It’s the middle of the game hunting season on this unusually small estate, and a 15-strong group of mainly men has taken over. Their uniform is luxurious hunting gear and plus fours in earthy shades of checked green and brown; their trousers tucked into thick red Scottish knee-high socks. Joining them is Marcus Verberne, the head chef of London’s Roast restaurant which specialises in British fare.
Marcus’ formal restaurant is elevated above Borough market, a stone’s throw from the busy and claustrophobic South Bank. It is the antithesis of where we are now, deep in the Scottish highlands. The chef, who rotates his menu monthly, is here to shoot pheasant for the first time at the peak of the game season. He’s invited me to join him, in a bid to understand the journey that pheasants make from field to plate.
One thing is clear, shooting is – as Alistair confirms to me later – “big bucks”. Huge, in fact. When all forms of shooting are considered, the sport is worth £2 billion to the UK economy – compared with £1.72 billion from the flourishing video gaming industry.
To reach the hunting estate where Alistair lives, we meet the rest of the shooting party at a small patch of dirt functioning as a car park a two-hour-drive north of Glasgow. Here, cars not equipped for the dirt-track road ahead are left behind. Our gang of crawling 4X4s become insignificant as the surroundings woods swallow us at their whim, before yawning open to flaunt the mirror-like lochs and burnt-orange hills.
At the estate, the group gathers around Alistair, who is leaning casually against his thumb stick – a type of wooden walking staff – outside his home. At any hunting day, the game keeper must brief the ‘guns’, the name given to the shooters, on how the day will work. They are allowed to shoot any pheasants, ducks, grouse, and woodcocks that fly above them, Alistair says. Rabbits, deer and other ground animals are not allowed. He warns that while the weather is uncharacteristically stunning, with the sun beaming and not a breath of wind, the pheasants will struggle to soar – making it harder to shoot them.
Separated into small groups, we manoeuvre across the boggy grass and take our positions at numbered pegs. These are predetermined positions over which the birds are likely to fly out from five plots of dense, engineered, woodlands that dot the otherwise bare landscape. We will visit each one over the next five hours.
Bertie, who has been shooting since his early teens, is training Marcus and hands him his weapon. He tells me it is a William Jeffreys: a “simple English gun” – a machine likely to have cost thousands of pounds.
Busy in the first plot of woodland are the ‘beaters’, waving white fertiliser bags fashioned into flags and shouting “Hoo! Hoo! Heh-heh-heh-heh!” to scare the birds towards the guns, who are poised and ready to shoot.
The first birds fly above the guns, who, deep in concentration, swing their weapons at the soaring creatures. The deep, sporadic, booms from the shots of five guns spirals so loudly against the hills that Bertie has stuffed plants into his ears. In what seems like chaos, some birds glide past the guns unscathed, while those which are shot dramatically plummet to the ground. Armed with excited dogs, the ‘pickers up’ kill birds which did not die instantly, and hand them to Alistair who blows a horn to signal the end of the round.
Marcus has just killed his first pheasant. He turns to face us. His eyes are wide, and his body has clearly hit him with a significant amount of adrenaline. Cautiously, Bertie tells him that traditionally a gun is ‘blooded’, or smeared with blood from his kill.
Swiftly cracking the pheasants neck to ensure it is dead, Bertie takes out his blade and smudges the thick liquid across Marcus’ cheeks.
“You’re lucky, your first catch wasn’t too bloody,” he quips, and recalls how he was blooded as a young teen. This likely sounds like total madness, but to hunting groups on small shooting estates such as this, nothing is wasted and no-one is squeamish of a little blood and guts.
And while today’s hunting party perhaps wouldn’t phrase it in these terms, the idea of man taking his place among nature to tame and sustain himself by killing another beast is certainly a recurring notion. Over the course of the day, each gun tells me how he feel he is connecting to a “carnal instinct” when he shoots, a feeling I don’t quite understand as a clinical city-dweller.
I ask Marcus his opinion, who as a chef in London bridges the gap between city life and carnal instincts by feeding swathes of diners each day.
“I couldn’t shoot something that wasn’t being eaten. I don’t think I chould shoot a fox for that reason.
“A lot of people these days even have that fear of eating something thats not sitting in a polystyrene tray wrapped in cling film. It doesn’t register that its actually an animal that they’re eating. I think it’s important as a chef to be able to start at the very source of the end result. It starts with the husbandry of the animal,” Marcus tells me.
To prepare for these fortnightly events during pheasant shooting season, from 1 October and 1 February, the husbandry starts in the summer when 800 eight week-old birds reared in Perthshire are planted into the plots of fenced woodland. For a fortnight, Alistair will nourish them with vitamin water and “peace and quiet”, or else the birds will die.
This process of maintaining an estate is a strange process, which one gun describes as “conservation by utilisation”. A staggering two thirds of Britain is used for game shooting, with this estate in Argyll a tiny version of larger, more commercial operations. While around 30 birds will be shot today, two handed to each gun and the rest shared among the locals, hundreds of birds are killed at bigger shoots and sold on to suppliers. Before reaching the dining table, birds are hung for as long as five days. During this time the birds’ meat becomes tender, and its diet of woodland fauna and wheat enrich into an intense, gamey flavour.
Alistair explains the balancing act which is his job. “You’re having a big impact on whats going on round about you”, he admits.
“If [game keeping] didn’t happen then there would definitely be less wild game, like red squirrel, in Scotland, because you’ve trapping all the weasels and stouts and crows which kill them. That’s definitely good, theres not enough food for all this vermin – we call them vermin because thats what they are. We’ve got eagles. They’re really struggling for food. If I wasn’t here they wouldn’t eat the deer I shoot for them. There’s not enough food in the whole country for these things,” Alistair explains, with a clear feeling of respect for the landscape.
“Shoots like this are very important because it brings people form the rural area together. In the winter time when it’s dark at 8am, you need a wee bit of the world alive. It’s hard being in the dark, you know,” Alistair says, laughing.
Game shooting is undeniably also a leisurely pursuit, steeped in the language of sport. It has barely changed since the Victorian times, when shotguns improved and blood sports became popular among the gentry, regarded by some as an antidote to the nation becoming “too soft”.
And while shooting isn’t only the preserve of the landed now, and some 600,000 people take part in Britain alone, the archaic quirks remain. I quickly learn asking “did you shoot anything?” is not “the done thing” and it’s rude to too closely count how many birds you kill. No ‘iPheasant’ apps have infiltrated the practice, and the most high-tech gadgets Alistair uses are a walkie-talkie to contact beaters and pickers up, and the new refrigerated larder where he must store kill.
The day will close in Alistair’s house, where he will serve a simple venison cottage pie made from meat he shot himself, as the party sloshes sloe gin sloshes around the table. But the group have another two runs to tackle and the party takes a break. Tupperware boxes generously packed with food emerge from a 4×4 and are cracked open. One is filled with warm, neatly stacked fried sausages encased in a sheet of aluminium. Another is brimming with tangerines and Tunnock’s wafer bars. But Bullshot is what excites us the most. The warm drink takes its curious maroon colour from beef consommé, tomatoes and Worcester sauce, and is made more interesting with a hefty glug of sherry. It is a moment of comfort and reflection in a day filled with navigating a landscape and observing a sport as stark as it is breathtaking.