Why do we go partridge shooting? Of course there’s the thrill of achievement when we knock a challenging bird out of the sky, but gameshooting is also a social sport and one of its pleasures is to share an enjoyable day in the countryside with friends.
Bringing the shooting community together is what Nick Elsdon’s work as a sporting agent is all about, and as I rolled up in the yard at Langley Grange, Norfolk, groups of Guns from opposite ends of the country were already meeting each other and forming friendships. There were buddies from the south of England and old hands, as well as those less experienced in the gameshooting field. All had congregated in the quiet countryside south of Norwich and all were looking forward to joining shoot organiser Mike Adams for his first partridge day of the season.
Mike has run the shoot here for 12 seasons, as well as operating his own gamefarm a few miles away at Burlingham. The shoot is keepered by Ben Adams, Mike’s eldest son, and Ben was resplendent in his new tweeds as we headed out to the first drive, the Almshouses. The drives at Langley Grange are not pegged, but Mike was soon ushering the team out of the shoot trailer and positioning them quickly and efficiently in readiness behind a fold in the gently undulating ground. “I don’t peg the drives,” he said. “It means that I can make any adjustment for the wind or the number of Guns in the line.”
There was little breeze and the mild, overcast morning promised a warm day ahead. Standing with Paul Taroni, who had made the trip from Warwickshire for the day, I could see pigeon on the move from the covercrops beyond the rising ground in front of us, and knew that the beaters were on their way. Paul told me that for the past couple of years shooting had taken a back seat while he went on expeditions to Africa and the Arctic. “Now I’ve decided to get back into gameshooting,” said Paul. Less energetic perhaps, and certainly warmer than all that ice.
Already the birds were coming in small bunches to my left, over the old almshouses from which the drive takes its name, and swinging with the slope in the land to provide good chances all along the line. Ben was frustrated, however, by the big flush that lifted to the right of the line, always a potential issue when partridges are being driven for the first time. There was another large flush at the second drive, Forge Lane, but birds came forward in sufficient numbers, before turning and flying along the line in singles and small groups to provide a lively time for Nigel Warwick at No. 6. From the Essex/Suffolk borders, Nigel is making the transition from clays to gameshooting, with the assistance of Nick Elsdon’s agency, Anglia Sporting.
“I’m thoroughly enjoying it, and learning a lot,” said Nigel, enthusiastically. “It’s not too expensive to buy a peg on a day such as this, which allows access into the sport and everybody welcomes you. At the beginning I was worried that everybody would be so stiff and crusty that I couldn’t join in. But that’s not the case, and I get a lot of encouragement.”
Our third drive was within sight of Langley School at the centre of the estate which has, for many years, occupied the former Langley Hall. Named Monument drive, it takes its name from the stone cross that stands on the edge of The Thicks, one of the main pheasant coverts, where the parishes of Langley, Chedgrave, Thurton and Carleton St Peter meet. An ancient, towering structure once associated with Langley Abbey, it was moved to its present site in the 19th century by the estate’s owner, Sir Thomas Beauchamp-Proctor. The breeze, which had sprung up during the previous drive, had now dropped and the day was warming up as the beaters pushed through the maize crop in front of us. Mike had positioned his Guns carefully, and some good high birds came through, especially on the right of the line where the Guns stood close to the covert edge. Later in the season The Thicks is an impressive drive, when the Guns occupy a long ride in the wood itself and the beaters blank the birds in and push them over the tops of the trees.
“Deep Pit is a good drive, too,” Mike tipped me off. “There’s a long strip of gamecover the other side of that hedge, the beaters will be blanking about 150 acres of stubble into it, and there should be a lot of birds.” He was right, and it was not long before partridges started lifting over the hedge and rocketing forward. There was truly excellent sport on the left of the line for those standing with their backs to a wood, for the birds lifted over the trees and really gained height. But at the heart of the action was local Gun Gerry Gilding, who runs a private shoot on his own farm at Wickmere in north Norfolk. Gerry had a memorable stand, but upon downing his 10th bird he generously called his neighbour, Nigel Warwick, across during the middle of the drive and changed places to allow Nigel to be in the hot spot for the last few minutes.
“They’re good people here,” Gerry told me afterwards. “They’re always Guns whose company you can enjoy, and who are safe. It’s just the pleasant sporting company you want on a day’s shooting.”
Behind the line, when the whistle blew to signal the end of the drive, and with no fewer than eight Labradors around his feet, was my old friend Billy Frosdick, chairman of the Great Yarmouth Wildfowlers. I have not caught up with Billy for years, and it was good to see him looking fit and well, his perfectly behaved dogs going out on command, one by one, to hoover up those partridges. Also patrolling the stubble was Richard Blanch with his yellow Labrador Gip, who was out 51 days last season, and young Theo on his first day’s picking-up.
Ben emerged happy from the covercrop. “That drive went a bit better,” he said. “We had a lot of disturbance from farm machinery on the first two drives,
but on that one the birds came nicely.”
Ben is in his fourth season at Langley, having worked on the home shoot at Burlingham before keepering at Quidenham and Beighton. “I started keepering almost as soon as I could walk,” he told me, “helping with the rearing by picking up eggs in a little basket.” During the rearing season he spends his time on the gamefarm, coming to Langley in August and staying until February. “It’s nice because it gives variety to the job. There’s tractor work as well, because we look after all the gamecover crops.” The shoot really is a family affair, because Ben’s mother, Sharon, was driving the beaters’ truck, while his fiancée, Nicolle, was in the beating line with her dog. “She’s keen into beating, and she comes out lamping with me at night.”
After a picnic lunch, we finished the day with two more drives. Ferry Road went well. Birds were blanked into sugar beet, which split them up and brought them nicely over Eddie Tapper and Dorset Gun David Thomas, who was proudly wearing his Fenland Wildfowlers (FWA) tie. “I joined the club in the early 1980s and shoot with them on the Ouse washes. I absolutely love wildfowling,” he confessed to me, adding that this month he plans a trip to Loch Leven in pursuit of the pinks.
Eddie is another FWA member and keen wildfowler. I noticed he was using a rather special gun, a bespoke William Powell with 25in barrels, which was being given only its third outing after its collection from the makers on 18 August. “I lost my wife 18 months ago,” Eddie told me. “Before she died she made me promise to get a bespoke gun, and I’ve had her name engraved under the action. So far, I’ve had it out on grouse in Yorkshire and duck in Gloucestershire. Now it’s partridges in Norfolk.” Having used a variety of guns over the years, Eddie plans to shoot only with the Powell, even when decoying wigeon on the washes.
The final drive was a victim of the brilliant afternoon sun, which the birds did not want to face. The ground, Egg Wood, looked ideal, with a lovely hollow positioned between two woods, and I can imagine excellent sport here later in the season. But just seven birds were killed off the drive to take the total to 165 partridges and two pigeon, a good enough total for the first time through.I certainly didn’t see any long faces as the Guns headed off to The Feathers for supper.
The day was organised by Nick Elsdon of Anglia Sporting. Tel 01728 687615 or 07881 348081 or visit www.angliasporting.co.uk