From the high ground above the Georgian city of Bath, in Somerset, and hard by the racecourse, one can see on a clear day at least across the Severn estuary to Wales, to both suspension bridges and the Mendip Hills. This is the dramatic setting for the recently established Weston Wood shoot and it was here, on a sunny, cloud-free June morning that I met a working party putting the final touches to their newly excavated duck pond and release pens.
The shoot is a deep, grassy bowl encompassed on two sides and at its head by deep woodland, itself leading down to meadows sprinkled with sheep and cattle, while way below us the western reaches of Bath glitter in the sun. There is a faint breeze and the silence is broken only by the thud of hammers, the barking of a spaniel and the voices of the work team as they attend to the pool.
The 210-acre Weston Wood shoot takes in two farms. One is owned by the Robinson family. It lies at the centre of the shoot and incorporates three release pens, two of which have recently been constructed, and the new duck pond. Covercrops consist of 13 acres of forage rape and kale, mainly intended as cattle fodder, several smaller strips and just over an acre of elephant grass (miscanthus) on high ground above the duck pond. By some standards the shoot is relatively small, but the steep banks, the 20 acres of woodland cover and the deep valley offer the possibility of high, fast birds and excellent shooting.
Yet the shoot was only founded in 2010 when five Guns, all friends and keen Shots, got together, each putting £240 in the kitty to cover the cost of building a pen and buying 250 ex-layers from the nearby Badminton estate. It was a start, and though only some 40 birds were shot in that first season, the experiment was deemed sufficiently successful to expand the shoot by taking in a further three members. The fact that all the Guns knew each other and were good friends has ensured the success of the shoot.
Sharing the workload
Adam Robinson and his cousin Matthew, whose fathers, Paul and Gerald, own the farm, and Nick Anstey, a founder member and close friend, told me that the workload is shared by all the Guns in the syndicate. While a work party is scheduled every fortnight throughout the spring and summer, the shoot members are so dedicated that most of them help out every weekend.
There is also a team of voluntary beaters, captained by Mark Collins, a friend of the Robinson family and who, having worked on the farm since he was a youngster, has an intimate knowledge of the land. The beaters each receive a brace of birds at the end of a day’s shooting and, with the syndicate, enjoy a social meal at the end of the season.
Last year, 600 birds were released but they were not a great success and the shoot struggled, in part due to the appalling weather throughout the summer and much of the shooting season. Though several 25-bird days were enjoyed, it was agreed that no more ex-layers would feature. As many shoots have discovered, these birds may be cheap but they seldom hold. The only way to obtain value from them is to treat them as though they were poults and even then they are still likely to stray.
This year the shoot is taking a major step forward by releasing 600 poults, 220 duck, 70 redlegs and 30 grey partridges. The main release pen will hold 300 birds, and the remainder of the poults will be divided between the other two pens, while the duck will be released on the pond just below the high woodland. A small pool has also been dug out to act as a catchment to drain the three-acre wood, filter out rubbish and divert any excess water into the pond.
As I saw, the pool was in the final stages of being enclosed by wire stretched between stout posts. A fox deterrent in the shape of electric wire will be erected in due course, and the banks will be reseeded with grass and wild flowers, while reeds have already been established on the water’s edge.
Every effort will be made to ensure that the duck fly with verve. As the Guns will be standing well below the pool, there is every reason to think that the birds will offer decent shooting.
Keeping feed costs down
As most shoots will have discovered, the cost of wheat and its availability last season caused a great deal of head-scratching, a problem which is likely to be exacerbated by the dreadful autumn and winter rains which have brought near disaster to much of this year’s wheat crop. However, the Weston Wood shoot is fortunate to have a local farmer with a half Gun in the syndicate who has supplied four tons of wheat at £100 a ton. This will give the shoot a good head start.
Adam and Nick showed me the release pens, two of which are ready to receive birds. The third, high on a bank overlooking woodland, requires some trees to be cleared from its surroundings and the wire needs to be completed, but it will be ready for the delivery of poults in a few weeks.
This year the team will also be coppicing in the woodland to let in light, while some trees and hedges will be planted to provide further cover. As Nick Anstey told me: “We are aware that what we do now will benefit us, the birds and wildlife in seasons to come. We are a self-taught syndicate and are passionate about our sport. We don’t want to shoot large bags but only healthy, challenging birds, which will end up on our own tables. Best of all, we enjoy seeing the end result of our hard work.”
If arduous work and enthusiasm count for anything, then this small DIY syndicate shoot deserves to reap success. We shall see the result of all their efforts this coming season when Shooting Times covers a day’s sport on the Weston Wood shoot.