Heavy rain on Sunday 3 October was not a good omen for a partridge day at Alton Pancras on the Monday. However, the rain gods were in a benevolent mood and the sun shone from a cloudless sky all day. Of course, there wasn?t a breath of wind, which always gives the headkeeper something to moan about.
The shoot has been run by Paul Yates, a gamefarmer, for the past 10 years and runs about 40 days. Originally, there were 2,000 acres, but this has since doubled. ?We?re now developing the partridges more,? said Paul, ?and have built up from 100- to 150-bird days to 200- to300-bird days. We shoot partridges in September and October with mixed days starting in November.? The emphasis is on quality and there?s a steady market for bags of this size. Later in the season, some of the high pheasant drives make it difficult to achieve big bags anyway.
The partridges arrived as day-olds in April. Everything is reared on the shoot. The drives were well established, but Nick Boniface, the shoot?s new headkeeper, had built a few new partridge pens. He had to hit the ground running, as the first birds came only six weeks after he started.
The ground is mainly dairy with a few fields of clover for silage. The dry summer resulted in some farmers having to harvest their barley as silage and Nick?s maize did not grow as well as he?d hoped. The valleys are shallow compared with Exmoor, but with covercrops on the hilltops, the shooting is spectacular.
A theme echoed by both Paul and Nick is the importance of the team that makes the day work. Nick found the beaters and pickers-up ?supportive, friendly people with a good sense of humour?. Another thing Nick had been pleased to find was the attitude of the dog walkers locally, who bent over backwards to make sure their dogs didn?t disturb the birds. Indeed, many were happy to make a small detour, which helped with dogging-in the birds.
I joined the beaters for Half Moon, which was the first drive. It was good to hear lots of laughter on the wagon, as that?s always the sign of a well-run shoot. The covercrops were mostly maize, with Texel greens, kale and mustard thrown in to provide variety for the birds. The partridges like the greenery and there were plenty of dusting strips for them.
The team was split in two, with the main party driving forward while smaller teams came in from the flanks to prevent birds going out to one side. Three close-working spaniels and a Labrador completed the line-up. Despite Nick?s efforts, there was some leakage, but at least the birds were heading towards a later drive. It was good to see the line stop every time there was a flush so as not to put too many birds over the Guns in one go.
The second drive was Lower Rake, where the birds came off the top of the hill with the sun behind them, giving the Guns a challenging target. Here and at the next drive, Deer Park, I was able to see the pickers-up in action. There were six of them with six different breeds of dog, surely something of a record.
Nicky Berry was working Chloe, a Clumber, together with two Clumber/springer crosses. One of the latter was particularly impressive as he tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to retrieve two runners at the same time. Nicky was attracted to Clumbers because they?re different and are a bit of a challenge. Chloe, she said, has a ?tremendous nose, but care is needed to keep her under control when a lot of birds are about.? Nicky likes the Clumber/springer cross, as she feels it makes them steadier than a true springer.
Richard Cake had a standard-issue black Labrador, while Robin Strange worked an elegant and steady flatcoat, Chica. I asked Robin why he was attracted to flatcoats. ?I had a spaniel before that,? was his reply. ?I find the flatcoats much more biddable. They were the numberone gundog at the turn of the last century and it?s a shame you don?t see so many of them now. They?re a lot of fun and I?ve not had a bad one yet.?
The husband-and-wife team of Willow and Diana Osmond worked a black Labrador, a springer spaniel and a cocker spaniel. Diana was new to picking-up, having previously been a beater for some years. She?s taken to it with great enthusiasm since finding that Penny, her cocker, was good at picking-up. Picking-up, she said, is more of a challenge because you have to concentrate so much.
John Yates had his yellow Labrador. The only other yellow dog was Andrew Parker-Bowles? Lucky. She was trained by John Halstead and is an outstanding
example of a good peg dog. Sadly, it?s not often that you see a dog sit steady at the peg during a busy drive and then do a series of competent retrieves when it?s all over.
No rest for the pickers-up
There was plenty of work for the pickers-up to do and some spectacular runners were gathered. On several drives, the grass was short and the birds were easy to see. However, where the grass had not been grazed, the partridges were able to tuck themselves out of sight in the tussocks. Arguably, these are the most difficult birds for the picking-up team to tackle, especially when the dogs tire towards the end of the day.
The afternoon drives produced further good birds. Some of the partridges that had slipped out sideways in the morning were found in Cowleaze and made a fineshow over the Guns. The last drive was Wood, which is at the head of the valley. The birds could be hard to spot until they were well overhead and many became difficult left-to-right crossers as they flew down the line. The standard of shooting here and everywhere else was good, and several times the back Gun raised his gun only to see the bird drop dead in front of him.
By the end of the day, it was evident that everyone had a lot of fun. The Guns almost outdid the beaters in their playfulness, something not easily achieved. Andrew Parker-Bowles had a narrow escape on the last drive. Fortunately, he noticed that one cartridge failed to make the normal bang. On checking, he saw a wad in the right barrel. The consequences of having ignored such a signal do not bear contemplation. I was pleased to see that the Guns, like true sportsmen, took the trouble to thank the beaters at the end of the day.
Nick likens partridges to racehorses when compared with pheasants.
Partridges, he reckons, have to be out-thought and outmanoeuvred. Looking back over the day, Nick felt it had gone well, though on some drives, the partridges won. Nick loves partridges and the challenges they offer, both in rearing and on a shoot day. I can also testify to the fact that he cooks them very well.
For further details of the Alton Pancras shoot, contact Paul Yates, tel 01747 830088.