Fall is officially here! And if you were a young gentleman in nineteenth century England, you knew exactly how you intended to spend it. Ladies might have their Seasons in London, with shopping and balls and similar folderol, but any young man worth his salt knew that September marked the heart of shooting season.
Yes, shooting season. A gentleman shot birds and hare, and hunted fox. And they could hardly wait for the Season to be over so they could start! The Game Act of 1831 allowed for some shooting starting on August 12 (or 13, if the 12th was a Sunday). But by the first of October, black grouse, red grouse, ducks, pheasant, partridge, bustard, and woodcock were all in season. (Bustard was a new one for me; I had to look it up. But then I learned why the name wasn’t familiar from my previous research. The last bustard in England was apparently killed in a shoot in 1832!)
During the early part of the century, it was common for a gentleman and a few friends to set off in the morning with a well-trained dog running alongside and see if they could hunt up a few pheasant or partridge to bring home for dinner. The crisp fall air, the manly companionship, guns that belched smoke and made a loud BANG—ah, what more could a fellow ask! As the century wore on, however, shooting parties grew in size and length. Friends traveled for miles to reach your grouse moor (an estate in Scotland) or country estate and might spend a fortnight with you, partying inside between rounds of shooting outside. Ladies even came out at luncheon for picnics while the men boasted of their achievements. Wealthy lords hired beaters to chase the game toward a row of their fellow guests holding guns and even draped nets in the air to keep the birds from getting away. After everyone had finished pulling the trigger, repeatedly, other hired help called pickers-up rushed out to clean up the carcasses.
The numbers shot were staggering. According to some accounts, a single marksman could bag as many as 2,500 birds in a fortnight’s shooting party. One enterprising gentleman is said to have shot more than 300,000 birds over his 33-year career. Small wonder there are no more bustards in England!
The gentlemen shooters must have realized they were having an impact as well, for more and more of them began actively stocking and breeding gamebirds like pheasants and duck on their estates. Estate managers made sure to keep wooded areas healthy for the birds, and gamekeepers went out of their way to exterminate any predators, like fox and magpies, that might harm the young birds. All this effort helped the shooting party maintain a hold on English society well into the twentieth century.
But if I was a bird, I’d hate fall!