Alex James: The Great Escape

Plucky creatures, pheasants
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The Independent Online

It's delicious, pheasant - roasted and served with bread sauce. The huge, feudal, dynastic estates still breed them. It's a pretty complicated business; too expensive to bother with unless you are actually selling shooting rights.

People will pay silly money for good shooting. On proper driven shoots, hundreds of birds can be shot and just thrown away, which seems unethical. In fact, the whole pheasant business is quite dastardly. All the farmers, including myself, put food down to encourage the birds on to our patches and away from their breeding grounds. It's called "feeding in".

We've put a barrel of grain into each of our three areas of woodland. As long as you don't blatantly put trails of food from your boundaries into your woodlands, it's all "fair game". A lot of the serious shooting fraternity prefer these semi-natural conditions to the big organised "Hooray" whang-dangs. On a rough shoot you're never quite sure what you're going to get, which makes it more exciting.

Last week, we had a day's rough shoot with half a dozen neighbours, over our land and theirs, and got 20 birds. I was very pleased, even though I didn't hit anything myself. We didn't get anywhere near as many last year, when my quota of the bounty was a couple of pan-ready trimmed breasts a few days after the shoot. This time I got home with a whole boot full of dead birds. I hung them up in pairs in a barn to go tender for a few days.

We thought we'd pluck and butcher them ourselves, just to see how it's done. They're very pretty, pheasants. I haven't had much experience with these things, and was a bit uncomfortable about handling them. By the time the last brace was dangling, though, I was a seasoned, hardened, toughened-up hangman.

It all takes ages. You start at the base of a wing, pulling little clumps of feathers off. Pretty soon you're up to your knees in feathers, and the bird still looks much the same. If you become impatient and start ripping off big handfuls, the skin tears, and then you're in all kinds of trouble. I couldn't believe the stench. "Wow, they really smell, don't they?" I said. I was told I'd get used to it. It definitely got worse, though. There were five or six of us all plucking away, including a couple of small boys. They were enjoying it the most.

It's a gruesome story, the pheasant plucker's tale. Next comes the chopping block. First, you hack off the head, wings and feet, and then you've got something that's starting to look like what you might see in a supermarket. You still need to get the guts out, though. That's nasty. You make a cut in the base of the ribcage and plunge a couple of fingers right inside. All the neat little intestines come out in a plug, but you have to rummage around in there to pluck the heart out. There is something very scary about anyone who can take the guts out of a bird while keeping a straight face. No one managed it. There was a lot of eye-rolling and lip-curling.

The butcher up the road in Chadlington will pluck and draw a game bird for £1.50. Having spent the afternoon wrestling with a stinking corpse, I'd say that's good value. Everyone should try for themselves once, though.

alexjames@independent.co.uk

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