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pheasant philosophy

December 18, 2009

It is still and cold this morning, the overcast sky leaking the occasional snowflake. The dogs love this nippy weather and take off eagerly through the undergrowth when we set off for our walk. We stop by the bonfire where Lauchie has been cutting down scrawny willow trees. I warm my hands, inhaling the sweet woodsmoke, as I chat to him about trees and Christmas plans: he tells me that ash trees would throw off a much better heat, and that he is hoping that there won’t be too much snow at Christmas as he plans to visit elderly friends in his old village.

Further into the woods, the cocker spaniel catches a cock pheasant. The bird escapes before I can get to them, stumbling off into the bushes with most of his tail feathers missing. I hope he is not injured: I have lost him and so cannot check. The dog gets a big telling off but she is impervious, delighted with herself. I tell her sternly that it is not kind to catch pheasants, then realise how anthropomorphic this is and also how hypocritical: the pheasants are bred for sport, after all, so why am I upset with the dog? We walk on.

At the edge of the wood, along the path by the burn, the frozen mud is printed with the delicate double-almond hoofmarks of roe deer. They must have been walking along the track here yesterday, before the evening freeze. A heron takes off with slow pale wingbeats from the lochan. As I watch it, I notice some tussocks on the lochan that I don’t remember seeing before. Then I realise that they are the bodies of pheasants, lying on the snow-dusted ice. There are six of them. They must have been shot down by the shooting party that was here two days ago. I feel angry and upset: what a waste! How can shooting be justified unless you are shooting to eat? I have no problem with shooting for the pot: the guns and followers get a good day out in beautiful countryside, and pheasants and wild game have a better life by far than most of the meat on supermarket shelves ever had. These birds, though, will lie here until the buzzards and crows get to them, or until they rot, because it was not safe to let the gundogs retrieve them from the ice. But again, I realise how illogical I am being. There is a coolly utilitarian argument to be constructed about shooting, something about being able to justify it if it brings more pleasure than pain overall….but the logic slides away from my mind, which is thick with a head-cold and has always struggled with philosophical thought at the best of times.

We walk home through the deep leaf litter of the beech woods. In the distance I can hear shots: another day’s sport has begun.


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