On a mild morning late in January, the sun streamed into a farmyard in the tiny hamlet of Binweston, a textbook Shropshire settlement of geometric red brick buildings, dark wooden gables and white painted windows ? a place that A. E. Housman would feel comfortably at home in. The hubbub and excitement of shooters foregathering dominated the scene in this landscape of hill country and pasture 15 minutes to the south-west of Shrewsbury and only a short walk away from the Welsh border. This is perfect shooting country. Well-known shoots such as Long Mountain and Rorrington are close by. Crucially, however, this is hunting country, too.
The South Shropshire Hunt Shoot Club?s 24 members were the sportsmen gathering in the yard attaching fore-ends, checking cartridge bags and pulling on boots. Their purpose was twofold ? firstly, they were there to enjoy some sport on the club?s last day of the season, but secondly, they were out to prove the point that hunting and shooting co-exist happily.
Having been in existence for three seasons, the club, as the name suggests, involves a variety of keen shooters with links to the South Shropshire Hunt. It started as the germ of an idea between Peter Holt and Bill McLean. Both husbands to Masters of the hunt, they are keenly aware of the politics that exist between those who ride to hounds or stand at the peg. This point is capably demonstrated by Peter ? he is the author of two best-selling books on fieldsports, The Keen Shot?s Miscellany and The Keen Foxhunter?s Miscellany. It was at the invitation of another club member, his publisher Andrew Johnston from Quiller Press, that Shooting Times visited. Together, Peter and Bill realised there was scope for a low-impact group of local shooters and hunt supporters to utilise those parts of the hunt?s country on an occasional basis where shooting otherwise does not take place.
The idea behind the operation is simple: in some parts, landowners don?t necessarily permit shooting, but they do allow the hunt to cross their land. Consequently, the club, through its links to the hunt, has access to a couple of coverts which they visit to beat through in an informal way no more than two or three times in the season, always at times that are compatible with the hunt?s diary to ensure the minimum disturbance. The club?s shoot dates are not extensive, running to a handful of days every season, each of which consequently becomes a major event ? they are as much social as sporting occasions. The key to gaining access to land is the club?s sensitivity to the hunt?s needs and the fact that the shooters don?t want, or ask for, more than a couple of days each year.
While the shooters gathered in the yard, Glynn Jones, on whose farm today?s exercise was to be conducted, outlined why the arrangement suited him. As a keen hunt supporter, he likes to see hounds work on his land. Equally, he is supportive of shooting and has let his land to a formal shoot in the past. ?I?m afraid I found the shooting too much of a disturbance on a regular basis,? he explained, ?I don?t want a syndicate here every two weeks, but I do like to see the game here. For me, the variety of wildlife on my land is really important ? when I?m mowing or combining and I see chicks and birds, I always make a point of stopping to pop them in the hedges.? Glynn?s attitude is that fieldsports, in moderation, are perfectly in tune with the natural life of his farm and his excitement on the day the shoot came through was as evident as that of the club members themselves.
Outlining the strategy
Peter Holt was unable to make the day ? unfortunately, he had a funeral to attend. In his absence, Bill McLean called the hubbub to order and described how the day would be conducted. With more than 20 shooters present, it was unnecessary to mention that the task of beating would fall to all and turns would be taken to stand at the peg ? nor were any numbers drawn, either. The club?s members are sufficiently relaxed to take a ?come what may? attitude to their sport. If they happen to find themselves in a hot spot, so much the better.
With an entreaty that no ground game should be shot, ?especially not foxes?, the shooters headed up Binweston Lane, to the woods where the first couple of set pieces were to take place. Ian Sawers, who, like a number of the club?s members, is a former army officer and who now works as the Shropshire county co-ordinator for Help for Heroes, was tasked with organising the Guns. There was a great deal of talk among the troops of flanking manoeuvres and strategy, but in reality, despite being the end of the season, this was only the second day at Binweston, and with little to base their reasoning on, the bulk of the Guns found their own positions along a long belt of trees lining down the slope, slotting into place where they felt the best opportunities might arise. Those acting as walking Guns and beaters headed up the hill to find pheasants.
Before long, birds that moments earlier were languishing in the sunshine at the top of the hill took to the air. Thanks to the topography, fast, hardy, soaring pheasants made their way down the slope over the top of the Guns, putting demands on forward allowance skills. Nevertheless, with unsurpassed views out over the Shropshire countryside as a backdrop, the Guns kept their part of the bargain, opening the modest account for the day.
Out for an extended stroll
The shoot day essentially entailed an extended walk down the hill ? a walked-up day with formal interludes ? with beaters and shooters swapping roles for the second act of this five part performance. Eleven o?clock saw us arrive back down at the farmyard for a brief pause to deal with the contents of several flasks of bullshot, pork pies and sausage rolls. Urgency was not the watchword, as the party broke up into small clusters. Before long, however, once again Bill marshalled the troops ? the critical deadline for the day was to be at The Sun Inn, in nearby Marton for 2pm. There was work to do.
Dropping down beneath the farmyard, the Guns once again strung out, this time on a wide front below a small copse with plenty of natural cover and a line of brambles separating the beaters and the Guns. In bright sunshine, and to the evident excitement of all, the copse held a good number of pheasants that once more flew over the line with all the inhibitions of an Exmoor Exocet. At the end of the drive, the whole team revelled in the sport they had seen and fanned out in the field below to ensure all birds were accounted for. For the final act of the day, the Guns moved down the hill once more. This time, the ground flood plain for the Rea Brook and its carriers which eventually joins the River Severn at Shrewsbury. The ground was dotted with reeds and tussocks ? potentially a haven for snipe. Unfortunately, a helicopter on a low-level training run from nearby RAF Shawbury repeatedly chopped its way overhead, meaning whatever game was in there mostly kept a low-profile. Despite the mechanical intrusion, the sunshine and benign conditions on the low ground drew several more pheasants to the area, and consequently to the bag.
By the time the party called it a day in order to make it to the all-important lunch appointment, the total bag stood at just over a brace of pheasants per head. That is hardly an excessive figure by most shooters? calculations, but nevertheless it was the source of tremendous pride ? the club felt the morning had gone well. The shooters had all seen sport but, most importantly, the farmer was happy, and the wrath of the local huntsman, one Otis Ferry, would not be incurred through excessive disturbance by shooters. Indeed, Otis had been due to join the club with his own gun on the day, but a hound called Lettuce had, according to club members, become temporarily misplaced while the South Shropshire had visited a neighbouring hunt the previous day.
As the members clustered around the bar at The Sun Inn, reliving the highlights, Bill McLean explained the ethos of the club: ?In 2008, we started modestly with a dozen people and the aim to rent a couple of coverts within the hunt?s country. We?re not out to compete with ordinary gameshooters ? you?ve got a good mix of people involved, all hunt supporters, who are keen on shooting. And as we?ve seen today, not all farmers are keen to see foxes shot. There?s a lot of people in the shooting world today for whom the fox is public enemy number one. We?re trying to illustrate that you can still have a great day without that necessarily being the case.?