When you think of the aristocracy, what sports spring to mind? Hunting? Possibly, except that’s changed in recent years, since the 2004 ban, and now those on horseback chase a trail laid by quad bikes, which is fairer on the foxes but red-faced sorts splutter that it’s less romantic. Polo? Princes William and Harry play, but then so do dodgy oligarchs and gas tycoons. Croquet would have been a good answer, had the Beckhams not instructed the landscape gardener to map out a croquet lawn at their house in Oxfordshire last year. And I wouldn’t exactly call charades a sport. So by my reckoning that leaves only one option as the toffs’ main hobby: shooting.
True, newbies and arrivistes have muscled in on the shooting scene in recent years (more on Richard Caring later.) But if you’re a duke, you will almost certainly still own a large and ancient shoot, or even a few of them, sprinkled across the country — pheasants in Devon, partridges in Sussex, a grouse moor in Yorkshire. The oldest driven shoot in the county is at Holkham in north Norfolk, which is owned by an earl, admittedly, not a duke (the Earls of Leicester). But it remains one of Britain’s top shoots, which sums up all that keen shots love about the sport: exceptional game birds, sensational countryside carefully tended by watchful gamekeepers, and a cleaving to tradition. Beaters at Holkham still wear bowler hats called the Coke hat, originally commissioned in 1849 and made by Lock's chief hatter, Thomas Bowler, to protect their heads from low-hanging branches and poachers.
A quick word for those who aren’t sure what things like ‘driven shoots’ or ‘beaters’ are, because ‘shooting’ is an umbrella word and our European friends might assume I’m talking about boars. They’re very keen on shooting boars in Germany, for instance, whereas in Britain the main focus is generally on pheasants. And a typical day’s pheasant shooting in Britain normally involves 10 or so ‘guns’ (the participants) standing in a long line outside various coverts as the beaters (those in the coverts) make weird noises and flap their hands to ‘drive’ the pheasants out. Bang bang. Pheasants fall from the sky. Everyone moves on to the next drive. These are punctuated by elevenses, lunch and tea, before the day ends. An exhausting business.
Driven shooting in Britain originated as an aristocratic sport in the 16th century. The birds, which probably arrived here with Roman officers who liked eating them, were originally prized for their meat, and early records of them relate to gargantuan feasts. In 1465, the Archbishop of York outdid himself with an inauguration that featured 200 pheasants (along with 12 porpoises and seals, 104 peacocks, 400 swans, 500 stags, 2,000 geese, 4,000 mallard and teal, and six boars). Henry VIII, another chap who enjoyed a good feast, kept a ‘feusant breeder’ who, according to records, had begun his career as a French priest.