Ten days ago, I took my nine-year-old son, Joseph, on the penultimate shoot of the season. We went as beaters; it was our job to wander through the woods, making a racket, driving the birds into the range of the waiting guns. I confess to a slight unease about this. I'm not born to country pursuits and it goes slightly against the grain to lure a living creature to its death. On the other hand, I enjoy a pheasant casserole as much as the next man, and at least the pheasants dispatched on our local shoot are eaten, unlike after the grotesque slaughter at big country-house shoots where thousands of birds end up buried.
The tally on our shoot was 36 pheasant, 14 duck, a pigeon, a woodcock and a rabbit, which apparently represented a pretty decent haul. Thankfully, the rabbit was not Holly or Bramble, the pet bunnies who used to live in a hutch in our garden but escaped and took their chances in the wood with their wild cousins. The shoot regulars have reported an occasional sighting of Holly and Bramble, however, which for some reason always reminds me of the story of the performing bear that escaped from a circus in China some years ago.
About a week later, in a forest a hundred miles or so away from where the circus bear had escaped, a group of hunters were searching for wild bears. Suddenly they heard a crashing in the undergrowth, raised their rifles, and were duly astonished to see a bear wearing a bowler hat come trundling into their sights riding a monocycle. It's true, I promise. A friend of a friend of a friend told me.
Anyway, Joseph and I much enjoyed our morning's beating. We started at the splendidly ramshackle shoot hut, where a fire blazed and industrial measures of port were handed round to fortify us against the westerly wind. "It's all very countryish," Joseph whispered to me, approvingly. I knew what he meant. For much of the time, we live in the country without particularly feeling of the country, so it is nice occasionally to feel as if you're earning your stripes.
I must admit, too, that it was exhilarating to see some pheasants plummet to earth, although Joseph and I silently cheered to see others flying safely beyond the range of the guns. Our friend Tracey, who schooled us in the art of beating, confessed that she likes to see the woodcock get away. They are handsome birds, with extravagantly long beaks, and here much rarer than pheasants, although Tracey's husband, David, reports that there have been more woodcock than usual this season.
They come all the way from Scandinavia, apparently, which is another reason why it seems a shame to shoot them. After all, nobody would have wanted to shoot Ingemar and Kerstin, who, like the woodcock, came to Herefordshire to escape the Swedish winter. Ingemar and Kerstin used to rent one of the cottages at the back of our house. They were a charming couple who once spent half an hour quizzing me about moles. Evidently there are no such things as moles in Scandinavia, and they were accordingly fascinated in what I had to say; while I remember thinking that life doesn't offer anything much more surreal than talking about moles to a retired couple from Gothenburg.
Nor, for that matter, did I ever expect to find myself examining a dead woodcock in a copse on a cold January morning. Tracey showed us the so- called pin feathers, and said that they were used to write the Bible. "Cool," cried Joseph, and later assured me that beating had been at least as educational as going to school.
Here's a nice inoffensive country joke. Three female Herefordshire potatoes were sent out into the world by their snobbish mother, in the hope that they would find respectable husbands. The first potato returned and told her mother she had married a Jersey Royal. "That's wonderful!" cried her mother. Then, the second potato came back and reported that she had married a King Edward. Again, the mother was thrilled. Finally, the third potato returned home. "Your sisters have both married into royalty," said her mother. "Have you married well, darling?" "I don't know, mother,"said the third potato. "I've married John Motson." Her mother pulled a face. "Oh dear," she lamented. "I'm afraid he's just a common tater."
Sweet, don't you think? Although I mean no disrespect to Mrs Motson. I have met her and can confirm that she looks nothing like a potato.
It's not often that I get to attend black-tie dinners in London, and when I do, I feel like a backwoodsman. Last Tuesday, I went to the Whitbread Book Awards and sat next to an immensely glamorous woman who looked as though she had been born sipping a dry martini. It was gratifying to find that she had been brought up in a tied cottage near Presteigne, on the Herefordshire-Powys border.