Worcestershire is famous for a fair few things – the sauce of the same name probably being the first thing to spring to one’s mind.
But when it comes to shoots it seems a shame that, when pondering high pheasants, not too many of the region’s operations come to the fore with similar ease (cue my phone going mad as the county’s shoot captains correct me!).
However, one that can stand shoulder-to-shoulder with some of the best is the Noverton shoot near Stanford Bridge, not a million miles from Worcester and already gaining something of a positive reputation for itself. Now in its third season, this venture can certainly produce sporting birds and regularly receives acclaim from some of the west midlands’ most avid shots. And it was the vision of one family, fuelled by a desire to diversify their farming enterprise, which really set the ball rolling. Step forward farmer, shoot organiser, gamekeeper and the man with the radio, Tom Spilsbury – son of Philip and Margie.
Tom started out on his agricultural career on the family farm near Worcester, and also worked on the family’s tenanted farm near Stanford Bridge – a mixed operation that counts livestock, crops and hops amongst its main generators of income.
“We have two farms – Orleton Court and Cheveridge,” said the 27-year-old former student of Harper Adams Agricultural College, where he studied agri-food marketing with business studies.
“Tom’s final year university dissertation discussed the future of commercial shooting after the emtryl ban – a subject close to the heart for many readers and a worthwhile read for anyone who still regards it as a moot point.”
Tom continues: “From having a game farm operation at Cheveridge, headed up by my mother, there was a seven year gap before we got the opportunity to acquire the sporting rights over the land at Orleton Court and the surrounding estate. It had been decided to cease the rearing business – the continual hatching and maintenance taking up more time than was really available.
“In all there is approximately 2,800 acres to shoot over, and in the beginning the shoots that existed on the land before we got the rights were run by two syndicates, with a main road splitting them. What we have done is combine those shoots into one, making full use of the 1,000 acres of woodland and approximately 35 acres of game cover, made up of maize and first and second year kale. The estate that we lease the rights from is the Brockhill estate – a fine shoot in its own right – and owner Sir Anthony Winnington is a great advocate of shooting as long as it’s done properly.”
So, having had experience in the game farming industry, was it fairly easy to get the shoot going in the first instance?
“In terms of the topography there was absolutely no problem – the land is littered with areas that have made great drives. The initial obstacle was filling the days with guns. As with any shoot operation, it’s all well and good having the land, but if you can’t put the guns under the birds, ends are not going to meet. So in the first season we had to work very hard to get our diary full. Since then, however, we haven’t looked back. Visiting guns have always been impressed, and once word got around we found our season soon filling up – well in advance too. In all we have 19 days with a tenant’s day on top of that.”
“Having experienced the birds firsthand myself, it is no surprise that guns come back wanting more. The birds have a very strong physique and this can be seen being put to good effect in their flight.”
All game that ends up in the bag is processed through the shoot’s own facilities at regular intervals during the day and, after the guns have taken their brace, is sold locally.
As has previously been mentioned, Tom also wears a keeper’s hat and has a beat keeper in Greg Adams, who looks after the second of the two beats. “Greg’s a great keeper,” said Tom, “his involvement takes in a lot more of the game rearing and orchestration of the beating line. He was previously a keeper for the Duke of Buccleuch and has been able to bring his experience of this to Noverton. Greg operating the beating line allows me to be out front, ensuring everything is going to plan. For me it’s all about providing a challenge for visiting guns,” said Tom, “it’s incredibly satisfying to see a shot try and bring down one of our birds and, if successful, taking that memory back home with them.”
And memories they certainly were on the particular day I visited. A smattering of rain had signalled my arrival, but this didn’t hinder the event in any way and the birds flew with consistency and a certain dose of rocket fuel that saw them climb to extraordinary heights.
The total number of drives on the day was five, with lunch served in the field – a mushroom soup to die for and a veritable feast of sandwiches and salad. For me, the Fall Dingle drive epitomised the day as pheasants, that would feel very much at home on a Devon shoot, appeared in regular bursts, curling and powering upwards on the wind. Indeed all drives mirrored this scenario.
Some shoots may, if they feel they have the winning formula, become quite insular, allowing only a certain amount of people to enjoy their sport. Tom Spilsbury works in completely the opposite way to this. What he would like to see is more people tasting what Worcestershire has to offer.
“By their very nature farmers are versatile beings and, more often than not, will expand their horizons and do whatever they can to keep their business running.”
Tom and his family are no exception and have now got themselves a shoot that can only get stronger. “It’s very pleasing to see the fruits of a successful enterprise,” said Tom, “and when you have the bug you just want to do more. When things are running themselves here, I wouldn’t mind starting up another shoot – one that would, again, put Worcestershire firmly on the map. If not a shoot, then something else that would utilise the land.”
This was a reassuring thought for me to ponder as I headed back to the gun bus, as I knew that, if this is what Tom was going to do, it would be done with no stone unturned and would ultimately benefit the countryside into the bargain.
A good proportion of the land in the county is conducive to pheasant shooting, and to put a shoot in place is certainly made easier when you have the hills, valleys and woodlands at your disposal, but it’s the people behind such an operation that really make it successful – and the Spilsburys are just the family to make that happen.
For more information on the Noverton shoot contact Tom Spilsbury on 01584 881248 or 07970 981594.