Q: What exactly is pheasant beating?
A: Actually it’s a little bit grim. Pheasant shooting is an English hobby of the elite, and has been for some time. Some enterprising chaps in Tasmania (Australia) decided that our shitty weather and steep hills would combine to make a fine pheasant shooting location. Pheasants are one of—if not the—fastest flying gamebirds in the world, so apparently there’s skill required to blast them from the sky with a shotgun. Anyway.
The traditional role of the pheasant beater is to walk into thickets in the middle of fields where the pheasants may be living, and scare the pheasants into flight, as shooting them on the ground is probably considered poor form.
In our case it was a little different, as there are no wild pheasants in Tasmania and the guys who came to shoot them were paying vast sums of money, so they wanted plenty of birds.
So the guy who ran the place kept huge open-air-ish enclosures with birds in them, that would then be released on the day of the shoot to mill around on the tops of various hills (pheasants are not altogether intelligent, nor prone to much adventurous endeavor).
When the time came, the shooters would array around the bottom of a hill, and we would advance up the hill from all sides and try to make the pheasants fly off the front of the hill. To be shot. And then turned into paté.
Q: What was your actual job description?
A: Get two sticks and hit them together.
If you want to go above and beyond, you can make noise like “pshhhhh.” You’re trying to shepherd the birds into one spot, but you don’t want them to all fly off until the right time, because then the rich people won’t be able to shoot as many.
You have to strike a balance between making enough noise but not too much. The entry barrier wasn’t particularly high for the job.
Some people had trouble with just tapping the sticks. There were dumbshits who would be oblivious and they did get in trouble but not sacked. I mean you could’ve just put an orange vest on a tree…
Q: Where did you get the sticks?
A: You were expected to source your own sticks from the surrounding area. And you did sometimes develop an attraction to a particular pair of sticks. I enjoyed finding interesting or preposterous sticks. I had one that I kept for a few months, it was a short club-like thing called “The Tenderizer.” Eventually someone threw it in a lake.
Q: How old were you?
A: I was 15, and I did it until I was about 18.
Q: How many birds would be shot in a day?
A: I think around 250. They would’ve paid to get a set number of birds.
Q: Were you bothered that animals were being killed?
A: At the time it didn’t really register that it was the mass killing of animals. It just wasn’t something that bothered me. I know that makes me sound like a sociopath… but I was pretty poor and needed the money, and it was going to happen whether I was there or not. And it was a job in the outdoors, which was quite nice.
Also they used everything they shot. I think they supplied all of Tasmania with pheasant foodstuffs.
Q: Do you remember your first day on the job?
A: I do actually. I got lost, which is dangerous when there are guys with guns around. I got in the back of the ute and then when I got off, nobody else did. But I walked vaguely in the sound of gunfire and ended up in the right place.
Q: Is ute a utility vehicle?
A: Yeah, but not like something you’d get in the U.S. The ones we had were generally shit-boxes, woefully unreliable. I had to push one up a hill and it was one of the toughest things I’ve ever done. It was actually a girl and I, but she wasn’t pushing very hard.
Q: Could you do that now? Push a truck up a hill?
A: I’d probably refuse because I was so offended by what I was getting paid.
Q: Was there danger that you could be shot?
A: We had flags we were expected to wave to make the birds fly higher so we wouldn’t get shot. And they weren’t supposed to shoot below the canopy of the trees, but they were rich entitled douchebags and a few people did get shot.
A friend of mine got hit in the back—he was lucky, because he had on a thick coat and backpack. Although one bit went in sort of at an angle, up under the skin at the top of his head. I pulled it out with a tweezers later, which makes me think I could’ve had a career as a surgeon.
Q: Did you ever get shot?
A: Not properly, maybe a few pellets.
Q: It sounds like you weren’t a big fan of the people who participated in these events.
A: No, I didn’t hold the people who did it in high regard. Some of them would completely ignore you and just act like tools. I think they were just rich powerful men who wanted to shoot things.
Q: Did it pay well?
A: No. It was just one Saturday a week; when I started we got about forty bucks a day, and by the time I left it had gone up to fifty. Sometimes there were tips, though. The tips were put into a fund that paid for the end of year party, which was always exceptional. And we always got a pretty good lunch on the day.
Q: What did your parents think of this job?
A: Mum used to say, “Don’t get shot,” and my dad wasn’t fussed at all.
Q: They didn’t think you were a killer?
A: I’m not a bloodthirsty type of person! I mean the other day at work I spent 20 minutes assisting a cricket into a box and helped it outside, yet I was party to the slaughter of thousands of pheasants.
Q: What’s it like when they’re all getting shot?
A: They make a really distinctive crazy noise and it’s curtailed instantly when they get shot. They’re quite high in the air and it’s faintly ridiculous to see it happen.
Q: Why did you quit?
A: I probably got another job, an actual job, I think in a bookstore where there was less chance of being shot.