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January Cock Pheasants and Sugar Beet

Shooting

Article written by 07 February 2013

January is here and most of Suffolk’s expanding population are tucked up watching TV , playing on their lap tops and complaining about the grim winter weather outside.

Meanwhile shots echo across the fields, woods and marshes as the field sports enthusiasts go about enjoying their Winter sport. They return at dusk to enjoy the fruits of their labours with friends and family discussing the excitement of the day. They are refreshed by the fresh air and exercise, their canine companions laying exhausted but contented at their feet. Those of us who are blessed with  this passion for all forms of field sports are indeed fortunate people, who are able to enjoy the rigours of Britain’s Winter.

I tramp out across another water logged field and am reminded of the torrential Autumnal rains that carried on into Winter. I reach peg seven and watch as older members of our party struggle determinedly to their positions, some over seventy! They refuse any help.  I look round to see Millie my lab dancing all over  my gun slip pushing it six inches into the mud, wagging her tail excitedly as a muntjack  breaks from the wood. She looks up to say “sorry well you let me sit on it last week boss” yes but we were Wildfowling and it was not my best leather one! You really don’t understand do you, never mind.

I am standing on fresh drilled land after sugar beet, my feet surrounded by six inches of heavy clay that sticks like gorilla glue. I kick off the offending gluttonous stuff which could quite clearly make a Venetian earn. I check the barrels one more time for any blockage. The mud seems to have found it’s way everywhere, with a little aid from Millie. I console myself that if nothing else I am at least a bit warmer after this exertion, and more ready for the January cock pheasants if they come my way.

Gone are the November and December days of cherry picking the high birds or choosing those in your preferred quarter, thereby making you look a half reasonable shot! Best to ignore the ones that fly wide, but low making a small safe window for the snap shot with the risk of a cloud of feathers and ridicule. “Please try and shoot  some of these old Cock pheasants, if they are safe” our host tells us in his pre shoot instruction for the day… and we all know the challenge.

We are now back to hunting, trying to out manoeuvre those rather more knowledgeable cocks who have escaped all season. They have watched and studied these days when shouting and baging are heard in their neck of the woods and they have learned the tricks of the old timers.  Now these woods have become their established territory, with every hiding place and escape route tried and tested.

Now explains our old cock to its peers “if you are silly or belligerent enough to get caught in your home cover break back very early or forward very late, preferably when you hear that loud whistle. Watch for those coloured foxes that our Summer friends keep whistling to. They will find you even in the thickest cover. If flushed you fly low, fast and directly at one of those guys who for some reason stand in exactly the same place and  time every two weeks; they must think we are stupid.!! Personally I run to the next parish when I hear the land rover’s door shut in the car park , that’s why I have spurs as long as black thorns.”

The beaters approach steadily down the belt and adjoining cover. Three cocks have flown back over the beaters or wide out the sides, before guns no’s 1 and 9 had moved in to cover their escape. Then there is a shout “forward, forward” and an enormous cock bird comes rocketing from the front of the wood. It is low fast and coming straight at me making no effort to climb; an early grouse shot out of question with the beaters out in front. On he comes a shot now a few yards in front.A clear angle but a pattern the size of an orange with the consequence of complete ruination; clouds of feathers and ridicule by all in the field. “No”. Beaters shout, “over, over!” as though I am carrying a white stick. He seems to know a crossing pass to the left or right would leave him open to a fatal broadside giving me an easy chance.  I turn to take a safe shot behind having previously checked for lurking pickers up. My feet glued to the sodden ground my swing for the first shot is nowhere. I rebalance and fly second shot at forty five yards is at the dropping rear end of the fleeing pheasant. The result a planning winged bird which hits the ground running for the far hedge. Time for Millie to redeem herself. Our old cock has played chicken once too often, down but not out.

I retrieve my fallen gun slip one step closer to an expensive zip repair and wade out across the field. Millie makes an easier than expected retrieve. Clearly our cock pheasant had the same problems with mud and exhaustion as I. As I stroke into place his spectacular winter plumage I forget the three high birds shot in the thirty second flush, but not the challenge ,walk and rewarding retrieve of this master of the woods. His long spurs shine in the Winter sunshine.

I return to the Gunbus steam coming from my shirt collar to the usual mirth and mickey taking of my fellow sportsmen. “Good job you’ve got a dog!”

We trundle past the remaining Sugar beet crop and friends tell me that more acres will be grown next year for Bio fuel and the general future of the crop looks good. I think of my worries some    years ago then  a World trade agreement was due to phase out Sugar beet growing in Europe in favour of  Cane sugar to help some of the underdeveloped counties of the Southern hemisphere. It may have been a good idea for World trade but disaster for East anglia’s wildlife. So many  changes in Britain’s farming over the years have spelt unforeseen havoc with our  iconic sporting wildlife whether Blackcock in the North or the Grey Partridges in the South.

This removal of the Sugar beet crop would have deprived over 150,000 Pink footed geese of their main winter feed, having flown South from the Arctic circle to over Winter in East Anglia.

Lapwings, Golden plover and Starlings in their thousands spend their days on these winter harvested fields. Gulls flock to the plough as the beet land is turned over for Winter wheat. Our wood pigeons and pheasants force pieces of beet the size of gob stoppers down their throats and glean the ground of fresh drilled wheat.

Much of our now thriving deer population. Whether it be Red, Fallow, Roe, Water Deer and Muntjac all benefit from this high energy food source without which our woodland undergrowth and young trees would bear the full front of their voracious appetites. Whether it be Rats which most of us hate or Hares that we have some special connection with the crop is an important part of their food calendar and ultimate survival. Comforting to know that our green energy plans may play another part in securing our wildlife’s future, even if the food industry may have other plans.

The Gun wagon trundles out onto the Parkland permanent pasture ( never ploughed for Sugar beet!) preserved for generations surrounded by five hundred year old oaks. I think how  privileged we are to tread where fellow sportsmen long gone spent their Winter days, and what would they would have seen, certainly not Muntjac !

Mid-January and the snow and ice are here. The last of the sugar beet are lifted on the frozen ground avoiding the quagmire. The freezing conditions promise a good chance of sport on our Woodcock day.

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