Very Manx – Pheasant Shoot on the Isle of Man

In my part of the world (northern and eastern Germany), the organised shooting of small game has become a rarity. I have only vague childhood memories of driven shoots, with beaters lining out or forming a circle. Recovering game populations here in recent times are grounds for guarded optimism, but most guns are in the same boat; we bag a hare or two for the pot each season, and that’s it. Nevertheless, in the back of my mind, there is a small, but persistent, voice reminding me about hunting with a shotgun – I have this mental image of someday eating a pheasant that I shot for myself…

So what could be more welcome than to receive an invitation from my hunting friend Declan to a pheasant shoot on the Isle of Man. The green tip of a volcano in the Irish Sea, made famous by the most prestigious, and dangerous, motorcycle race in the world, the “Tourist Trophy”. Outside of racing season, the Island is a sleepy oasis of calm – an independent country half the size of Berlin, but with a population of just eighty-seven thousand.

My welcome on the Island is a warm one. No time lost before setting me straight about the local shooting customs, especially the golden rule: shoot only if you can see open sky behind the bird, otherwise let it go. A few last words of encouragement when I reach my peg, and suddenly there are birds in the air, and shots ringing out across the valley. It doesn’t take long before a heightened degree of excitement is noticeable among the otherwise so mild-mannered Manxmen. “Gentlemen, open fire!!!”, shouts one of the beaters, as a woodcock takes flight at his feet. Even for the practiced Manx wingshot, hitting these zig-zagging small birds is an artform all of its own. No bother for Gordon, my seventy-five-year-old neighbour on the next peg, who calmly draws a bead on the woodcock, dropping it like a stone. Then he beams from ear to ear. The neighbour one peg further along is clearly impressed and delighted. He joins us in Gordon’s celebration. Afterwards, I learn that he once managed a left and a right at woodcock, a feat of shotgunning so impressive that there is a unique institution – the Shooting Times Woodcock Club – established in 1949, membership of which is only obtained through a right-and-left at woodcock before two witnesses. Members celebrate an annual dinner together, raising money for research into, and conservation of, the woodcock species, and can proudly wear a special tie or badge with four pin feathers on a green background. I also learn that guns who could bring down on the wing the woodcock’s smaller cousin, the snipe, thereby earned the title of “sniper”, an accolade that later made its way into the military jargon denoting a sharpshooter.

With my third shot, I get my first pheasant. No great skill required, the bird was neither flying very high nor particularly fast, so perfect for a novice. Now my thoughts start to wander. “That’ll taste good”, I think to myself, taking careful note of where the pheasant came down. Unfortunately, one of the busy gundogs has already hoovered up my prize before I gather my wits, and there was no chance of picking out my lone pheasant from the bag of 131 at the end of the day. Nothing can take away the wonderful memories, though. I was especially struck by the extent to which shooting on the Island is understood as a group experience. Everybody was delighted with the bag, with themselves and one another’s company, without the slightest sign of jealousy between guns, or of tension between guns and beaters.

On the last drive of the day, I get my own chance at a woodcock, only to miss it with both barrels, alas. No Schadenfreude, however. Just the one beater who saw my attempt and says to me at the end of the day, with a very Manx wink and a tip of his tweed cap, “Very kind of you, Sir, to pardon that woodcock!”.




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