Must Read & Experience
Hunting the Noblest of Quarry
Words: Sandra Finnie Images: Sandra Finnie & Supplied
Writer Sandie Finnie from Geraldine has become a regular “pheasant beater” for the organised shoots held at Craigmore Station in South Canterbury and believes tramping the hills with like-minded people eclipses many other outdoor pursuits because of the shared camaraderie based on the physical challenges involved in beating and the pleasure gained from seeing working dogs in action.
Between April and August, the hills of Craigmore Game Preserve in the Maungati Valley behind Timaru resound with the sound of shotgun fire and neighbors know the annual pheasant and partridge shoots there are underway. Escaped pheasants skittering about the surrounding countryside are another indication that you are nearing Craigmore Station where the shoots are held.
Craigmore Station is owned by the Elworthy family and the property itself was the former home of the late Sir Peter and his widow Fiona, Lady Elworthy, who lives nearby. Their son Forbes and his wife Bridget took over the shoot from a neighbour about six years ago and have included it in their farm operations.
Anecdotally it is reported to be the only South Island property which offers traditional driven pheasant shooting. British traditions underpin the behaviour of the sportsmen involved in the seasonal activity. The shoot itself is highly rated by sportsmen mainly because of the safety protocols which surround each one,
and the way they are managed by Scottish gamekeeper John Brownlie.
Craigmore’s homestead grounds and the stable block are the assembly points for the participants at the start of a shoot and its hills, gullies, limestone cliffs, plantations, woodlots, scrub and winter crops such as kale, offer natural protection for the birds and are where the action takes place.
April 19 was the first of ten driven shoots (drives) for the season.A typical shoot is made up of ten sportsmen (Guns)who have paid to shoot for the day. Their endeavors are supported by an assortment of volunteers and dog handlers who are part of a team and are assigned specific roles to ensure each drive is successful.
Many of the volunteers are regular participants and the events are as much a social occasion for them as an opportunity to show their dogs working in a natural environment. “We want to provide an opportunity for people to take part in the big pheasant shoots but also an opportunity for the dog handlers and beaters to take part,” John says.
To an onlooker, the Guns’ formal dress code may seem at odds with the normal kiwi hunting garb we expect to see. Evidently they hold their quarry in high esteem, and their attire reflects their respect for the birds and the sport they provide and, equally, for John who sets the tone in his own black and white Seafield tweed. As gamekeeper he is responsible for the welfare and safety of everyone.
This year John is assisted by under-gamekeeper James Sutcliffe who is settling into the role. He applied for the position after graduating in gamekeeping from Newton Rigg College in Penrith, Cumbria and is adapting to New Zealand ways. James likewise adheres to a traditional dress code and was excited to be working on his first shoot in New Zealand.
Formal attire for the Guns may include plus fours, coloured hose, tweed jackets, waistcoats, shirts, ties and caps. The support teams will wear an array of wet weather or hunting gear including high visibility hats and jackets or clothing to suit the conditions.
Beaters flush the game up and into flight paths for the Guns waiting a considerable distance below. Dog handlers (pickers up) and their gun dogs search and retrieve for shot birds. There are game kart drivers who collect shot birds, others who transport the beaters about the property and there may also be people assigned to assist the Guns if they need it.
Helen Fraser is in charge of catering and provides sumptuous meals for the Guns in a formal dining setting at the homestead and Lady Elworthy usually hosts these lunches.
Around 9am on a Saturday shoot, John assembles his team and allocates groups to specific areas where the birds are likely to be, in order to drive them to where he wants them to go. Armed with a shrill whistle and dry wit, he describes what should happen and orchestrates proceeding with the professionalism of a sergeant major.
On any shoot John could be dealing with a potent mix ofregular Guns and some first-timers who may be nervous and excited, as well as the beaters and other team members, all of which requires a cool head, because he has to ensure that each drive is set up with safety as the overriding factor before the first shot is fired.
The shoots are so highly regarded that they are booked well in advance although there is a maximum of ten Guns on a given day. They must have a fire arms licence and a game licence to participate. Depending on how a day goes and how good the Guns are, there could be six to eight drives.
Pheasants and partridges are considered noble quarry, so etiquette requires they are treated with dignity. Dead birds are carried by the neck, not the feet, as with other poultry. Nor is it considered sporting to shoot at low flying birds.
Queenstown native nursery owner John Baker was on his second shoot and the first for 2014 and was allowed to invite his manager Aaron Taylor along. He credits John’s passion for the success of the shoots. “He is here, there, and everywhere, and a true sporting gentleman. When he says, “Jump!” we say “How high?” But he only says jump for a reason.”
Guns come from all walks of life, but regardless of who they are they are all treated equally on the day.
At the end of a shoot as volunteers assemble for a barbecue,
and refreshments, the general consensus is invariably that it was a great day out and a truly fun, social occasion.
Pheasants and partridges are bred and reared on Craigmore which means John always plans for a certain number of birds to hatch and survive in order to get them through the season.
Hen pheasants start laying their eggs during the last two weeks in September. Eggs are put in incubators and can take 24 to 25 days to hatch. When the young pheasants (chicks) leave the hatchery they are placed in special huts heated by gas heaters where they remain for a week. From there they start creeping out into enclosed runs. At around six weeks of age they are caught, crated up and moved to large release pens (wire enclosures with no roof) situated in plantations close to the homestead.
The pheasants consider the pens their home and, as they mature, they gradually make their way out to roam at large on the station but the pens are where they return to for food and water.
Driven shoots in Britain are big business and around 30 million pheasants are released for shoots each year. Emphasis is placed on shoots taking place in natural environments such as that which Craigmore Station provides, with small numbers of Guns, usually eight, being able to take part.
New Zealand legislation dictates that it is illegal to sell shot pheasants, so at the end of a drive at Craigmore the birds are shared amongst the volunteers and Guns.
Conversations about the best method of cooking a pheasant are common among the beaters. The preferred methods are either in a casserole with the addition of herb dumplings towards the end of cooking and perhaps some juniper berries for a bit of zing.
Another alternative is to wrap the bird in tinfoil and place it on a bed of onions and or chunky potatoes in a slow cooker for a few hours. Once cooked the juices from the pheasant can be used to make the gravy.
To counteract dryness when roasting a pheasant in an oven, smother the breasts with strips of fatty bacon, wrap the bird in tinfoil, and put it in a sealed roasting dish with water in the bottom to further retain moisture. Slow cooking and retaining the moisture seems to be the key ingredient for these tasty birds.