It would not be unreasonable to assume that if you were lucky enough to have access to a 6,500 acre game shooting estate, having its lower ground distributed around the headwaters of a tidal river would be an added bonus.
Thus it is at Maristow. Or, to give it its full title, Maristow & Bickleigh.
Pheasants came twisting and side-slipping off Small Valley.
This West Country gem partly bestrides the upper reaches of the Tavy, and for some glorious moments during our day, across its sparkling waters, we were treated to the sight of Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s gracefully bulbous railway bridge spanning the Tamar, below the confluence of the two rivers.
Brunel’s contemporary George Bradshaw would have passed this way while compiling his rail timetables, and might well have met Sir Massey Lopes Bt. out in his dogcart.
The Lopes family (and the Lords Roborough) have owned the estate, and much more in this part of Devon, for more than two centuries.
In more recent years the game shooting was in the creative hands of Brian Mears, who laid the foundations for this high bird shoot on the south western edge of Dartmoor.
When game shooting people talk of Devon, Chargot, Miltons, Molland and North Molton pop up in their conversation.
This is no surprise, for the worthy burghers in the north of the county have long and assiduously cultivated the idea that nowhere, but nowhere, delivers the high, fast pheasant of myth and legend better than they do. In many instances they are right; but not always.
Brian had a clear view of what could be achieved from the Maristow topography, sporting but not stratospheric birds in reality, and he was followed there by the decade-long tenure of Richard Kelvin Hughes who improved the ground still more.
When, in 2007, he realised his ambition of buying a grouse moor, Tim Landon’s Knarsdale as it happens, the Maristow & Bickleigh let passed into the hands of the current tenant, Clive Jacobs, who is eagerly enhancing the Maristow experience.
Guns and pickers-up mingle happily throughout the day.
First and foremost, Clive is a very smart businessman. From humble beginnings running an air ticket bucket shop, he parlayed his knowledge of the travel trade into a stunningly successful holiday car rental business turning over a quarter of a billion pounds a year, which he sold for £43m in 2003.
One could argue this gave him 43 million reasons for doing not a lot, but at age 42, Clive was not exactly retirement material, and as his friends agreed, it was not if, but when, he would make his next investment.
No-one was too surprised when he became the Maristow tenant because game shooting had become a passion for he and his wife, Suzanne.
They already lived on Dartmoor and a serious estate was always on the cards, but whether he regards his 10-year investment in the Maristow game shooting as a business is open to debate.
He is on the record as saying that it is not, but what is certain is that he set out to deliver the smoothest shoot in the west by his own standards and is unlikely to allow those to slip, whatever it costs.
The ground first got the nod from an experienced team from Hampshire who have been game shooting there several times each season since he took over.
Our day was, coincidentally, taken by another equally experienced roving syndicate from the same county.
Though shot in early November, a retrospective look at the shoot card records that the team shot in unseasonably warm weather and little wind, but they are less likely to remember this; just a plethora of high pheasant cruising majestically over the steep-sided valleys that feed ground water into the Tavy.
Maristow headkeeper Darren Tidball.
It is entirely fair to say that on a daily basis, the Maristow shoot revolves around headkeeper Darren Tidball and his wife, Angela.
Darren came to Maristow via Downton Castle, Powis Castle and Delbury, being recruited to join the new tenant in the build up to the first season, and has been largely responsible for the considerable physical changes that have occurred.
“Although we have more than 6,000 acres we took the decision to concentrate initially on the 3,200 acres of Maristow, which lies to the west of the Plymouth to Yelverton Road and left the Bickleigh beat alone,” said Darren. “Looking back, that was a good decision as there was so much to do here. We took out hundreds of trees, levelled the valley floors and improved vehicle access. People who shot this ground five years ago would hardly recognise some of the drives today.
“This ground consists of three valleys running east off the River Tavy. It is typical Devon ground, shallow soil over slate scree over granite, with lots of underground water springs. Overall, we have around 1,000 acres of established woodland following the valleys, with mixed oak, beech, chestnut, ash and other softwoods on our banks. Of the other 2,200 acres, about 60 per cent is down to grass and 40 per cent to arable, with typical wheat, barley and maize rotations.”
Our day started on the Bame Wood. One of 10 drives on the beat, it is a meandering fast running stream bed which illustrates the work the keepering team have been doing, clearing valley bottoms and gun rides and giving guns a decent footing as they peer upwards into the timber belt.
With sun on the treetops but deep shade on the valley floor, the beaters teased the bank along the line.
The mid-morning break is taken alongside the headwaters of the River Tavy at Lopwell Dam.
A progression of sturdy pheasants glided across the line, delivering high quality sport to all eight guns over a happy half hour.
The second drive was a splendid wide-based stream bed in South Wood, where the birds lifted off over standing timber some 40 metres above the gun line and climbed to clear the woodland behind.
