A cold easterly wind whips across the yard as guns, beaters, and dogs gather in a muddle of handshakes, shouted hellos and wagging tails. The pheasant shooting season is getting started for another year at Mike Hockin's Brownstone Shoot in South Devon and the anticipation is palpable. Mr Hockin, businessman and countryman in just about equal measure, and his gamekeeper Neil Rogers have been preparing for this moment for months. Pheasant poults have been bought and reared on, rides cut through undergrowth; repairs made where needed and beaters, pickers up and guns (who do the actual shooting) contacted and given their times, dates and places.
All are on time and ready as Mr Hockin calls the assembled to order and, with gamekeeper Neil at his side, gives the all-important safety talk and outlines plans for the day. It is a scene that will be repeated through November, December and January here and at similar syndicate and commercial shoots all across the Westcountry. From October 1 to February 1 the pheasant is the prime quarry on game shoots in our region, from the grandest, charging many thousands of pounds for large days in which hundreds of birds are shot, to the most modest farm shoot, where a few friends walk up the hedges and put a couple of birds in the pot, if they are lucky.
Brownstone is special for the many who have shot there over the years. Bags average between 100 and 150 birds on the ten days a year it is shot. The birds are challenging – on some drives matching the best to be found anywhere in Devon. The company is, invariably stimulating and the hospitality – taken in Mr Hockin's very own "pub" the Dog and Duck in a converted outbuilding in the grounds of his home – always excellent. Regular guns who are part of the paying syndicate are augmented by many guests, along with individuals who buy days.
First days are always anxious occasions for shoot hosts and gamekeepers. Will the birds fly? Will the guns shoot straight? Will the beaters keep the line, the picking-up dogs do their stuff, the rain hold off and the lunch go well? Mr Hockin, who has built up Brownstone over the past 20 years and keeper Neil, who knows the ground and his birds better than anyone, look relaxed but will clearly be relieved once the first drive is underway.
Guns depart in the vehicles to their pegs at Alston Heights, one of the best, most challenging drives on the shoot. Beaters, many with eager spaniels, head off in the other direction to sweep through the cover and push the birds out over the guns. Behind the guns the pickers up, most of them with labradors, take up positions ready to find and retrieve the shot birds. Brownstone prides itself on collecting up every shot pheasant for the table. Wounded birds are tracked by dogs, returned and dispatched. At the end of the day those birds that are not taken home by the guns and the beaters go to the Glassblowing House restaurant on Plymouth's Barbican where pheasant is a regular dish on the menu.
Alston Heights proves its quality as the pheasants come high and fast off the top of the hill. At the end of the drive the guns swap stories, the last of the shot pheasants are retrieved by hard-swimming labradors from the two small lakes next to the wood and keeper Neil, helped by his daughter Elleisha, 13, slowly fill the game cart, stringing up each brace of birds to cool before returning them to the game larder back at the yard.
The next drive, Lake Drive, is one of the most beautiful on any shoot in the area. Guns are placed around the lakes in front of Brownstone Manor, including one standing on an island in the lake. The wind is, if anything, keener than ever and the birds even more challenging. More escape than end up in the bag but there is still some good shooting and the number of pheasants destined for the diners of Plymouth and the South Hams creeps up.
After a welcome break for soup and sausage rolls, taken outside in the yard, it is on to Bungalow Drive, so called because it takes place around the bungalow that stands in the grounds of Brownstone Manor. Businessman James Hockin, Michael's son, shoots a fine, high bird overhead that falls behind, to the crash of glass. A picker-up emerges a few minutes later with the dead cock pheasant, that had fallen clean through the roof of Mr Hockin's greenhouse. Later James is seen, with tape in hand, measuring up for the panes of glass he will have to replace for his father.
Lunch is always a big part of any shoot day. There is nothing like a cold easterly wind and exercise to sharpen the appetite. At Brownstone it's upstairs at the Dock and Duck for both guns and beaters. Lunch has been served for a number of years here by Sandra Vallance, a farmer's wife from Kilworthy Farm, Tavistock, who runs Kilworthy Catering with a small army of helpers. Steak pie, followed by bread and butter pudding or treacle pudding with cream and custard fortifies the inner man – and woman – for the single drive of the afternoon, Nissen Hut.
With wind swirling around there is some doubt about where precisely the birds will fly but with ten guns out, Mr Hockin covers all the options and the bag clicks ever higher. This is the last drive of the day and then it is back to the Dock and Duck once more for tea and a warm by the woodstove. The bag is counted in by Neil – 96 pheasants, one pigeon and one jay.
The guns are, for the most part, local, and regulars at Brownstone, either as members of the syndicate, guests or individuals who like to buy one or two days at this friendly venue known for its sporting quarry.
On some shoots, it is all about the guns; but at Brownstone keeper Neil and his team of beaters, along with the pickers-up and the dogs are properly acknowledged for the vital roles they play in the success of the day.
Shooting sports involving live quarry are controversial, no one can deny that. But it is possible to see, in a well-run driven pheasant shoot, something of the way humankind's hunting traditions, that stretch right back to pre-history, have evolved. It is about teamwork; it is about gathering food and it is about taking pleasure in a joint enterprise and endeavouring to learn a skill – whether shooting, working gundogs or managing the entire enterprise – and practice it well.
Rosemary Bishop and her beautifully trained black labrador Jasper demonstrate those qualities well. They have a job to do – standing behind the guns and finding and collecting the shot birds – and they apply themselves, mistress and dog, with great diligence. It is, of course, possible to disagree with the rearing, releasing, shooting and eating of pheasants. It is not fair, however, to suggest that those who engage in this sport have no feelings for their quarry, no interest in the countryside, and no conscience.
At Brownstone, as at hundreds of other similar shoots up and down the Westcountry, good management of the countryside, humane treatment of quarry and a commitment to make proper use of every bird shot, are priorities. So, of course, is having an enjoyable day.
As the teacups are drained, the guns pack their kit into their cars and tired dogs are loaded into Land Rovers and pick-ups, Mr Hockin can sink back into the sofa beside the woodstove and reflect. "Not a bad first day," is his verdict. "Not a bad first day at all."