For the shooting man or woman, the pheasant season is officially under way from today. Philip Bowern reports.
Compared to the "Glorious Twelfth" – which is the start of the grouse season and is invariably marked by a great deal of shooting on the moors of northern England and Scotland – October 1, when the pheasant becomes legal quarry again, is a far less fevered affair.
Despite the fact that the pheasant is, by some measure, the most significant game bird in the Westcountry, many shoots in our region will not be holding their first day until later this month when most of the leaves are off the trees and we've had a frost or two.
But that does not give today any less significance for country sportsmen and woman across the region. While some people might measure the turning of the year by the start of a new series of X Factor or the appearance of the Christmas food and drink in the supermarkets, for those brought up in and around the coverts and spinneys of pheasant shooting country, October 1 means autumn is here.
The pheasants seem to know it too. Derided by some as a stupid bird, wily old cocks that have survived several seasons seem to have an in-built calendar that tells them strutting around on the stubbles in the late September sun is fine but come October it is time to get tucked up in the woods. Or it could be that, like so many creatures, the pheasant is attuned to the change in the season and seeks out some warmth and shelter from the wind as the nights draw in and the year inches towards winter.
For the game-shooter, early October is the time for checking kit and, if he hasn't done so already, replenishing the store of cartridges, giving the gun – which should have had a summer service – the once over and maybe getting in some last minute practice at the clay-shooting ground.
Most syndicate shoots, which make up the majority of game shooting in the Westcountry, will have held working parties through late summer and early autumn, cutting rides through the cover, mending bridges across the streams and giving the lunch hut or lodge a thorough clean.
For those who pay for their shooting by the day, bookings will have been made and deposits paid; for those who watch the post – or their email inbox – for invitations to shoot, dates will, hopefully, be in the diary.
And then it arrives – the first day in the field. Springer spaniels and Labradors – after a summer of too much food and too little exercise – bristle with anticipation as they pour out of Land Rovers and pick-up trucks. Shooting friends, seen only fleetingly in the months since February 1, greet each other again. New cartridge belts, re-proofed wax jackets and new caps are tried on for size. Instructions are given, the safety talk is delivered, the season has begun.
And as the guns take their places and the beaters move off, the first bird breaks cover. There is a flurry of wingbeats, followed quickly by that unmistakable alarm call. It is the signal that the shooting season proper has started.
For food lovers everywhere it also marks the beginning of the most productive and satisfying period in the culinary calendar, when the very best food the English countryside has to offer is available for the table once more.
Since the review of the game laws, birds like pheasant, partridge and duck can be sold legally at any time of year providing they were shot and then frozen in the correct season.
But for real lovers of game there is nothing to beat a freshly-shot bird, in feather, to be hung for as long as cook and diner see fit, then prepared for the table in one of a dizzying number of ways.
For some the prospect of that preparation can be daunting. Someone who works on a shoot or goes shooting might well imagine he is doing friends and neighbours a favour with a regular supply of birds through autumn and winter.
But, sadly, many recipients of this traditional country gift see it as less of a pleasure and more of a pain. To the generation brought up on oven-ready birds, without head, feathers, innards and feet and sitting on a polystyrene tray under a plastic shroud, the sight of a brace of pheasants in full plumage can be alarming.
And the apparently mysterious alchemy required to turn them into birds for roasting, or perhaps a nice casserole, is baffling to many. That, however, is no reason to shun some of the finest eating experiences in the land.
For those who can't cook or won't cook, Westcountry pubs and restaurants are among the best places in Britain to enjoy game birds. Some establishments do better than others with their game, but it really is hard to go wrong with such superb raw materials.
For those who want to cook, but cannot be bothered with all the plucking and drawing, butchers and even supermarkets now sell oven-ready pheasants, partridge and even wild duck. Preparation for the table can be as simple or complicated as time and skill allow, but at this time of year, when most birds will be young and tender, fast roasting is the best bet.
The most satisfaction, however, is to be had from taking the bird in its natural state and treating it with the respect it deserves, turning a recently-killed creature into delicious, nutritious food, as the hunter has done for centuries.
If you are a meat-eater, there is absolutely no reason to feel squeamish or morally doubtful about eating game birds. The fact that most are primarily reared for shooting does not reduce their value as food. If someone gets pleasure from shooting them and that same person, or someone else, enjoys eating them, that is surely a matter for celebration, not condemnation.
Reared pheasants and partridges may start life like chickens, bred in cages, but are soon released into the wild, via release pens, where they grow into adulthood. They are fed, but augment the grain they get from the gamekeeper with wild seeds, berries and shoots and live a largely unfettered life with lots of exercise, which makes their meat low in fat and very healthy.
A fair proportion of the birds we eat may also be genuinely wild, escapees and survivors from previous shooting seasons, or their offspring.
On shooting days the birds will be driven by beaters with dogs from heavy cover to fly over the guns. Others may be "walked up" and shot as they fly away from the guns.
There is – rightly – growing pressure on those who shoot to make sure that their quarry is dispatched humanely and treated with respect. That means cleanly killed outright or, if wounded, quickly retrieved and dispatched with the minimum of fuss. It is no accident that pheasants go particularly well with many of the other foods which are now in season. Pheasants cooked with apples and cider, for example, is an autumn marriage of great subtlety and finesse, while game and wild mushrooms also takes some beating.
Eating good food is an experience that goes well beyond the dining room. It starts, for those who like to cook, with obtaining the first ingredient, and lasts for as long as the memory of the tastes and scents of the meal linger in the mind.
Enjoying game – for those lucky enough to be able to shoot it as well as eat it – starts even further back in the process, with the sharp scents of autumn at the beginning of a day in the field. It moves on to the tension and excitement of the shooting and ends – hopefully – with the finest culinary ingredient to be found anywhere.
Seasonal and local are the two buzzwords in food at the moment. Game ticks both boxes, is healthy and delicious and, at least so far as the pheasant is concerned, the season starts today. It is also now widely available and extremely affordable.
Just remember to watch out for the lead shot.