Captain Ken, who is well-known for his devotion to birds, has asked me which were the preferred game of the 18th century.
His question I believe has a deeper point, for the Captain is a subtle man, and I happen to know, because he has often told me, that he is a particular admirer of driven shooting, and hence of pheasants. He is always ready to list their advantages over the partridge, and it is his pleasure also to put me right, should I disagree with him.
Pheasants were ‘the most envied ornament of our parks and forests’, for they could be part domesticated in pheasantries, or volaries, and are very pretty beasts – Ben Jonson managed to praise ‘the purpled pheasant with the speckled side’ at the very moment when he was eating one.
On top of that, as the good Will Wimble might have assured the Spectator, they are a capital shooting bird, though so vulnerable to poaching that by the 1780s they were being raised within the parkland, and finally they have a good character, being independent and tough.
Nonetheless, and despite the soundness of the Captain’s argument, the chief bird of the 18th century was the grey partridge (Perdrix perdrix). It is not much of a parkland bird but is well suited to rough shooting and the evidence of game books makes the preference plain. However the Captain will swarm about a fact like the Turk around the walls of Vienna until he can find a chink where he can insert his sappers – or until, as more often happens, in search of a quiet night, the citizens let him in.