Whether it’s a covey of redlegs bursting over a hedgerow at speed or their English cousins weaving across a stubble field, the partridge can offer some fantastic shooting. Many mistakenly consider it inferior to the thrill that pheasant shooting can provide, but that misses the point somewhat – the two are quite different and each has its own attraction.
While pheasant days conjure up a picture of frosty mornings and stratospheric cockbirds, a day on early-season partridges is associated with images of shooting in shirtsleeves, of fast and furious action and of bright plumage glimmering in the sun.
For the novice gun a day on the partridges can be a little daunting. Being sociable creatures, they appear over the line in coveys that might vary in size from half a dozen or so up to more than 50. The first challenge then is selecting a bird to shoot at. Those that are hugging the ground or ‘contouring’ can be dismissed out of hand lest they draw your muzzles down through the line towards disaster.
If possible, pick a bird curling towards rather than away, and although you will want to avoid ‘pillowcasing’ a bird that is a little too close, don’t feel you need to pick out the bird furthest from you. Select a bird that you are confident of being able to connect with, and maintain your focus on that bird. By staring hard at that bird you are less likely to be tempted by another that looks more favourable.
Of course it’s not impossible that you and your neighbour will have picked out the same bird and your carefully selected prey folds in the air before you pull the trigger, in which case a rapid enforced change is on the cards. ‘Poaching’ as such is less of an issue when it comes to partridges – often there will be a lot of birds in the air at one time so don’t be too worried about getting stuck into a covey heading to the left or right of your peg. The clever partridge flies in a covey, while the bird that tries to run the gauntlet solo very rarely gets through.
Expect thinking time to be fairly short, especially if the birds are coming at you from over a hedge that might only be 30 or 40 yards in front of you. Keep your wits about you. You may receive warning of the birds arrival in the form of a whistle, or if you listen carefully the telltale ‘snap’ of a beater’s flag will let you know that action is imminent.
When you know things are about to get busy, stand with the gun at the ready position. Keep the muzzles pointed skywards. This is not the time or place to be caught with the gun broken over your arm – otherwise you may end up swinging through the line. Always remember that partridge can be fairly low so be mindful of those out in front of you in the beating line and the pickers-up out behind you. Make sure you are muzzle aware both when shooting and when reloading and closing your gun.
Most early-season partridges are taken at ranges of between 20 and 35 yards so don’t get too worried about big lead pictures otherwise you will end up missing in front. The birds will come up on you pretty fast so it’s likely that your gun will be moving at a fair lick of speed, which cuts down on your perceived lead. Footwork is key, as in every form of game shooting, so be prepared to dance a little to keep your balance.
Use your instincts and have faith in them. If you like to swing through every shot, the chances are that you won’t be a great partridge shot. Try mounting on to the bird and pulling away off the beak – or even mount ahead of the bird and shoot spaces in a maintained-lead style. When it comes to snap shooting there’s no better technique to use.
If you connect with the first barrel, make sure the bird is going down before switching to another. Your host won’t thank you if you keep pricking birds in your haste to claim a left and right. If in doubt you should always finish the job.
Don’t get too worried about big cartridges as they wont be needed; a 28-gram load of 7s or 6s is more than enough, and if you have ever fancied trying a 20- or 28-gauge at live quarry then this is the time to give it a go, as you won’t be undergunned. Long barrels aren’t necessary, so a 27 or 28” gun is no handicap, but if you normally shoot with 30 or 32” barrels don’t feel the need to get something shorter.
From a choke perspective, cylinder and quarter or quarter and half will be more than enough. Shoot full choke and 34-gram 5s and you will soon be spitting feathers for much of the day. If you do take too much gun or shoot a bird that’s too low, the telltale puff of feathers can take what seems to be an eternity to disperse on a bright September day; at best that will earn you plenty of leg-pulling from your fellow guns and at worst a telling off from the keeper.
Hope for a good breeze as still days never see the birds fly quite as well and even if a cooling wind is blowing do bear in mind that if you take your dog it’s running around in a thick fur coat. Make sure there is plenty of water available for them as it’s easy for a dog to overheat on these early-season days. It’s also easy for shot birds to spoil quickly, and in the hotter weather birds can become flyblown in minutes, so ensure that picked birds are cooled down as soon as is practical.
Get the right weather, the right shoot and the right team of guns, and a September day on partridge will be one that stays in your memory forever. Ignore the naysayers who turn their nose up at the thought, and go out and enjoy yourself. It might not be grouse, but at a fraction of the price and with an adrenaline rush that can come close it’s a great way to start your season. For me, and for the vast majority of us, it’s the Glorious First