent camouflage make them hard to pick. The best method is to walk towards the fallen bird without taking one’s eye off the mark. Snipe are counted singly on the gamecard but a keeper will give you a couple, not a brace.

Rights-and-lefts at snipe are rare for most Guns. They were, however, commonplace for Lord Elphinstone and JD Cobbold. In nine days in 1906, 25 October to 3 November, they accounted for 1,108 on Tiree in the Inner Hebrides. It was no fluke; two years later the pair had 1,292 in 11 days.

They are delicious, roasted whole and ungutted. The brains are an especial delicacy. Winston Churchill liked a couple for his breakfast, washed down with a bumper of port.

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Mallard

Anas platyrhynchos

season: Sept 1 – Jan 31 inland, Sept 1 – Feb 20 below highwater mark

The mallard was once called “the wild duck”, the term “mallard” being reserved for the drake.

It’s excellent on the table and all domestic ducks, excepting muscovies, are descended from the mallard. When plucking it, keep the feathers surrounding its preening gland. They are naturally oily and trap air, allowing fly-tiers to build a variety of deadly fishing flies such as the Cul de Canard Emerger.

Although tame on village ponds, the mallard is renowned for its wariness in the wild. To overcome this, wildfowlers use decoys and duck-calls. Calling duck has been developed into a minor art form in the USA, and the best compete at the annual World’s Championship Duck Calling Contest in Stuttgart, Arkansas.

In Britain, once every century, All Souls College, Oxford, holds a feast commemorating the giant mallard that flew out of the foundations of the college when it was being built in 1437. Its Fellows parade around the College singing the Mallard Song and led by a “Lord Mallard” who is carried in a chair, in search of the legendary fowl. The next Mallard ceremony will be in 2101.

In England and Wales all duck species must be shot with non-lead shot. The latter must also be used when shooting over wetlands in Scotland and Northern Ireland. Before using non-lead cartridges, it is essential to establish that the gun is suitable for such shot.

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