Information Sheet No. 6:
Local Pheasant and Rabbit Shoots (July 2001)
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There were regular shoots on the Buriton Manor Estate until about 1980. In the days of the Bonham Carters the estate was recognised as one of the finest shoots in Hampshire. There were also shoots at Ditcham, Weston and Nursted.
The Buriton Estate held about eight pheasant shoots each year (generally on alternate Saturdays from October through to January) and, until about 1927, a similar number of rabbit shoots (usually on the alternate Fridays). The season for rabbits was slightly shorter than that of pheasants but both roughly coincided. In most years there would be some partridge shoots before the pheasant shooting began - generally yielding about 60 brace of partridge. The season would often end with a hare shoot.
The estate used to rear up to about 4,000 pheasants each year which involved a lot of hard work for the Head Gamekeeper and his team of six or seven keepers. Work would begin in March and April when the keepers would wander over the whole of the estate making dummy pheasant nests and placing one dummy egg into each one. A good stock of' birds was always left from the previous years’ shooting and by about April 10th many of the dummy nests would have a dozen or more good eggs in them indicating that several hen birds were laying there. Checking all the nests usually took about a week and the keepers hoped to collect about 150 to 200 eggs a day. By April 20th they hoped to have about 2,000 eggs laid under broody chickens. To keep a good strain of pheasant each year, 500 eggs were always bought from a game farm.
Pheasants would be hatched during May in ‘setting’ boxes inside a large building. Another early job for the gamekeepers was to disinfect the ‘setting’ boxes and everything to do with the hatching of the chicks.
A large rearing field would be decided upon and permission obtained to use it from the Farm Bailiff. The pheasant chicks were hatched by an ordinary chicken and then they would be put out into the field in coops, spaced about 25 yards apart in lines both ways across the field. About sixteen or eighteen birds would be given to a hen to mother in each coop. They were let out in the morning and shut up at night. The young birds could be in danger from predators and so someone would be on watch all day, ready with a gun.
For the next few weeks the gamekeepers would provide the young birds with their food every day. They were fed on a mixture of oatmeal, barleymeal, wheatmeal, hard boiled eggs and minced boiled rabbit meat. The keepers had to kill sufficient rabbits each day and mix up the feed to provide three feeds each day. In latter years this ‘wet’ feed was replaced by a dry feed which came in sacks of ready prepared pellets.
By about the first week in July the young birds would be ready to be moved to cover. The coops, hens and young birds were transported by horse and cart to New Barn covers, Dean Barn covers and Pill Mead covers. In order to move them, the gamekeepers would wait until they had shut them up at night and then they would slip a piece of sacking underneath each coop, pick up each corner of the sacking so as to collect all the chicks, the hen and the coop, and place everything on the cart. Once in the covers they would set them down in the same way but leave them in the coop for at least half an hour so that they were settled and did not fly away when they were let out. A few weeks later, when the birds were old enough to look after themselves, the chickens would be taken away.
The pheasant shoots would generally start in October and once the leaves had fallen from the trees ‘the guns’ would have better sighting when they were in action. The ‘Squire’ and the Head Gamekeeper were usually responsible for setting the dates for the shoots and also, before each one, for deciding which beats to use and working out the ‘drives’, how long each would take etc.
The pheasant shoot was a syndicate. Lothian Bonham Carter and his sons (the Colonel (Algernon) and Sir Stuart), when they were at home, would be joined by four or five others who would pay to take part. Their fees helped to pay the keepers’ wages. The main areas, or ‘beats’ were The Field (the hop gardens around Cowhouse Farm), all Pill Mead (including the woods down there), all New Barn valley, all Dean Barn valley (where the railway goes), Cockshot Woods, the Holt and Gravel Hill Bottom (also known as the Ladies Mile).
The party would usually set off to shoot at 9.00am. The ‘guns’, generally five or six of them, would assemble at a meeting place. On each drive the keepers would put up sticks where the guns had to stand, each stick with a ticket on it. Each of the guns would have been allotted a number in the morning and would rotate around each of the shooting positions during the day.
Big shoots would require about 20 beaters and as many as 30 boys (girls on some occasions if they couldn’t get enough boys) acting as ‘stops’. The keeper’s sons would deliver a summary of requirements to Mr Patrick (the schoolmaster) who would choose the boys to act as stops. The beaters would drive the pheasants out with the keepers (up to ten, including some from neighbouring estates) keeping them under control. The boys were positioned so as to prevent the birds flying out the back of the woods. Dogs, too, were an important part of the operation and were generally marvellous as a team.
The boys would be paid about eight pence (8d) for the day but would also get a good lunch: two sausages, bread, a mince pie and a drink of tea or coffee. The beaters would get about 2/6d for the day and their packed lunch would be followed by beer, usually supplied in four or five gallon stone jars encased by a wicker basket.
Regardless of all the preparations and organisation on the day, the number of pheasants shot was ultimately down to the accuracy of ‘the guns’. A leather-bound game book records all the ‘bags’ from 1906 to 1957. In a rare comment about the performance of the members of the syndicate, it was noted on October 20th 1934 (in what was otherwise “a wonderful season”) : “Birds flew very well. The first drive lowered the total. Plenty of birds but they couldn’t hit them.”
