There is a special romance about wildfowl not shared by game and other quarry,
largely because of the picturesque and often dramatic scenery of their coastal habitat.
The Atlantic breakers which pound the western seaboard of the British Isles have
created steep and rocky coastlines, with sheltered bays, while in the east the much
gentler tides and currents of the North Sea have swirled around over millions of
years, leaving great silt deposits and extensive saltmarshes and mudflats. Together
they have created the magical haunts beloved by naturalists, wildfowlers, writers and
artists such as Richard Robjent, as well as innumerable havens for wildfowl.
Few shooting men would opt for a good day's pheasant shooting in December in preference to the chance to shoot grouse in September or wild partridges in October. The fact remains, however, that not many of us get that chance these days and we must rely, for the bulk of our shooting, on that most reliable and adaptable of gamebirds, the pheasant, which can be the most testing of them all.
It is, of course, these very qualities that make the pheasant so suitable for large-scale rearing. There is nothing wrong in that practice as long as it does not tempt the shoot owner to strive for large 'bags' at the expense of quality.
Clouds of low overweight pheasants are no challenge compared to the high cock curling in the wind. Fortunately the days of huge bags of indifferently shown pheasants are mostly gone and the emphasis on reared-bird shoots is towards quality of presentation and more 'wildness'.
In this field, the Game Conservancy is doing some excellent work on improvement of habitat and in producing a more natural and 'wild' way of life for our reared pheasants. There is one other quality I would like to see developed in our reared birds by both gamefarmers and shoot owners and that is 'lightness'.
Many of the birds produced by gamefarms are far too heavy and are therefore poor flyers. Many years ago I went shooting in the marshes on the southern shores of the Black Sea with a party of a few British officers and a number of nomadic tribesmen (and their dogs), many armed with black-powder-firing muzzle-loaders of uncertain age and sporadic performance.
This made the expedition doubly exciting! Our quarry were duck and native marsh pheasants for, as we all know, the pheasant originated in the marshes of Asia and China. Those pheasants were a revelation.
They were incredibly wily and extremely agile, getting up like snipe, invariably when one was behind a bush. But it was in the hand that they were particularly revealing because of their lightness. Recently I have been doing some experiments on my own shoot by crossing wild Norfolk fen cock pheasants with gamefarm-bred hens.
The offspring are certainly lighter than normal farm-bred birds and although the improvement in flying qualities is not spectacular, I believe the experiment is bearing fruit. In the years ahead shooting may well come under increasing political and ideological pressure.
It is up to all of us to ensure that our sport is conducted in the most humane and sportsmanlike manner possible.
In 1928 Douglas Dewar published his great work on 'Gamebirds'. In it he writes "The British partridge is living in difficult times and many sportsmen are of the opinion that it needs assistance if it is to retain a foothold in the country."
This was, admittedly, written following what must have been one of the most disastrous hatching seasons ever recorded. I just wonder what Dewar would have said about the situation of the partridge today.
The ruin of the 1927 hatching season was due to unusually continuous rain and cold weather in June. In our day the weather is still a hazard from time to time but the partridge has to contend with a host of other problems every year. Chemical farming has introduced, among other compounds, powerful and efficient insecticides and herbicides.
Since partridges depend on insects and the seeds of wild flowers and weeds, their main source of food has simply been killed off. Then they have to contend with high speed grass-cutting which can chop up nests, eggs and the sitting birds.
As if that was not enough these ground-nesters are prey to every furred and feathered predator. Foxes, rats, hedgehogs, stoats, weasels and domestic cats give them a particularly hard time while they are incubating. In addition the feathered predators descend on them from the air.
Sparrow-hawks harass them all the year round, harriers take them when they are in residence, while crows, magpies and jays attempt to steal their eggs whenever they leave the nest. Partridges are loyal to their mates and once they have paired, if one is killed, the survivor will not take another mate that year.
Is it any wonder then that their numbers have declined drastically over the last 50 years? In some areas of un-keepered country they have disappeared altogether. Unlike the pheasant and the red-legged partridges, perdix perdix is a native of these islands and used to be as much a part of the countryside as the sparrow and the oak tree.
As I drive round the Sandringham estate in early February I expect to see a pair of these chubby little birds in the corner of a field or whirring over a hedgerow with that familiar rattle of wings and squeaky chirping call.
