When garden birds were fare game

Shooting Times & Country|May 20, 2020

When garden birds were fare game
From house sparrow to blackbird and even fieldfare, our cherished birds were once used to supplement bare larders, says Graham Lorne
Graham Lorne

According to my dictionary, a gamebird is defined as being those species that are hunted for sport or food. The modern-day sportsman would name the likes of red grouse, pheasant, woodcock and red-legged partridge as examples.

But, if using the dictionary definition, I can suggest some much less celebrated birds that were once pursued for the table. Prior to the end of austerity and food rationing in 1954, protein was an expensive luxury and many locals looked to a variety of ingenious methods of procuring a ready alternative to butcher’s meat.

A few years ago I saw a Victorian example of a lark lure on a lunchtime antiques show. The item looked to be in remarkably good condition for its age, perhaps through lack of use. The idea was that the spinning lure — decorated with glinting glass and polished metal — would attract the skylarks to the hunter. Whether the skylarks were shot or netted I don’t know, but I think I’d rather hear the bird’s cheerful song than pick over its slight frame at mealtime.

Songbirds such as the blackbird are now garden favourites but at one time they were so plentiful — and people so desperate — that they were hunted for food. The infamous Norfolk poacher ’Lijah James often used his catapult to bag a few blackbirds during his boyhood years, so his brother Snowflake was happy to eat the bird that his mother had placed on his plate.

Fieldfare

“Bet you don’t know what you now ate, bor?” asked ’Lijah as his brother was leaving the table that January evening. “Blackbird?” asked Snowflake warily. “No,” answered ’Lijah, who always enjoyed the opportunity to put one over his older sibling, “Fieldfare!”

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May 20, 2020