Saturday dawned clear and cool on the first shoot of the partridge season. Hurriedly making sandwiches and coffee to take for the day and gathering gear I realise that all those things I meant to do over the summer have been left undone.
Wax cotton leggings are still hanging in the shed, bearing the mud of last season like a badge of honour. The Barbour jacket still needs a waxing, sticks and flags are unmade and wellies could do with a clean. No time to worry about that now – it’s time to get going.
Arriving in good time the teams of beaters and pickers up wait for the brief on the days drives from the gamekeeper. Mates catch up on the gossip since last January and beaters’ day .
The hedgerows are laden with fruit – sloes, blackberries, hips, haws and cob nuts ripening in the sun. Conversation turns to the weather. The warmth of the morning could turn chilly later. What to wear? Mostly we settle for shirts and jumpers. The abundance of fruit suggests a hard winter to come though. And rumours of snow by end of September abound – an unlikely prospect as the sun stirs up the air above the fields into heat waves.
Standing now on Denton Hill and looking out across fields rolling down to the fen – the lowest point in the UK – with the drone of the traffic on the Great North Road in the background it’s hard to imagine a more beautiful spot. In the distance over the birch woods of Holme Fen wind turbines revolve lazily in the stiffening breeze. Smoke rises into the distant haze from the chimneys of London Brick at King’s Dyke.
Four juvenile buzzards and a red kite slowly circle on the thermals above the shimmering stubble. Cotton cumulus ranks advance south eastwards through the pale blue sky, a sign of rain to come. But for now the late summer sun shines and warms us as we wait in line for the gamekeeper to call us up to the maize covers.
With a wave the line of beaters is called forward and we begin to walk slowly through the maize, pushing any birds in the cover forward. Steadily coveys of partridges burst from the tall maize, over the hedgerow and the waiting line of guns beyond. Shots ring out intermittently until we reach the end of the maize cover and the gamekeeper blows his whistle, signalling the end of the drive.
Emerging from the maize and through the hedgerow we can see the pickers up working their dogs. Spaniels and labradors quarter the stubble, collecting up the shot partridges and take them to their handlers. The beaters move on to the next drive.
After five more similar drives around the countryside punctuated by lunch, the day is over. The bag is around 200 birds. A game dealer arrives to take the shot birds away to sell to butchers. They will appear on the seasonal menus of various restaurants in the area. I’m with Valentine Warner when he says in What to Eat Now: “Partridge is a plump and tasty bird and, when hung properly, meltingly tender. Whether simply roasted with butter or braised with lentils, partridges are eye-rollingly delicious…”
At the end of the day I and the other beaters will take home a brace of birds for the pot.
These scenes will be repeated up and down the country throughout the winter, from now until the end of February, contributing millions of pounds to the rural economy and ensuring the conservation of valuable wildlife habitats. But above all, it’s fun.