I write novels and non-fiction about minority communities under pressure. My modus operandi is to find them, study their culture, and make fun of them, because comedy is the most effective way of dealing with tragedy. I have written about a rural Jamaican community under threat from mass tourism, and about patients with disfiguring skin disorders. But when I came across pheasants, I realised I had discovered the ultimate victims. I was actually shooting them the day it dawned on me, which was an excellent start.
This very week, all over Britain, many of the 40 million pheasants raised for (what is termed) sport will learn just what is entailed. Strange that a gamekeeper will have kept a watchful eye on them, shooting predators such as foxes and stoats, and keeping them safe until it’s time to kill them.
Over many years of being bred for sport in Britain, the farmed pheasant has been refined to something with the aerodynamic properties of a flying teapot, and a noisy one at that, with clattering wings and a panic call that sounds like a pre-war car klaxon, to help the doziest sportsman spot them. There has been a kind of reverse natural selection going on: the ones that are easy to kill are the most valued and bred.
It can cost up to £8,000 for eight ‘guns’ to shoot for a day, and some estates have made pheasants their primary source of income. Over about eight drives, anything between 100 and 400 pheasants will be shot.
At the top end of the market, the day (for the humans) can be delightful, with lots of challenging shooting interspersed with bullshot cocktails, homemade pork pies and a sumptuous lunch. But the consequence of the popularity of shooting pheasants has been to turn what was once a quaint, ancient country sport into a fully blown mechanised industry.
Killing more than we can eat
Nowadays, many, many more pheasants are killed than are eaten by the hunters, or indeed by anyone, as the demand for meat cannot keep up with the supply of shot pheasants. Why we aren’t all roasting pheasant on Sundays is a mystery. The pet food companies won’t take dead birds as it costs too much to pluck the carcasses, and it is an open secret that many end up buried.
Many, many more pheasants are killed than are eaten, as the demand for meat cannot keep up with the supply of shot pheasants. Why we aren’t all roasting pheasant on Sundays is a mystery
This all sounds pretty depressing. But the fact is, a day’s shooting is usually very exciting, and the men and women who shoot pheasants, including me, are not sadistic brutes (I hope). I personally find it thrilling to see a bird emerge from the top of the woods and, after gauging its speed and direction of flight, aim my gun in the right place to dispatch it cleanly. It certainly takes skill when done well.
Interviewing sportsmen during research for my book Bird Brain (Jonathan Cape, £14.99), and thinking about my own responses, I detected a deeply ingrained urge to kill animals, which I had to put down to an ancient need to hunt for food. After all, it is not art, literature and architecture that our civilization is built on, but the ability to bring back food to the cave. Until someone had accomplished that, there was no opportunity for the finer things of life.
Now, in a world where food production has been mechanised and largely concealed, this ancient impulse seems desperately out of place, and even wrong. But who knows? One day in an apocalyptic future it may be back in demand, and respected again.
The skill was embedded into our DNA and made enjoyable to practice, the way that procreation, also so important for the survival of humans had to be fun, to make us effective reproducers. Sex and hunting are entwined in the marrow of our bones. And it is proving as easy to ban killing animals that are not eaten as it would be to ban sex that isn’t reproductive. Recreational sex and recreational hunting seem here to stay
Once the pheasants have got over the shock of being shot at, they may pause to reflect on why it is that many of the animals around them – the birds of prey, badgers and, most bizarrely of all, foxes – live under the protection of human law, while they are uniquely raised to be killed for sport. On what basis are the pheasants singled out for such harsh treatment? I believe it is at least partially down to ancient British prejudices against foreigners.
Pheasants are, after all, conspicuous immigrants, originally brought here by bird collectors and sportsmen from Asia. And being incomers, they attract the ignorant racist taunts that bigots hurl at all their kind: they are congenitally stupid, they can’t raise children, and of course, they don’t belong here.
Indeed, the pheasant is one of the last legally persecuted minorities in Britain, and like other oppressed communities, it is excluded from mainstream British culture. Pheasants are absent from literature, art and films. I couldn’t find a single one in any Disney (or other) cartoon. And despite pheasants being such attractive and distinctive birds, they are also missing from advertising.
There are many brands with birds’ names – swan, kestrel, condor, Grey Goose – but, as far as I could discover, nothing endorsed by a pheasant. The Grouse, on the whisky label, gets to be Famous, but of course he is an indigenous Scot, an ancient Celt, and not to be mocked and then excluded like the foreigner.
In 1730, Jonathan Swift, in The Pheasant and the Lark, painted a charming anthropomorphic portrait of a cock pheasant, which included pointing out how clever the handsome fellow was: “No science was to him unknown/For all the arts were all his own.” And as far as I can see, that was the last time for more than 200 years that the bird was mentioned, except in passing, in English literature, adults’ or children’s.
Nowadays the pheasant is a byword for stupidity. What happened? The answer is Roald Dahl, and specifically his million-selling children’s book, Danny, Champion of the World. The main characteristics of the pheasant in Danny are its idiocy and utter dispensability.
Dahl illustrates these with his notion that you can catch and easily kill a pheasant with a raisin in a small paper bag. With its head in the bag, the pheasant is rendered blind when it tries to eat the food. Danny and his dad aimed to kill 200 in one night in the book.
Just to be sure, I tried it. It doesn’t work. My experiment was not very comprehensive, but it did establish that the pheasant at the end of my garden is quite clever enough to tear the bag to get to the raisins. Still, this little lie has hardly helped the pheasant’s cause.
I decided in Bird Brain to write a new myth about pheasants, for our own era of uncertainties, which dignified the pheasant but didn’t make the simple and easy choice of coming down on the anti-hunting side of the argument. To show how conflicted we are about shooting, I made my narrator a pheasant, but a pro-shooting one. I hope that it might in some small way, while accepting the thrill of the chase, rein in the full industrialisation of the pheasant holocaust.
Sporting types Shooting: who’s a pheasant plucker?
Further reading Cooking game: first shoot your grouse