If I don't I feel I have missed an old friend. However, help is at hand. The Game Conservancy Trust has done some invaluable research under Dr Dick Potts and if more farmers and landowners could bring themselves to listen to his advice and to put it into practice there is a good chance that the partridge can once again become a familiar sight from the arable fields of East Anglia to the glens of Scotland.
are important and attractive birds for sportsmen, naturalists and artists
alike. Many keen game shooters are also capable naturalists, and some
of Britain's most celebrated wildlife artists such as Archibald Thorburn,
George Lodge and J.C. Harrison have been able to combine all three skills.
The Edwardian sporting artist J.G. Millais was such a dedicated student
of grouse that his name is permanently linked with the Latin name of
the British millaisii race of the ptarmigan.
four species of grouse found in Britain are commonest in the north and
west of the country, occupying unique habitats amid some of our wildest
and loveliest scenery. Ptarmigan are the grouse of the high tops of
the Highlands, while capercaillie and black grouse occupy the forests
and the moorland fringes. The red grouse is perhaps the most exciting
sporting bird of all, and is the key species on Britain's precious heather
moorlands. I count it a privilege to own land where grouse are found,
and where I can play an active part in their conservation and management.
Many grouse habitats are today threatened by pressures including overgrazing, unwise afforestation, human disturbance and inadequate management. Environmentalists, sportsmen and landowners are increasingly united in believing that enlightened management for sport holds the key to the conservation of grouse, the landscapes where they are found, and the other forms of wildlife which share them. Prominent in the scientific research on grouse and the development of practical management techniques is The Game Conservancy Trust, of which I am President.
It gives me much pleasure to introduce these studies of grouse in words and pictures by Colin Laurie McKelvie and Richard Robjent.
His Grace The Duke of Westminster, DL
During many years of active involvement in the life and field sports of the British countryside I have found my interest especially drawn to a few particular species. One aspect of this is reflected in my choice of two woodcock as Supporters in my Coat of Arms when I was ennobled in 1964 and I have enjoyed the monograph on this mysterious bird, The Woodcock, a Study in Words and Pictures.
Now Colin Laurie McKelvie and Richard Robjent have produced a companion volume on the woodcock's smaller cousins, the snipe family. These are the smallest of all our British sporting species but their delightful qualities in the shooting field, at nesting time and at the dinner table, are out of all proportion to their diminutive size.
Snipe are also important breeding birds on the heather moorlands of upland Britain and Ireland and among the western isles of Scotland. In spring and early summer their drumming or bleating display flights are commonly heard, especially at dusk and dawn, but sadly Common snipe numbers are threatened by drainage, afforestation and pollution and many other countries of western Europe have already suffered serious losses of snipe.
In this book the author and artist have also considered the Jack Snipe, a silent and secretive little winter visitor to the British Isles and also the Great snipe, a rarely encountered migrant. Snipe are delightful birds and richly deserve a book-length study in words and fine pictures.
My first serious introduction to woodcock came when I was considered by my predecessor at Holkham to be old and safe enough to be invited to the famous "Tail Enders" days at the end of January.
These shoots were so called because the four days shooting were at the tail end of the season and it was also an acknowledgement that cock pheasants were the principal quarry. However, it is significant that the sweepstake at the beginning of each day was on woodcock.
I remember after one drive, Aylmer Tryon asked me how many cocks I had shot. He slaped me enthusiastically on the back when I told him three, until a thought struck him: "You do mean woodcock, don't you?" I had referred to pheasants! The "Tail Enders" at Holkham are always much the most exciting shooting days.
We not infrequently end up with more woodcock than cock pheasants and from the continual yells of excitement one could well be in a kindergarten and not in the company of otherwise mature and dignified men. What is it that so excites us about the woodcock? Is it their swift, darting, silent flight? Or the fact that we cannot put them down like pheasants? Or is it simply because we know so little about them? We admire their pluck in flying over the vast North sea on a pitch black night in a north-easterly November gale.
I have counted them in dozens after such a gale, resting by gates and fence posts and able only to flop to the ground on man's approach. Colin Laurie McKelvie's text and Richard Robjent's delightful illustrations will, I am sure, enlighten us about the woodcock and its life through the year. I doubt if that enlightenment will dispel the magic and mystery we all associate with the woodcock.