Maristow pheasants are a mixed bag of black neck, ring neck and Kansas crosses, and with the 2010 rearing season being as good as most keepers could remember.
The stock of fast, fat, feisty birds slipped, slid and cruised over the line in a tantalising display.
The highest navigable point on the River Tavy is the Lopwell Dam. In warm sunshine it was here that the team took its mid-morning repast with our white-gloved host, Derek Farrow.
Derek Farrow is Maristow’s regular host.
We gleaned from him that apart from 1,200 acres on the home farm the rest of the shoot ground is tenanted with mixed arable, dairy and sheep ventures and that for this season, the ground has 180 acres of cover crop, 75 per cent organic triticale, supplemented with organic brassica/maize, which feeds and holds the birds well.
The break complete, the third and final part of the morning action saw us at Small Valley, one of the most improved drives on the estate and nominally a signature drive, though any one of the four we shot on the day would have sufficed.
By this time, the guns were well within their comfort zones and the steep bank ahead gave impetus to the birds as they flew straight over the front line and swirled over the back guns.
The team went to lunch happy in the knowledge they acquitted themselves tolerably well.
After lunch, we talked about the finer details of the shoot.
There is little public access across the estate, which helps Darren and underkeeper Robert Marshall keep their charges where they should be.
There are enough deer to stir and spook them and buzzards, goshawks, peregrines, ospreys, kestrels and tawny owls in profusion, though.
The estate takes in its stock as seven-week-old poults and shot around 25 days last season, each averaging around 300.
However, as Darren said: “We will not sell as many of the bigger 400+ bird days next season and will offer more smaller days to keep our regular teams in play, because that is what the market appears to want.”
The Madicotts drive demonstrates how clearing the valleys benefits the shooting.
The final drive was Maddicotts, another wooded valley with a stream rushing along its base.
The beaters brought the valley side in from the right, some birds crossing towards the line, some braver souls making a gliding dash along the guns before flaring out either side of their flight line.
Either make stunningly difficult shots and interestingly, it was the ends of the line that fared best in this final lottery.
Would Clive have been happy with the day that his keeper had just delivered to the Hampshire visitors?
Certainly, because it ticked many boxes, particularly with its presentation of high flying but quite attainable pheasant of uniformly high quality.
By his own admission Clive is something of a perfectionist so could probably have found aspects that could have delivered better. Show me a shoot where there couldn’t be.
There are many shoots, including some north Devon notables, whose keepers and tenants would have given their eye-teeth to have delivered such a day.
On balance, in its fourth season under Clive and Darren’s tutelage, Maristow is getting it right.
Top drive: Small Valley
The drive consists of a steep-sided grassy valley. Guns peg in two lines, numbers 2-7 in the front rank along the base of the bank, facing three clumps of well established fir. Numbers 1 and 8 back-gun, tucked into a strip of scrub on the rising bank behind, which makes the front rank and the flushing point above them invisible. The birds, when they come, are flushed off cover crop well back beyond the crest. The birds travel quickly, some curling in towards the centre of the line, giving the front guns combinations of direct overheads and fast crossers. The back guns have different challenges, snap game shooting in very short windows of opportunity as the birds rise and rocket across the bank behind them. The secret is to keep a steady flow of birds approaching the flushing point and then nature does the rest.
The bag of mixed strains of hearty pheasant was well-earned by the guns.
While Darren Tidball occupies his time making sure that the guns see the sport that they came for, his wife, Angela, presides with enormous good humour and enthusiasm over the bespoke shoot lodge, Maristow Barton. When Clive Jacobs took the tenancy in May 2007, his plan was to offer the full sporting experience and this included some serious accommodation and dining. Maristow Barton came with the tenancy, a typical Devon farmhouse built foursquare but lacking the required finesse. Enter Suzanne Jacobs, who undertook the project of transforming it, in four months, into eight suites and the stunning result is offered to visiting teams. Catering to the required standard was initially easy. Clive also owned the New Angel restaurant in Dartmouth, presided over by John Burton-Race, so Maristow became an out-station of what had been the 2005 UK Restaurant of the Year. Teams staying overnight before their shoot day have interesting dinner menus including eclectic starters followed by roasts and lighter dishes with Mediterranean cuisine influences and good puddings and cheeses, while lunches on shoot days are traditional roasts, duck or lasagne. All wines, quite tidy in their provenance, and drinks come as part of the package. Neither the New Angel’s sous chefs nor Burton-Race were available last season, so while the accommodation and hospitality remain of a high standard, the shoot will need to look to its laurels if it is to equal or improve previous dining arrangements.
For more information about shooting at Maristow contact Louise Cooper on 01252 547097, 07900 215157 or alternatively email: firstname.lastname@example.org