Is there anything more satisfying than preparing your own food? And by preparing I mean plucking a bird that has been squirrelled from the wild. And when I say squirrelled I mean shot by a squirrel.....?
Pepe, Llanevan's French Grey squirrel, is a very keen shot and an avid game lover.
Such is the time of year when the byways of the country are decorated by game road kill due to the vast quantities of birds that are grown and released to flap up in front of polished guns, clutched by wealthy sports people. What the two barrels don't get, the four wheels do. It is a wonderful thing to have a partridge in the oven, but it's a bit much when you have to change up into fifth gear to ensure you nab your tea. The unfortunate state of the game shooting business is that money and sport transcend the instinct to eat and the sorry fact is that most birds gunned from the air are simply buried. Buried in favour of being bothered to feather them. If you pay upwards to four thousand pounds a day to stand in the fog and mud with your brand new toy, which also cost a small fortune, you would demand to see plenty of targets flying out of the thicket. Of course it is up to the skill of the marksman as to whether they can bag bragging rights around the fire in the evening, but with the dense cloud of game that is presented a large tump of culled birds is usually guaranteed.
The successful shooter might journey home with a couple of brace as a trophy, which hang until purple in the garage, but the beautiful birds are rarely taken all the way by the one who felled them from the sky.
All game birds at Llanevan are wild. None are hatched and fattened for the sole purpose of sport. If there are a few birds in the satchel at the end of a stalk it is a most satisfying thing and when Pepe has his claws around the one barrel, twelve bore, Aya shotgun, you can be sure of a tidy meal. James Johnston hates squirrels as much as he hates sheep and so thankfully stays inside the house when Pepe and I go out stalking. James is best left at home on subtle missions, for his constant whining, wind breaking and spontaneous bursts of poetry are not conducive to a successful 'lifting of the feathers'.
There are around twelve breeding pairs of Snipe on the marshy summit of the hill. Snipe, along with Woodcock, are still somewhat controversially included on the fair game list. Both are petite, long beaked, secretive, but not overly abundant breeds which are surely only included on the list because they are very difficult to shoot. The Woodcock blends into the shadows and uses the trees as a shield, while the Snipe, as it's name confirms, uses sharp angled turns and bobbing dips when in flight.
"If you don't get it in the first four yards of flight, forget it," so says Pepe Le Popgun.
Pepe will only shoot one of those two birds per stalk, any more would present a concern to their future on the farm. The meat is a delicacy, but you don't get much bang for your breast as you could serve a whole bird on a fifty pound note and as the shooter gets first dibs I always have to settle for a pheasant. Suits me just fine.
I favour the hen because she has more corn yellow fat under her blouse, but again Pepe only squirrels one per stalk ensuring sustained breeding for the future. The cock's, however, can be more freely felled. The traditional breed is an impressive bird; a sumptuous kaleidoscope of colour, but recently the black European breed has been preferred because they are lighter and offer a better target due to their higher flight. The traditional breed is more of a gouger and hence can be weightier in the air, or will simply favour a sprint to get away from danger. Another sign that the shooting is only just about the sport.
Yesterday Pepe and I had a successful stalk. One Snipe, one hen and one cock pheasant, a brace of rabbits and a light aircraft, that had strayed into the Llanevan fly zone, were the spoils of the day. There was a particularly dicey moment when Open DeSantos, Llanevan's book making pigeon, meandered into Pepe's eye line and for a split second it seemed that the air would become a puff of pound notes, Racing Post and plummage.
A lead shot bird has to be prepared with tenderness. Any erratic plucking around the area where the pellets have pierced the flesh can mean pulling the skin clean off and that is the best bit on the bird. One can sneeze on a Snipe and remove the feathers in one, but the pheasant takes a while longer to undress. It is worth every pinch.
We made a gravy with the giblets and set our birds in a tin tray, on a bed of root vegetables allowing the fat of the pheasant to soften them. The legs can be tricksy on the pheasant as tennis racket taut ligaments are stretched out within. The best form of removal is to break the scaled leg above the foot trap it in the hinge of a door and pull. Hey presto! they are removed and the leg is instantly tenderised.
It was, and is, a beautiful feast that poachers have been enjoying for centuries, but the crowning bite was a breakfast bagel this morning of re-fried pheasant, cabbage and strawberry jam. Taste bud bliss. And to think that so many mirrored meals end up in the soil when, with a little care, they could so happily benefit the soul.