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Game Laws

Game laws were first enacted in 1671 and were primarily put into place to keep the poorer people from shooting or snaring partridges. Not that game laws were concerned exclusively with partridges, for they encompassed all edible wild life--deer, hares, rabbits, pheasants, and partridges were all mentioned in the first bill. For some reason, however, the law makers were more worried about a possible dearth of partridges at this time.

The Game laws were not so much laws about the prey as they were about who could play predator. Not only did the law place restrictions on who could hunt, they also restricted who could own the dogs that might be used to help bring down the prey. An unqualified man could be punished for owning a hunting dog even if he were not caught with any of the killed game.


It was illegal for anyone to sell or buy game, so the only way to obtain any was through a person who was qualified to shoot it.

The laws set qualifications so high that some men could not even hunt on their own land. To qualify to be eligible to obtain a certificate to shoot game, a man had have property worth more than £100 a year or be the eldest son of an esquire or a man of higher degree

That led to a situation where a knight‘s oldest son was qualified without any property at all but the knight wasn‘t because his property was not worth more than 100£ for his own use per year. The estimate was that out of a male population of about 316,000 men with property, only 16,500 were eligible.

Being eligible only meant that the man had the right to pay for a certificate to kill game.

There were several game laws over the years, each more restrictive than the last.

While the basic requirement remained that a man had to have a property worth at least £100 per year for his own use, the owner of forests, parks, chases , or those called lord of the manor were exempt from that requirement on his own property, but were liable if the dogs or man crossed over onto a neighbors’ land.

A qualified man could shoot anywhere; however, if he shot on someone else’s property, he could be warned off. If he continued after being warned off he would be liable for the fine. A warning once given lasts for the life of the one warned off.

A leaseholder could warn off his landlord unless the landlord had reserved hunting/shooting rights in the lease. Usually the sporting landlords did reserve the rights.

Some landowners and their game keepers were overzealous in ferreting out offenders and fining them or sending them to Botany Bay. One man even accused the guest of a neighbor of trespass and violation of the game law because he followed the dogs on to his property. The accused was acquitted because he had not had the dogs under his control , nor even made any sounds to encourage them. If he had had so much as yelled the equivalent of “Go get them” , he would have been guilty.

The tax commissioner was to publish the names of those with certificates yearly.

Generally, the exempt men had to pay the collector of taxes three and a half guineas { 73 shillings or 3£ 13 s . } The collector of taxes gave them a receipt ( cost 1 shilling) which they exchanged for a certificate from the clerk of the commissioners of game saying they had paid the tax. Quite expensive for most people. Both an unqualified man with a certificate and a qualified one with out a certificate were fined .

Men who were exempt could name a gamekeeper or other person to act as his deputy in killing game. That is if a peer wanted several brace of partridges for a dinner, he could have his game keeper, for whom he obtained a certificate, shoot them, if the season were right. A game keeper's certificate cost 25s.

The list of creatures considered game changed from time to time

But in general, game birds were :– pheasants, black game ( heath birds), red game or grouse, partridges, quail , snipes, wild ducks, teal, widgeons. Rabbits and hares were protected. Foxes were vermin and were not protected, yet there was a season for hunting them.

Deer generally belonged to parks or were considered the King’s deer. Swans whales and sturgeon belonged to the king,

Some sources say that seasons during which it was illegal to shoot some game were not imposed until the 1830s but the game laws from the time of James 1st named times during which it was illegal to kill the various classes of game. Also, Books such as the Shooter's Guide of 1816 mention several periods during which it was illegal to shoot or trap game.

The mere possession of some birds at other times of the year could lead to a fine of £20, or £5 each for some species.

The following were usually listed as game: Hares, pheasants, Partridges, Grouse, Heath, or Moor Game, Black game, Bustards. Woodcock, snipe, quail, landrail, Conies, and deer .

The season for partridges was Sept 1-Feb 1

The Shooter's Guide; Or, Complete Sportsman's Companion By Thomas Burgeland Johnson, 1816

A Treatise on the Game Laws, and on Fisheries By Joseph Chitty, 1812

Fowling for Pheasant: Mansfield Park

for Pheasants : Oct.1 to Feb 1.

Blackgame 12 August to 20 Aug in Scotland; elsewhere August 20 to December 10, except Somerset, Devon, and new forest where the season opened on Aug 31.

For Grouse , it was Aug 12 to Dec 10;

Hare was from Michaelmas to Candlemas ( September 29th to February 2nd )

Fox hunting season was from the first frost (Oct or Nov) to the last frost , or until the vixen is pregnant or has cubs. Foxes were not shot.

"In olden days it was the theory, and, I may add, the rule, that the months of September and October should be devoted to shooting, and that hunting commenced on the first Monday in November. " -- George F. Underhill A Century of English Fox Hunting

The Grosvenor Hunt By George Stubbs. Courtesy of http://cgfa.sunsite.dk

Pigeons were not game but they were protected anyway; however, a man had a right to shoot pigeons or hares, or rabbits which were destroying his crops.

While landowners had the right to protect their land against poachers and unqualified people, the judges and juries were generally not sympathetic to the landowner or gamekeeper who killed a neighbor's dog for merely trespassing.

Shooting or trapping on Sunday, Christmas, or at night was against the law

Most men were allowed only one certified gamekeeper.

A man had to be qualified and have a certificate to keep a lurcher, a greyhound, or setting dog. A lurcher was a sight-hound of mixed breed kept for hunting game.


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