For many years, members of the local Legg family fulfilled the important roles in each shoot. George Legg (1856-1928) was Head Gamekeeper for many years. His son, also George (1884-1970), became head keeper and two of his other sons, Jack and Percy, were under-keepers. A third son, Harry, was also an under-keeper but he was also the head rabbit warrener based at Gravel Hill. In turn George’s grandson, also George - better known as ‘Sonner’ - became game-keeper for Col Bonham Carter before moving on to supervise work in the hop fields and hop kilns. When Major Rose took over the estate he employed a gamekeeper, a Mr Anthony, for a number of years but after a while they decided to stop rearing pheasants. Instead, Major Rose bought ‘polts’ which were kept until they were big enough to fly out of their pens. This did away with the need for a gamekeeper. Sonner then organised all the weekend shoots for Major Rose.
The Head Keeper’s wife was generally ‘cook of the day’ for each of the shoots and would prepare all the packed lunches for the keepers, beaters and boys. Percy Legg (1896-1981) recalled how his father used to go to Petersfield market and buy two pigs. “He killed one and used it for the next two shoots and saved the other for the following two”. Sometimes the gentlemen of the party would have lunch at the Keepers Cottage and a special lunch would be prepared for them at the ‘big house’ and sent over by the butler. On other occasions a horse and cart would follow the guns and the butler would lay a table for an outdoor lunch.
All the gamekeepers were supplied with a new suit each year which they kept so that they could look smart on special occasions such as shooting days. Someone would come out from the tailors in Petersfield to measure them for a jacket, waistcoat and a pair of breaches. In the early days, special boxcloth leggings were also provided which were excellent for keeping the wet and draughts out.
In the years before the First World War a season’s shooting would average about 1,500 pheasants. After the war the ‘bags’ dipped for a number of years before recovering. There was virtually no pheasant poaching on the estate. What poaching there was was for rabbits.
All the hills that are now Forestry Commission used to be kept as a number of separate rabbit warrens: Holt, Wardown, Butser and Oxenbourne. Percy Legg recalled there being “thousands and thousands and thousands of rabbits on the hills”. Each warren was fenced, particularly Holt Rabbit Down, to protect the nearby agricultural land. Small areas of land on the open down were cultivated to allow gorse to be grown for shooting cover and also for production of swedes and turnips to feed the rabbits. The head rabbit warrener, a Mr Blackman and later Fred Legg, used to live in a cottage at Gravel Hill.
Much activity preceded each shooting day. The keepers were kept busy for two weeks before a shoot, doing all they could to force the rabbits from their burrows and into the hangers (where there were no burrows) or to get them to lie out on the hill summit where they could be seen for shooting. Various methods were used. Sometimes holes were smoked, forcing the rabbits out, and then they would be blocked up to prevent a swift return. Regular harassing of this nature would mean that eventually, by shooting day, many rabbits would stay out on the hill rather than return to their burrows. Tar was also put in the rabbit holes which is particularly disliked by rabbits.
On other occasions a wire netting fence was laid below the hill top but above the burrows. Small gaps were left in it every twenty yards or so. Rabbits would leave their holes at night and pass freely through the gaps so as to feed on the hill top. The night before a shoot, the keepers would very quietly and in complete darkness, block the holes in the fence so as to prevent the rabbits returning to their burrows after their night-time feeding. Old hop vines from the farm were bundled and laid on the hill top and covered with turf as temporary shelters for the rabbits to encourage them to lay out on the hill, from where the beaters could subsequently drive them before the guns.
Each shoot beat was shot twice a year with ‘bags’ of 500 - 600 rabbits per day. Every detail of each shoot-out would be planned by the keepers, with special attention being given to safety as it was easy for mistakes to be made when the guns were eager to catch runaway rabbits. The beaters who went out ahead of the guns would always wear bush-proof smocks with red collars and cuffs so that they could be seen clearly by anyone carrying a gun.
One big shoot was held each year and some idea of how important the event was can be gained from the fact that the guns and the keepers, after meeting at the village pond, would be escorted by a railway ganger through the railway tunnel to line up, on the south side, along the rails for the first drive of the day. Any trains due would be held up at the signals !
As many as eight hundred rabbits were killed in a day and the average was about 600. When each shoot was over they would be laid out at the Coach and Horses Inn at Gravel Hill. Rabbits only fetched about one shilling each in those days. After dressing, each gun would take two or three . The beaters were generally allowed two good ones each and a share of the ‘rough’ ones (badly shot). A dealer would come up from Portsmouth and take most of the rest. Some would come into the village and the estate-man who used to live where Keepers Cottage is now, would take them round the village and sell them for six or eight pence each.
After the end of the shooting season, the gamekeepers had to go out with gin-traps for a couple of months to thin out the rabbits as otherwise they would breed too much. In the years just before the First World War, Fred Legg and his brothers Percy and Harry would be setting about 150 traps overnight and catching up to 120 rabbits which were also taken to Portsmouth. The rabbits were reduced significantly by outbreaks of myxomatosis and by the planting of the forestry.
Colonel Bonham Carter tried to make sure that everyone enjoyed themselves during the shooting season. He would arrange a ‘family’ cock shoot at the end of each season when the keepers would join him, his brother and friends to reduce the number of remaining cock pheasants. There was also a special ‘keepers cock day’ when the Colonel would wear a beater’s smock and act as a beater whilst the keepers and other guests of the Head Keeper would shoot cock pheasants. The keepers and friends also joined the Bonham Carter family for a special rabbit shoot every Boxing Day. A nice lunch would be rounded off with stilton and port - but only for the beaters and those not handling guns !
Do you know any more about local shoots or about any of the people involved in them ?
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