Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Our First Shoot Season

We're nearly through our first shooting season in Hereford. I don't think either of us were truly prepared for how tough the first year would be. It's been made easier by good employers, and a great staff of beaters and pickers up. However, when you're trying to move, farm, and pull off shoot days on unfamiliar ground, you look forward to years in the future when you can rely on well-worn routines and experience to take some of the work out of it.

Our first shoot day didn't go to plan. It was edging on disastrous. A gate from Mr. Winney's sheep field was left open and the sheep decided to head off into the woods where the pheasants were settled. A flock of wandering sheep has very un-settling effect on pheasants, and birds came out of the woods in great flushes, cocking and shouting their surprise, before the guns were on their pegs ready to shoot.

Not to be left out, Heston the bull decided he no longer wanted to be in his bull pen without the company of some lovely heifers he could smell on the other side of the woods. He simply pushed his fence over and went for a wander.

Bulls have a very unsettling effect on beaters, especially when the beaters find themselves standing between the bull and his Good Time. Normally beaters stay in a straight line, no gaps, and slowly take the line forward to move pheasants quietly over guns. When Heston hove into view, the line quickly parted to let him through. No one wanted to be in the way of this guy -

Not an auspicious start to our first day but, in the end, we put enough birds over ready guns and got the bag. "The bag" simply means if you set out to harvest 100 birds, then 100 birds are hung up in the chiller at the end of the shoot day, OR you fired enough shots that, had you hit the birds, there would be 100 birds hung in the chiller at the end of the shoot day.

So far we've successfully made the bag every shoot day. It's not been easy, at least early in the season. Yes, there are more birds at the beginning of the season, but a warm autumn and lots of natural food allowed the birds to wander. A cold autumn helps the birds feather up quickly and fly stronger, and lack of natural food means that birds hang around feed bins provided by us. In the drive. Where we want the birds on shoot days.

It seems only weeks ago I was helping small chicks out of their shells and tying to keep downy chick fluff out of my coffee cup. Now I find myself butchering full-grown pheasants, and picking finger-sized, copper-coloured feathers out of my coffee cup. These pheasants get roasted and put in a stew to feed the workers on a shoot day who, in turn, bash through brambles and around fallen trees to push pheasants over waiting guns. We then retrieve the shot birds, which go back into the food chain. And so it goes.

Not much is lost or wasted. When I'm preparing the pheasants for the pot, I even save the contents of their crops - a pocket in the oesophagus where the bird stores grain it has eaten -

I'm holding the crop - it's full of grain!

I tip out all the undigested wheat and maize for the hens in the garden to eat.

The pheasant carcases, picked clean of meat and grain, are put in a hole along with all the plucked feathers to compost down and feed the soil. In summer, spent eggshells from the hatches are put here too.

Something we haven't harvested yet is turkeys. All our turkeys had a reprieve in November as I flew to visit family in North Carolina for Thanksgiving, and ate one of their unpardoned turkeys. Then, just before Christmas, our turkeys came down with a mysterious turkey sickness and had to have antibiotics. Antibiotics that had a 28-day withdrawal period before the turkeys could be eaten. When I call to them in the morning, their gobbles sound like laughter. I'm their gullible caretaker

The 15 young turkeys have grown well, and soon outgrew the old dog kennel I was using as their overnight accommodation. They graduated to sleeping in a plastic coal bin, turned on its side and filled with straw -

Now they have outgrown everything, bar maybe the horse trailer.

They prefer to sleep out in the open. For their own protection they're fenced in with wire panels and electric fencing, I stacked some straw bales, stuck perching bars between the bales, and ratchet-strapped a plywood roof on top so they have a weatherproof shelter if they so require. The five bantam hens that share their run still choose to sleep in the coal bunker. As long as everyone is comfortable.

Enrique and his two hens are still sleeping in the end dog kennel, but Enrique visits me first thing in the morning when I'm eating my breakfast -

That's him peeking around the door, looking for treats. I have toast, and he has a handful of mealworms. Tina, my oldest hen turkey, still follows me on my morning rounds to share in everyone's breakfast.

We had to get a new cockerel to replace our old infertile cockerel (he's living in the woods in a pheasant pen, fully retired). Our new cockerel is a young Light Sussex. He was "free to a good home" from a local small farm. He's called Brian Cox.

Tina and Brian took an instant dislike to each other and had to be separated by a fence until they could learn to get on. It took time, and much posturing at each other through the fence -

I don't know if there was any poultry "trash talk" but there was a lot of noise to start. They're fine together now. Who knows what goes on in their little pea-sized brains?

There is still another month of the pheasant shooting season, but I think we can say that we've weathered the first year. The bosses and our team of guns are happy, and all next year's shoot days are sold, with a waiting list if any more become available. So I will soon be picking chick fluff out of my coffee cup again, but not before lambing, which starts 25th March. I will tell you all about the sheep next time.


Elsfield Chickens said...

lovely post!
its interesting hearing about all the things you have to go through to have a shoot.

Sara Rall said...

I so enjoy hearing about your life. And the picture with the turkey peeking in the door is awesome.

Elizabeth in Philly said...

Glad to hear you're making it through a whole new labyrinth with only minor collateral damage. Congratulations, and Happy New Year! Hope 2015 is good to you!

El said...

I spy...a Louet! I always wondered, with your being a shepherd, if you used more than just their flesh. Apparently you do (seeing your big bag of roving). Looks like a lovely place to spin.

me said...

Great turkey picture, and why is the chicken named Brian Cox!!!

Jennifer Montero said...

El - Good ID! You must be a spinner too. I've only ever used that wheel so I don't know what else is out there, but it does a great job. The roving is one of my sheep fleeces - Ewe 0007 in fact - which I sent to a mill in Yorkshire to be cleaned and carded, so I could just enjoy the spinning process for a change. Two-plyed, it's making between aran and chunky weight yarn.

Jennifer Montero said...

Me - He's named after the British physicist Brian Cox. So he's really Brian Cocks. It's a terrible pun and I'm deeply ashamed, but who can resist the rare opportunity when poultry and science intersect?!

Kris said...

So glad to see you're posting again, Jenn. It's been too long, but I imagine you've been terribly busy settling in. I almost envy you your mild winters and the Gulf Stream. Here it's -4F this morning and very high winds with chills of -25F Brrrr. Glad the shoot ended up well, even with all the 4-footed party crashers. Looking forward to more news when you can. Take care. Happy New Year. Kris

Anonymous said...

Lovely post - lots of interesting rural life happenings. Love your allusion to of Brian Cox (aka "the thinking woman's crumpet"). Can we please have some details of your spinning adventures ta some time please? It's through spinning that I first found you. I keep coming back because I too live rurally, keep poultry, and have a guns (and the licence to go with them) but I knew nothing about pheasant shoots or gun dogs and I find all of that very interesting and am learning so much. Thank you Jennifer for a wonderful blog.

Fran in Aus.

Janice Bendixen said...

I thought you were busy but had no idea how much so! Congratulations on the first year. My sister spins quviut (Muskox hair) in Nome, AK. I don't know what her wheel is called but the final results are gorgeous. We have geese and chickens near and Stewpot greets me each morning. We have an afternoon rooster who calls, oh, in the afternoon who I've named Cogburn. I think they feed him whiskey. Missed you.