Always keep the best till last! That was certainly the case on the bitterly cold day when I was made so welcome at the Hunstrete shoot in Somerset. Set in a fair landscape of undulating ground, this must surely figure as one of the best-organised and most rewarding DIY shoots in this part of the country. As readers will be aware, DIY shoots of the walk-one, stand-one variety are an increasingly established part of the shooting scene, providing relatively cheap driven shooting plus the benefit, to all taking part, of being involved in the organisation and running of the shoot.
Let me explain the background to this one. The 1,600-acre Hunstrete shoot is based on land formerly known as the Popham Estate, some 12 miles to the south of Bristol. This is countryside of rounded hills, many crowned with woodland, of deep valleys, of pasture and some cereal; it is, in other words, ideally adapted to driven shooting.
It is also a landscape that has been inhabited by man for thousands of years, as can be witnessed by Stone Age artefacts that have been recovered locally, along with the remains of an Iron Age fort and Roman remnants discovered throughout the area.
Up to the task
The shoot was first established and run by Peter Morris about 40 years ago. For 32 years he organised and ran the shoot, handing over the captaincy only eight years ago to James Box, the current shoot captain, who is more than ably assisted by his wife Sara, who both beats and picks-up with her yellow Labrador, Ruby. James has almost grown up with the shoot, as he started beating here when he was 14 and was taught to shoot by Les Harvey, who is in charge of and manages the Compton beat.
A shoot of this nature — involving as it does some 14 paying Guns, two guests each day, and a cohort of enthusiastic and efficient beaters plus pickers-up — demands the ability and patience to organise and command with efficiency and a sense of humour. This James has in abundance.
Up to five years ago it was the custom to shoot fortnightly but, following the acquisition of a neighbouring shoot, the team of Guns now meets weekly to shoot one or other of the two beats. At the beginning of the season, the 14 Guns are split into two teams, one captained by James, the other by Matthew Prescott, and they remain in this formation throughout the 16 days shooting, each day standing one drive, beating the next.
Any shoot is only as good as the background organisation that takes place between shooting seasons and, in the case of DIY shoots, too often this means the workload tends to fall on the shoulders of a handful of members.
Not so at Hunstrete. There is a work party on the first Saturday of every month, which every member is expected to attend, in addition to the two
consecutive Saturdays before the birds go to wood, when it’s made sure that release-pens and feeders are ready.
The poults are bought in at seven to eight weeks old from two local suppliers, one a former gamekeeper. The quality and health of the birds, James told me, is excellent, and the strain used is a mixture of American types that fly and hold well. Indeed, as I was to see later in the day, the majority of these pheasants climbed through the woodland canopy to burst high over the trees — so high, in fact, that several were most definitely out of shot. The shoot also buys its birds in conjunction with another local shoot to obtain the best possible price.
The Hunstrete shoot uses three release-pens over its 1,600 acres, and there are about 10 gamecover strips employing maize, kale and a wild bird mix. Three plots of artichokes have been planted in order, one hopes, to reduce future covercrop costs.
However, as was the case with so many shoots all over the country last year, the covercrops were not a success. Indeed, the first drive of the day consisted of 16 acres of failed maize that had become so wet that it hadn’t even been harvested.
A youthful contribution
The beat the team was shooting, on a bitterly cold January day of drizzle with a hint of the snow that would blanket the country 24 hours later, was the lower end of the shoot, the Compton beat.
Shortly after 9am the two teams of Guns, plus additional beaters, gathered in the shelter of a barn for introductions and instructions. I noticed quite a few youngsters among the extra beaters. Earlier, James had told me that young people are encouraged to come along, so there may be anything from three to nine helping on a day’s shooting.
One of the key components of any shoot, be it a syndicate or DIY, is a competent treasurer and here the Hunstrete shoot is fortunate to have Russell Mizon, who not only looks after the finances but has also organised a private website for the shoot, which enables members to keep in close touch with developments and each week’s sport through the season.
Keen to get moving
So that is the background to this well-run and very sporting shoot. Now to the day in question.
Six drives were scheduled with a brief stop for lunch on the hoof after the fourth drive. The sky was a blanket of grey, the wind was bitter with a hint of rain and everyone was keen to get under way.
The first drive, Nursery Maize, a block of sodden unharvested maize, required a strip of woodland with a release-pen to be blanked into it and then driven towards a semi-circle of Guns. Several birds broke cover but tended to fly to one side, giving the team only a few chances, but they were good, high birds.
From there we moved on to Long Wood, the second drive, a stretch of deep fir and deciduous woodland surmounting a hill overlooking a grassy valley. Again, only a handful of very tall birds erupted as the beaters took it through, most of them beating the Guns. So far, it had been moderate and cold sport, enhanced by excellent birds.
However, things were soon to change for the better on the next two drives. The first, Roundhill — again, a wood set on a hill — was driven in reverse order, as it had previously been found that birds tended to fly back over the beaters towards another pen. This time, with Guns standing in plough below the wood, and a back Gun against a hedge well below them, several good birds were added to the bag.
But it was the Attgrove drive that really kept the team busy. Again, driven in reverse, birds rocketed from the wood down a narrow valley to offer steady shooting. I stood behind Shane Spiers, a New Zealander who has lived here for 20 or so years. He told me that his greatest pleasure was being involved in all the shoot’s activities all year round. He also proved to be an excellent Shot, beaten only by one sky-scraping hen!
No time to tarry
At lunchtime, the two teams walked back to the vehicles parked half a mile away to enjoy hot venison stew and a delicious cake, each provided by one member of the two teams, the members taking it in turns to provide lunch on a shoot day. The sky was ominous and looked full of snow, so there was little delay in moving on to the fifth drive, the Glebe, a stretch of ancient woodland with a road on one side and facing the first drive, the maize field.
I stood with Gary Snook at one end of the wood by a small stream. A cock bird suddenly appeared over the tree line, to be neatly killed by him, followed by a woodcock, which escaped unscathed. Gary told me that this was his first season with the shoot and he could not praise it sufficiently for the sport shown and friendliness of everyone involved. The last drive of the day, I was assured, would be a stunner. And so it proved, even though we had to wait half an hour for the climax as the beaters pushed a maize field into a wood and then blanked that into another wood, Lye Wood, set far above the Guns.
It was seriously cold, and feet were being stamped and hands blown upon, but the wait was worth every second. These were spectacular birds, high, curling and doing their best to beat the line to the safety of a roadside copse. Most, but by no means all, made it and there was impressive shooting from Matt Prescott, Andy Giles and Paul Smith.
The bag for the day was 65 pheasants and one woodcock, all the birds being shared out among Guns and beaters alike. I left with happy memories of good sport and good companionship — and within a mile of Hunstrete the snow had begun to fall and the white-out had begun.