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.