Gameshooting is as much at the whims of Mother Nature as so many other areas of life and I think it would be fair to say that it has been a funny old year as far as the weather is concerned. The longed-for Indian summer has so far failed to materialise. However, I am ever the optimist, so maybe we will have an Indian winter? here?s hoping.
It was on a drizzly morning that I joined a team of jovial souls for a private day on the Manor Farm shoot, in Wiltshire. There had been murmurings of cancelling the day when the forecast was seen and it was said that it was ?lashing down at Tisbury?. Would we get lashed on or would the storm clouds show clemency and miss us? When headkeeper Mike Curnow emerged in a pair of waders my heart sank. In fact, the waders were actually for the first drive, which involved pushing some duck off a river.
Twelve spaniels and ?Stilton?
The shoot comprises almost 2,000 acres of arable land and is run jointly by Philip Harvey and Richard Bruce-White, who are third-generation farmers there. Mike has a team of up to 15 beaters and he said that at least 10 of them had been with him for the decade he has keepered there. Among the gathering throng was seasoned scurry lover Cliff ?Stilton? Waite, who had arrived to do some picking-up with a mere 12 spaniels in tow. Cliff had been up to Derbyshire for his Stilton supplies and returned with what he said was the finest cheese in the British Isles. One of his pupils, Trudy Austreng, whom Cliff advises on all things gundog-related, approached Cliff who reached under his waxed coat and passed her a tin-foiled block as furtively as a badlands drug dealer. It was the ?special stuff?. I sampled a pinch and it was indeed meltingly creamy and robust, but not too strong.
The team set off for the duck, first through an old walled garden where orange Chinese lanterns vied for position among redcurrant bushes before skirting a cricket pitch. The Guns lined out across water meadows.
Tim Weston, the NGO?s southern regional co-ordinator, was in pole position where he put his Arrieta Crown to good use. ?His? is perhaps the wrong term as he had bought it for his son, but as said son is only eight months old, I am sure it will be broken in by the time he is big enough to wield it. Tim brought down a nice duck, but some slipped back over the beaters. According to Mike, a good day will yield 10 to 15 mallard.
The shoot is home to a reasonable number of hares that, during the second drive, emerged from a maize crop, along with some foxes. However, as is usual, the rule was no ground game. Peter Bialek quipped that it would have made a fine fox drive as another fox shot past with a ramrod tail. There was furred game of another variety, and a bolting roe bowled over Mike, who fortunately wasn?t badly hurt.
Who took all the redlegs?
The shoot releases 700 pheasants and 1,000 redlegs. As the drives progressed, there were the usual ?skimmers? among the pheasants, but there were also some beauties that lifted on the wind and swept over the Guns through the intermittent rain. The redlegs, however, remained sparse as the day went on. The absence of redlegs had been a source of both frustration and mystery. Though we had seen a number of foxes, which bore the brunt of the blame, Mike felt that the foxes were not the main source of the problem, as pheasants had been present in reasonable numbers. Several of the Guns thought that, in general, the flying ability of redlegs has decreased over the past few seasons. One theory put forward was that due to bad weather, some of the wheat that had been used as feed had low protein content and the grains were ?more like millet?, they were so small.
To compound the problem, the shoot had been the victim of thieves who had taken partridges from the pens which had led Mike to let his birds out as soon as possible to avoid further problems. The theft of gamebirds, along with dogs, seems to be on the rise. But why the redlegs were absent was still something of a mystery. Mike knows that if a fox gets into a pen it can cause havoc, so he has put electric fences around his to stop this. ?It is as if someone has beamed the birds up,? he said. Headkeeper Mike is, in fact, a semi-retired helicopter flight test engineer ? a role he has been employed in for 40 years. He has keepered on Manor Farm on a part-time basis for 10 years, ably assisted by John Underwood. ?Without him it wouldn?t happen,? Mike told me. Originally Mike was going to try taking on the job for a year, but not only did he enjoy it but Philip and Richard let him ?get on with it?. Ten years later he is still hard at work.
Benefits to songbirds
Until about 30 years ago, Manor Farm was prime ground for grey partridges, which, as in so many other areas of England, were the mainstay of the shoot. According to Philip, the only real change to farming practices on Manor Farm that coincided with the gradual decline of the greys was that in the 1970s there was more spring cropping and overwintered stubbles.
One policy that the shoot has now put in place is to use a stripper header on the combine. This takes the heads off the wheat, but leaves the long stalks that provide some cover. This has been done along the edges of gamecrops and
hedges. The shoot has also created beetle banks and planted woodland. Mike was particularly pleased that several broods of greys had been seen and felt that the conservation efforts had helped them.
One of the benefits of shooting to songbirds is the use of covercrops, and I don?t recall seeing so many blackbirds and LBJs (little brown jobs) fleeing as the beaters advanced on subsequent drives. Also noteworthy was a large flock of golden plovers. Apparently Wiltshire has seen an influx over the past few weeks. The covercrops, largely maize, have actually been good this year as the land is well drained. The shoot features 11 drives, including these crops, and though there used to be a syndicate, it is now a private affair with invited guests who, on the day, enjoyed the sport and the relaxed atmosphere. As Philip explained: ?We don?t want too much pressure ? we just want to enjoy ourselves.?
While the lack of redlegs may have been a disappointment on the first day of the season for Manor Farm, spirits remained high.