An hour outside Belfast, near Newcastle, in County Down, lie the Mourne mountains. While the surrounding countryside was now clear of the snow that had blanketed the area a few weeks previously, the peak of Slieve Binnian (or big Binnian) was still white. The sea was sparkling under a clear blue sky, but the temperature had barely got above freezing. In short, it was a perfect day for walking-up a few woodcock.
Shooting Times?s photographer, Paul Quagliana, and I were met by Mervyn Ward, who was wearing a Purdey Award badge. Mervyn is involved with John Gibson?s Castlevennon shoot, which won the award in 2009. We had been going to cover its annual beaters? day, but this had been cancelled, so Mervyn and John had arranged to keep us entertained with woodcock shooting followed by a visit to Castlevennon.
Mervyn introduced us to the Castlevennon keeper, Matt Smyth, as well as Andrew Burden and Andrew Campbell, who had the shooting over an area that promised to hold plenty of woodcock. Small fields were divided by huge clumps of gorse and small woods. We were going to be dependent on Matt?s springer, Ernie, and Jett, his cocker spaniel, to push the birds out of the dense forest of brambles in the woods.
?Andy and Andy have shot around 80 woodcock this year,? Matt told us, as we wrapped up against the cold. ?They walked through this bit of ground in the past week and were flushing good numbers, so we should get you a shot or two.? I was using Matt?s 12-bore Beretta, and Mervyn and Andrew Campbell were also carrying guns, while Andrew Burden had brought along his impeccably behaved Labrador.
Woodcock in hiding
We set off, Matt giving his dogs barely audible instructions. Ernie and Jet were only too happy to oblige, entering the wood with tails wagging, and pushing and shoving their way through the most tangled bramble patches. We worked in a large square, walking slowly and trying to keep our backs to the piercing sun. Unfortunately, however, even the enthusiasm of Matt?s dogs couldn?t produce woodcock. It seemed that someone had covered the ground before us, as evidenced by a few patches of feathers and a cartridge case discarded here and there, the powder smell still strong. We flushed only two woodcock, one a sluggish bird, perhaps pricked, but the shot impossible because of the road beyond. Three snipe rose, as well, but too far and too fast for a shot.
?This is deadly,? Andy Burden said, as we stopped to decide which hedge to try. ?Only two days ago four birds came out from those four trees.? I felt for the two Andrews ? nothing is worse than no birds lifting when you?ve invited guests.
After nearly three hours of fruitless work for the dogs, we called it a morning and went to Mervyn?s house, a stunning 30-minute drive through the centre of the Mourne mountains, and only a few miles from Castlevennon. Before warming ourselves by the fire, we had a quick tour of the stables and were introduced to the handsome Welsh cobs that Mervyn and his wife Liz both drive. Liz had kindly made us a delicious Irish stew, and after taking his dogs home, Matt joined us for lunch.
An oasis for wildlife
In the midst of the dairy farms near Banbridge, in County Down, lies Castlevennon. The surrounding landscape is typified by small, rolling hills, the green fields divided by drystone walls, though many of the stones looked as though they must have been placed there by giants rather than men. John Gibson bought the house 10 years ago, when it was in a terrible state, little surviving beyond the lintels of the groundfloor windows. Shortly after, 65 acres of dairy farmland surrounding it also came up for sale and he bought that, too. The house is now beautifully restored and the views from it are stunning, thanks to John?s carefully planned work on the land.
We parked up by the house and wandered over to the pens and barn, where Matt was busy getting the barley ready to feed the ponds. Not a bucket or trap was out of place, and the pens were equally impressively kept. ?Many of the birds are still coming in to roost in the pens, which is great,? Matt told us, as he checked that all the feeders were full and working, and spread a few handfuls of maize about. ?John is on great terms with all the neighbours, which is so important with a mall, isolated shoot such as Castlevennon. We know when birds have strayed farther afield, but, to be honest, they always seem to come back. It?s my secret recipe, I?m sure of it.?
We walked past the most recent of John?s two ponds to the larger flightpond. The first was frozen over completely. ?It?s been a hard winter, so far,? Mervyn said, adding that they had endured temperatures of -25°C overnight and -12°C during the days. ?Most of it has thawed now, but it is getting colder again.?
Matt confirmed this when we arrived at the main flightpond. ?This must have frozen over last night,? he said, as he started tossing the barley out into the part of the pond that had remained open. Twelve mute swans sailed elegantly on the open water, while a dozen or so mallard waddled about on the frozen part. ?I like seeing the swans, but they do push the duck about a bit. We get whooper swans in, too ? you should see them flighting in later,? Matt said. He waded into the water, where there was a feeder perched on three legs, and made sure that it was cleared at the bottom.
?The advantage of a shoot this size is that you can walk around it every day, so you get to know it really well,? Matt told me. Everywhere I looked were the signs of a well-keepered shoot, but more than that, it is evident that it has all been executed with great care and consideration. The hides for the flightpond are of live woven hazels, for example, which fit into the landscape beautifully. Electric fencing keeps the foxes at bay from the pens, which hold 350 poults in the early summer. As well as a strand of electric fencing surrounding the flightpond, another clever innovation is a drawbridge to the island in the centre.
?In 2010, we had a good duck breeding season, though there was one brood that hatched as late as October ? not surprisingly, it didn?t make it. But the year before that, many of the eggs were stolen ? we couldn?t understand what had got to them. The bridge helps,? Matt told me. The bridge is simple but ingenious, with a section of the walkway on hinges, so that it can be pulled up by a rope.
?The flow of the stream can be controlled, too. It feeds both the ponds, but with a sluice system, we can shut it off, so that if there is any pollution coming from upstream it won?t affect the ponds,? Mervyn explained.
Several plastic milk bottles looked out of place, frozen into the ice, so I asked Matt what they were for. ?They are attached to the barley straw bales that we put in to stop the algae. In the spring I?ll also put in the floating nest boxes, which the duck use. We?ve a strong duck population here, as you?ll see during the flight. In fact, we?d better get out of sight. Here are the first teal coming in now.?
And indeed, there they were, wheeling high overhead, circling, but not wanting to come in with us in plain sight. We headed for a gap in one of the hedges, where we could easily conceal ourselves from the flighting birds. The first three teal had been scared off, however, and disappeared over the horizon. Soon there were more, and these flitted down in their typically skittish way, landing in the pond. The resident duck were quacking away, the perfect lure to bring in more.
Duck pour in
Then the Castlevennon flight started in earnest, with squadrons of teal zipping around. The mallard followed soon after in groups of a dozen or more, the soft whirr of their wings audible from all sides. The sun had set and the moon was a sharp crescent. ?They?ll vary the time that they come in,? Matt said, quietly, as Paul and I looked on agog. ?With a full moon they often keep coming in until late in the night.?
We watched in amazement as the duck continued to pour in. Every part of the sky was filled with them, pairs, singletons and larger gangs, until the pond must have been full to bursting. By now, the temperature had dropped substantially and the cold was seeping up through our boots. ?I think we?ll leave them in peace now, if that?s okay,? Matt said, as he led the way back to the vehicles. Our departure wasn?t noticed by the duck, which were feeding and chatting away happily on the water. The grass crunched underneath our feet as we walked back, a sure sign that the frost would be hard again that night.
?You?ll have to come back for the shooting next year,? Mervyn said. ?There are three paying Guns, and I have a gun, and then there are three more, which John uses for friends or himself. He?s more about the conservation, while I?m more about the shooting. It?s amazing what he?s done with the place. He planned it all himself and has done a lot of the physical work, too. That Purdey Award was well deserved.? I couldn?t agree more.