Harvesting gamebirds.

Author Robertson, P.A. & Rosenberg, A.A.
Citation Robertson, P.A. & Rosenberg, A.A. (1988). Harvesting gamebirds. In: Hudson, P.J. & Rands, M.R.W. (eds) Ecology and Management of Gamebirds: 177-201. Blackwell Scientific Publications, London.


The hunting of game has a history as long as that of man himself; from the earliest times man has developed and used a wide range of techniques in his pursuit of game for food and sport. More than 3400 years ago the Egyptian aristocracy coursed game with dogs and killed wildfowl with boomerangs. Falconry was a popular sport in medieval Europe while blowpipes, bola, traps and various types of bows and arrows have been, and are still used to hunt game in various parts of the world (Mannix, 1968).

In modern times firearms have become the most frequently used method for harvesting game. The first firearms date from 1338 and by the 1480s those firing single lead projectiles were being used to kill deer. Initially gamebirds were shot on the ground but during the 1560s a practice evolved in Europe of shooting birds in flight. This reached Britain in the 1680s and subsequently became accepted as the main sporting practice. By the early part of the 19th century a conventional day's shooting consisted of three sportsmen with accompanying keepers who would use pointing dogs to locate birds which were then flushed and shot. The single-barrelled muzzle-loaded weapons in use around this time were slow to load and detonated by unreliable flintlocks.

With the development of a prototype percussion lock and the advent of breech loaders in 1847, the scene was set for the basic design of the modern shotgun. Sportsmen now had a reliable, light firearm capable of rapid loading. Walked-up shooting with dogs gave way to 'battue' or driven shooting in which game was driven towards a line of standing guns. Walked-up shooting remains the norm in many countries such as the United States and Canada but in Britain, driven shooting is considered a more challenging sport and is used extensively.

As with the development of hunting techniques, the methods and legislation used for game conservation have a long history. Genghis Kahn restricted hunting in Mongolia to the winter months (Lamb, 1927); Charlemagne limited bag sizes and introduced legislation to protect habitats in France during the 8th century (Graham, 1973) while  predator control to protect domestic livestock is described by Homer. On the other hand, there are numerous examples of man's over-exploitation of a natural resource. At the turn of the century the passenger pigeon in America became extinct as a result of excessive harvesting at the birds' nesting colonies. The population of American bison almost suffered the same plight at the end of the last century (Roe, 1951) when bison were eliminated from the plains; the remnant population that survives is a result of semi-domestication. Most harvesting is nowadays controlled through game laws and voluntary restrictions to conserve the resource.

Early game laws in Europe restricted the right to hunt to the nobility. Charles Il only allowed the richest 5% of landowners to hunt, even on their own property; these rights were jealously guarded and the penalties were severe. Nowadays, British law allows anyone to hunt game but only with the permission of whoever owns the shooting rights to the land, one exception being certain areas of the foreshore which are accessible to all. In North America, the situation is rather different. Settlers to the New World in the 18th century saw hunting as free to all and game is now considered to be the property of the people rather than the landowner. The American sportsman expects to have free access to enormous tracts of land and any game that it may contain.

The contrasting private property rights of Britain and North America have led to differences in the methods of game management. As American landowners do not own the game living on their land they have little incentive for management and it is left to the state to subsidise schemes for planting cover, hedges and food plants. The shooting seasons tend to be shorter in America but are more intense; season length and bag limits are assessed annually on the basis of surveys of each quarry species. In Britain the laws regarding hunting seasons tend to be liberal and most of the restrictions on bag sizes are left to the individual landowners. These differences tend to favour the intensive management of individual estates for game in Britain while the American system lends itself to large-scale but very general management techniques.

It is against this background of a variety of shooting methods and opportunities for management that the harvesting of gamebirds must be considered.

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