Flexibility and fresh thinking are preparing one small West Sussex farm shoot for its next half-century, as Ian Mason reports.
Last year was West Sussex gamekeeper John Harris’ first season as keeper at Sullington Manor Farm shoot. I recently joined the syndicate to see how John is getting on and to find out what other innovations he has up his sleeve.
Sullington is everything a small family and friends shoot should be, with modest bags, challenging birds and beaters and Guns sharing non-stop banter and laughter. The setting is stunning, comprising 500 acres of pasture and downland nestled beneath the northern scarp of the South Downs.
Once walking Guns and beaters have donned crampons, switched on their oxygen supply and clambered breathless to the peak of the chalk escarpment, they can enjoy stunning panoramic views across the West Sussex Weald or marvel at the ant-like figures of the remaining Gun-line hundreds of feet below them.
Keeping it varied
John has taken over the keepering from David Robinson, a veteran of nearly 50 seasons at Sullington and a tough act to follow. I almost felt sorry for John on his opening driven day. Not only did he suffer the usual first-day anxieties, but to add to his woes, emeritus-keeper David was picking-up and keeping a hawk-like eye on the day’s proceedings.
Not that John is a stranger to the shoot. His earliest memories are aged four, helping his father feed pheasant poults on the farm. John told me that key goals for the shoot under his stewardship are to present challenging birds and to ensure that all the Guns get a crack at them.
There has never been pegging at Sullington, partly to ensure that syndicate members with dogs can be recruited as walking Guns on certain drives and also so that Guns can be shuffled around according to the amount of sport they have seen on previous drives.
This can lend flexibility, but over the years a routine developed and the same Guns always seemed to occupy the same spots on the same drives. Ideally, John would like to place the Guns according to the conditions on the day and the amount of shooting they have had on previous drives. However, he acknowledges this can be a full-time job, so until he has got his new beating line sorted out, pegs have been placed and cards are drawn by the Guns.
Having said that, John is always striving for improvement. I noticed that a couple of drives were completely re-pegged and the beating strategy re-thought between the first and second day’s shooting. John also reassesses each drive throughout the day and makes heavy use of radios to move stops, flag men and parts of the beating line.
The shoot rears 1,000 pheasants, 100 ducks and 200 partridge. John hopes to shoot eight days with bags of around 50 head, giving a return of about 30 per cent for the season. The ducks are a first for Sullington. During the summer, John cleared an overgrown bog to create a mallard-friendly scrape. He uses a timed auto-feeder to dispense grain six times a day. Over the last few months he has gradually been moving the feed station further away from the water each day. The result is that the mallard now walk hundreds of yards across pasture for their feed and then fly home to water. “We hoped this would build their strength and flying ability,” said John. It certainly did. On their inaugural flight, the duck were scheduled as the second drive. They were lifted off pasture and flew magnificently. Several Guns could have done with significantly longer barrels.
On ‘Orchard Drive,’ behind the farmhouse, John has placed a couple of acres of maize cover crop. Once fenced to keep out cattle, this has worked well and made an outstanding difference to the number of birds shown, as well as the way they flush and climb over the Guns in the valley below.
To lighten the workload of constantly filling feed hoppers, John has switched some traditional three-leg drum hoppers for more industrial 1,000-litre IBC (caged pallet tank) feeders. He removes the straps, lifts the tank a foot within the cage, sits it back on the straps and then inserts six spring feeders in the tank base. The cage protects the feeders and the raised tank provides a dry shelter for birds to feed under. Taking a ton of wheat at time, this substantially cuts the need for top-ups.
John encourages families out on the shoot and several Guns and beaters are regularly joined by wives, sons and daughters who help in the beating line. Another small change he has introduced is a sweepstake for the tally of collected empty cartridges; “I used to have two people running clickers, but they never agreed. This way, both Guns and beaters can enjoy the sweepstake and all the spent cartridges get picked off the pasture. Children enjoy counting the empties,” he told me.
So, what are the challenges at Sullington? Because the shoot is in a National Park there are many footpaths and dog walkers. John tries not to get too stressed by dogs chasing his birds – given the landscape they do not fly far.
The stunning topography can be a hazard, however, especially given the ground structure, which is chalk-covered with a thin layer of soil. Once wet, this can be perilous. Last season, a beater’s Land Rover parked on the ridge of the Downs was blown sideways by near gale force winds. It slid and then tumbled several hundred feet down the escarpment, narrowly missing the Gun pegged eight. Furthermore, the steep scarp of the Downs is unforgiving for beaters. I really don’t mind them dishing out a hearty ribbing to Guns who miss a bird. After all, the beaters need armoured clothing to push through the thorny cover, which clothes this slope in order to get those pheasant airborne.
A day’s shooting is usually five drives, with a break for elevenses after two or three. The syndicate then shoots through. At the end of the day, a further treat is when Guns and beaters get together in Sullington’s magnificent 10-bay Tithe Barn for soup and rolls. The barn, once reputed to be the finest in Sussex, is worth the trip to the Down’s just to see.
I asked John how he felt the first few days went: “Overall, I’m very pleased. Things are going well. There is still a lot to do, but it’s worth it. Sullington is unique. It’s a high bird shoot and I reckon one bird shot here is worth 10 shot elsewhere.” Judging by the smiles from the Guns and beaters on the days I was there, he’s spot on.