For a great number of years now pheasant-shooting has been very popular with sportsmen here and in other parts of Europe, and most novices think when seeing these birds get up, out of low scrub or in a root field, that they are extremely easy to kill. I can, however, after many years' experience of the game, and having assisted in some of the biggest " shoots," assure beginners that such is not the case. In fact no bird takes more killing, or is harder to shoot neatly, than a really high pheasant well on the wing.
To give some idea of the extent to which pheasants have increased during the last ninety or a hundred years : I remember reading in an old game-book kept at Riddlesworth Hall, in Norfolk —which in those days was owned by the famous racing man Mr. T. Thornhill, and, after Holk-ham, was rightly looked upon as one of the best sporting estates in the eastern counties—the following : "To-day we killed ninety-nine cock pheasants, a feat never before performed in Norfolk, and not likely to be done again." This was in the year 1814, and the danger and folly of trying to dip into the future, and predict what is likely to happen, has of course long since been proved in this part of England, where huge bags are of frequent occurrence. Within the last few years over two thousand pheasants have been shot in a day at Sandringham and other places in Norfolk, Suffolk, and elsewhere ; estates where notably large scores have been made, outside the eastern counties, being Croxteth Hall, Lord Sefton's Lancashire estate ; Bradgate, during the reign of the late Lord Stamford of racing fame ; and Highclere Castle, where the present Lord Carnarvon has had some immense bags, and where in 1902 a party of five guns, of which I was one, got 1302 pheasants in a day.
As to what breed of these birds—which there is little doubt were to be found in this island prior to the Conquest—fly best, there is much diversity of opinion: personally I believe in the old-fashioned breed now so little seen, being under the impression that they, through being lighter and also not so fat, flew much better than the present birds, which are almost invariably the ring-necked kind.
To every boy on a fresh October morning there is excitement and joy in walking round some hedgerows, and possibly going through a few small spinneys, on the chance of picking up, besides some bunnies (which, alas ! owing to the Hares and Rabbits Bill, are not so plentiful as they used to be in my boyhood, around the fields), a few outlying pheasants, birds that get up with a whirr and bustle, and—although of course an absurdly easy and uninteresting mark to the experienced gunner—afford the youthful sportsman the most intense joy. If by chance he should succeed in killing the bird, instead, as is most probable, of blowing away a few tail feathers—if he hit it at all —then his pride is immense, and most rightly so too. For believe me, my readers, a boy who is not dead keen about everything—be it work, sports, or games—will grow up into a prematurely old and discontented man. To get bored and blaze" is, alas ! only too easy for anybody; but if in our early shooting days we are not madly keen and ready to face any weather and any conditions, however unpleasant, for the sake of a bit of sport— be it ratting, rabbiting, or what not—long ere middle age the zest and healthy amusement derived from outdoor recreation of this kind will have flown, never to return.
A truce, though, to moralising : let us turn back to the great game. Having begun in this modest fashion, the youth will shortly be probably asked to a few very small covert shoots by relations or friends, and then will get some insight as to the flight of the "longtail" when really well on the wing, and will learn how hard it is to shoot him properly; but of course, as a beginner, the youngster's chances at these early shoots will be much more confined to ground game and the few pheasants that fly back over the beaters' heads. These, mind you, frequently afford far better and more sporting shots than the forward going birds, and certainly, if the wood is at all a thick one, are most excellent practice for anybody to bring down neatly through the trees. Having had a certain amount of this sort of shooting, the young man, as he has now become, is probably invited to a few larger parties, and this means being frequently sent forward and getting good " stands." This is the time when every shooter, no matter how nicely he may be able to knock over a few birds going back, or getting out of roots or what not, realises how terribly flurrying and upsetting is anything like a big rise of pheasants. For they come at you crossing each other and distracting your eye, so that, ere you have decided which bird to fire at, the entire bunch are past and gone, and by the time a wild shot is eventually discharged the chance of killing anything has become highly improbable. The thing to do, the moment birds begin to come, is to fix your mind upon one, and try to kill it with your first barrel. If you fail, give the same bird your second barrel, and never try to bag another bird with your second shot, unless quite sure you have killed the one originally aimed at. To all who have not had much experience, and to many others who all their lives remain nervous bad shots, when a big flush of pheasants occurs, I am certain this is the most sound advice, although of course, as I know only too well, hard to follow in the bustle and excitement which a warm corner always naturally produces.
Having by now got to the stage of being asked about to "shoots" of more or less importance, for the sportsman to improve and become a first-class shot, it is only a question of practice and, of course, natural aptitude, with a true eye—for no amount of shooting would ever make some men even reasonably good marksmen.
It is really remarkable how some of the finest shots in the land—and I know most of them and have shot with them—have their off days, when no bird, however easy, seems within their power to kill. The general reason for this is a stomach out of order, which prevents the hand and eye from working in unison ; but other things may put one off, nothing more so, in fact, than a coat or waistcoat which causes the least drag on the arms, and thereby prevents a free swing : without this ease, and unless he knows by practice how far to let the gun go one way or the other, a man will for ever rank amongst the duffers. No coats I have ever tried are more easy and better cut for the game than those made by Rice Brothers of New Bond Street. Besides the coat, it is of course essential that your gun fits you properly, as although, to be sure, there is a lot of rubbish talked about guns, there can be no question that a weapon either too short or too long in the stock will baulk and put off anybody.
Of course there have been many books written upon shooting by men who tell you that to kill a bird you must aim so and so, a yard or what not in front of it, according to its flight, whether a wind is behind it, what is the distance ; and who are ready with all sorts of other advice, which really, when it comes to the test in the field, is absolutely impossible. I should like to see the man who, when pheasants were coming fast, could say, " Well, I shot a yard and a half ahead of that bird, and two feet in front of the other." The whole thing is rubbish, like trying to define putting on side at billiards, this being simply a matter of " touch ";1 whilst fine shooting and killing the birds well—I mean by that always hitting them in the neck or head, and so ensuring a death virtually instantaneous, instead of fluffing and knocking the poor things about in a manner that causes them to fly and flutter on in pain—must always be a question of swing, and letting your gun follow a bird, which only can be acquired by practice and, as I said before, natural aptitude. Of course many men, especially those who have taken to shooting long after their youth has passed, are greatly helped by going to some of the shooting parks now established round London, where the instructor, standing behind, sees and tells the sportsman who is firing just what he does wrong, whether aiming at a live bird, rabbit, or clay pigeon. This is all very well and no doubt does good, but nothing will ever make a man soar above anything except extremely moderate shooting, unless he frequently assists at shoots in the country.
1 In the course of stern struggles at billiards and pyramids with Mr. Portman in the past, I confess I have wished once or twice that his touch was not quite so good.—Ed.