When it comes to running a shoot, any keeper will tell you that practical experience beats classroom learning hands down. Indeed, many of the old guard are somewhat sceptical that the job can even be taught as part of a formal education. One place where they believe that the hands-on approach really does have a role in a formal education is at Wiltshire Colleges
Lackham campus, just to the south of Chippenham.
Some say that the quality of your surroundings can act as an inspiration. If that is the case, the students at Lackham must be suitably gifted. Situated in the magnificent grounds of an imposing Georgian manor house, the colleges estate borders the Avon and lies close to the pretty village of Lacock. The
estate and its college farm feature woodlands, wetlands and other natural and semi-natural habitats but what is of most interest to a lot of the students on Lackhams countryside management courses is its shoot.
Earlier this month, I visited on a particularly picturesque snow-blanketed day, the kind that has quickened the heart of many driven game Shots this month and left grouse keepers somewhat morose. I was there to take part in a shoot day run by the students and as I slid into a parking space and pulled
on my warmest boots, the eagerness was apparent among the army of enthusiastic beaters waiting for the off many of them with their own dogs snorting frozen breath in an equally excited fashion.
The Guns gathered for their briefing in a panelled anteroom overlooking the houses terraced gardens. Here Liam Stokes, a keen young lecturer in his first year teaching game management at the college, explained how the shoot has only recently been taken in hand by the students. Previously, there was a syndicate on the estate and the college used to supply a lot of the beating team on shoot days, but really this is the first season in which the students have been the ones running the show. In the context of their education, that sort of experience gives them an enormous advantage.
The extent to which the pupils run the shoot is clear it isnt simply a case of telling them what to do or steering them in the right direction. While Liam and his teaching colleagues Tim Gibbs, Ian Revill and Helen Woodgate do get involved in the shoot days, it is largely as hands-off participants and observers. Interestingly, Helen, who lectures in countryside management, is more than familiar with the Lackham estate. A keen Shot herself, she grew up on the estate where her father works, and even took an HND at the college.
Activities relating to the shoot are a feature of the students courses throughout the year, as Liam explained: Our second year National Diploma Countryside Management (NDCM) students make management decisions on the shoot and then take out teams of first-year NDCM students and First Diploma students to undertake the necessary work. This way the First Diploma and first-year NDCM students are taught the lie of the land and many practical skills by second-year students and are also motivated to earn the authority and responsibility we bestow on the second-year students. For their part, the second years get the opportunity to manage others and pass on their skills, which we believe makes them uniquely suited to take positions in game management when they graduate.
The students take over
Mark Shaw and Jake Turton, our two student Gun captains for the day, explained the format. A former corporate real estate banker in his twenties, Mark turned his back on the City in favour of a career in the outdoors. He is one of Lackhams mature students and reflects the colleges appeal to those from a variety of backgrounds. He delivered a confident and precise briefing outlining the need to pay particular attention to try to avoid dropping birds in the river that borders the shoot, due to the difficulty it presents for pickers-up, and calling for restraint in shooting woodcock because of the weather. Into a perfect crisp, white winters day, the Guns headed off to the first of six drives in no doubt of what was expected of them. As we crunched across a field of fresh snow, Mark described how he and the seven other students in their second year of the National Diploma course use the shoot as a test bed: As its our first season, weve been able to try out new things on our shoot days, such as how we work different drives some have been successful, others havent. The idea is that whatever we do passes on to the students in the year below. For example, recently we planned where next years covercrops are to go. Thatll be a decision that next season will directly affect the students in their first year now.
Certainly the presentation of the birds on the day betrayed no suggestion of any trial and error. The line of Guns, which included a number of representatives from bodies such as the National Gamekeepers Organisation (NGO), the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust and the Countryside Alliance, enjoyed a day of spectacular sport, in no small part thanks to a highly disciplined beating line. Under the command of students Kat Hutchinson and Mike Marshall, the beaters tapped up the long hedges and covercrops, quietly blanking in the birds over long distances to the waiting Guns.
With minimal fuss, and only the occasional burst of quiet radio chatter to call in pickers-up or to arrange the stops, the drives were conducted seamlessly. Tim Weston, the NGOs training representative in the south of England later complimented the students on their professionalism: The sport was of a very high standard indeed, certainly the Guns would have been hard pushed to spot any differences between the Lackham shoot and a regular let day.
In fact, Kat Hutchinson, in her second year at Lackham,is already heavily involved in shooting thanks to her regular work as a part-time keeper on the nearby Temple Shoot. As she helped organise the gamecart, she outlined the Lackham shoots scale: We put down 800 pheasants and 250 duck this season and weve let five days with bags of around 50 or so. This guest day is our sixth and well also have a keepers day for the second-year students, like me, and a beaters day for all involved at the end of the season. On this snowy day, however, the eight Guns enjoyed a fortunate day indeed, making a final bag of 56 pheasants and 28 duck. Many of these duck came off a pond on the estate created during World War II, as history has it, using explosives at General Pattons behest to make a swimming pool for GIs while he was based at Lackham in the run-up to D-Day.
A shoot built on passion
Aside from the joy of a sporting shot, it was clear that an enormous amount of passion is invested in each bird. Naturally there was plenty of shooting that complemented the students efforts the Countryside Alliances Ross Campbell Hill took a spectacular snipe on the third drive, while the British Deer Societys David Kenyon wielded his ancient Holland & Holland with similar aplomb but the day wasnt about the Guns. There was a real sense of occasion, shared ownership and the realisation of hard work among the students which made the day special.
Following a shoot lunch in the college canteen and a prize-giving session, Liam explained that the staff hope to attract more students from all backgrounds on to their game courses. Given the approach Lackham takes to the game sector and the degree of engagement the students clearly have, the popularity of the college for those seeking to make a career in this area looks destined to rise.