The North York Moors became a national park in 1952 and its natural topography makes it a perfect place for challenging pheasant and partridge shooting.
I was given irrefutable evidence of this at the Urra shoot, which is owned and run by John Reeve and his family.
While the moors might be more famous in the shooting world for the red grouse on the tops, there are plenty of top pheasant shoots in this part of the UK and Urra is clearly one of them.
The estate lies near the northern edge of the moors and we visited in December 2010, at a time when heavy snow and extreme cold had meant some cancellations during the previous week.
A slight improvement in the weather allowed us to get on to the ground, but heavy fog meant that not all the shoot was open to us.
Even so we were treated to four cleverly varied drives in woodland, valley bottom and moorland edge, which all presented different and enjoyable challenges.
The Little Mac drive provided a succession of high flying and deceptively sliding pheasants.
Despite the conditions the birds flew incredibly well and the second drive in particular, Little Mac, saw a lot of trigger pulling and very few birds in the bag.
On this drive the guns line out in a valley bottom parallel to a road, and the birds are driven out of a wood on the other side of the tarmac.
As they headed out over the line at between 40 and 50 yards up they presented the classic high driven pheasant scene, but what the guns did not realise was how much these birds were sliding.
At this stage I will say the final bag on the day was 304 birds for 1,814 shots fired.
That’s roughly six shots for every bird in the bag and this was not a bad team of guns.
All the drives here have been well thought out and nothing in the execution is left to chance by the well-organised team.
John Reeve explained to me how he came to own this stunning estate and run the shooting:
“A friend introduced us to the fact that the previous owner was interested in selling, prior to it being officially marketed. This was in April 2004 at which time we had already placed our previous property on the market and were considering a number of opportunities. We had leased the Upsall Castle Shoot, near Thirsk, for the previous nine years. This was mainly run as a syndicate shoot with a few let days. Sean Mason, our present headkeeper, worked on this shoot with us and we all felt we needed to find another venue, having taken Upsall as far as we could.
“A good friend and syndicate member visited the estate with me and we were immediately impressed by the terrain and realised it had fantastic potential. We commenced negotiations and agreed that my wife would buy Cold Moor Cote Farm, with my friend and I purchasing the remainder of the estate. The purchase was concluded in the autumn of 2004 with the agreement we would take over the shooting activities on February 1, 2005. Then, in June 2006, it was amicably agreed that we would purchase my friend’s share of the estate, which allowed us to accelerate the planned developments.
“Urra has a long history of shooting and includes over 800 acres of moorland. The previous owner operated with a single-handed keeper who had been continuously employed for 22 years. They shot about 25 days per season, including 10 days which were let.
“Since we took over there has been significant capital investment in new buildings, tracks, fences, bridges and equipment. We have instigated a woodland management plan which involves both felling and replanting, as well as undertaking an ongoing bracken management plan. Our pastureland is now utilised for grazing our Belted Galloway Cattle which will be marketed as premium beef. We process the estate’s timber into logs for our own biomass boiler system and for open market sales.”
Urra is a family-run affair and John Reeve (left) is pictured with Patrick, one of this three sons who are all involved in the shoot management.
A family affair
It is rare to visit a shoot with such a strong sense of family involvement and, indeed, as John explains, he and his wife are lucky to work very closely with their three sons in this family concern:
“The estate is now run as a partnership between myself, three sons and my wife. My eldest son, Dominic, and I look after the overall administration. Dominic is responsible for all the catering and hospitality arrangements, which utilises his degree in hotel and restaurant management. Patrick, my youngest son, is involved with the more practical aspects of the day-to-day activities and is also responsible for the suckler herd of pedigree Belted Galloway Cattle.
“My middle son, James, is recovering from a serious knee operation and has been assisting with a number of activities as well as running shoot days. Running of the shoot days is very much a family team effort with Patrick, James and I attending to the teams of guns and Dominic looking after the catering.
“Our headkeeper, Sean, has been with us for about 16 years and is valued as part of the family. The whole emphasis is on providing a relaxed, friendly atmosphere for our guests.”
Having witnessed the strength and speed of the birds, even in these toughest of conditions, I was more than a little interested in where the Urra birds come from, and John explained:
“In the past we have tended to rear most of the pheasants and partridges ourselves, utilising our own incubators and buying in the partridge eggs from France. However, last year Sean contracted Weil’s disease and became extremely ill. He was lucky to survive and it is down to his strong will and his family and friends that he has been able to make a full recovery.
When snow falls on Urra the shoot’s vehicles earn their keep.
“Therefore this season we took the decision to buy in 75 per cent of our pheasant poults from a local supplier in order to give Sean and his team a bit more time to catch up with some projects that we had planned for last year. Pheasant poults are bought in at seven weeks and are a mixture of melanistics and Polansky/Byzanty crosses. We have found the melanistics are good, strong birds and hold well. Through buying in our partridge eggs early, the birds are at least 18 weeks old when shooting commences in September.
“We also plant about 80 acres of game crops which are made up of a cereal mix of triticale, spring wheat, linseed and red millet, together with some strips of kale/kale rape. The main constituent is triticale which provides additional feed throughout the season, whilst the overall mixes are also a great attraction for a variety of wild birds.”
From the visitor’s perspective, the result of all this hard labour, careful planning and well-orchestrated teamwork is a steady stream of memorable pheasants presented in the context of a congenial atmosphere amongst stunning surroundings.
Shooting at Urra – the facts
The shoot is run over 2,800 acres with about 25 different drives. There are 60 days each season (12 syndicate days, four grouse days and 44 let days) and the bags vary from 200 to 400 birds. This season the costs are £35 per bird for September and October shooting and £36 per bird for November, December and January shooting. These prices are all subject to VAT.
There are approximately 800 acres of grouse moor, which are shot with family and friends. The family have two of the syndicate guns with James, Patrick and Dominic tending to mainly shoot these guns.
Guns make their way up a woodland path after the second drive.
The syndicate is made up of a group of friends, most of whom have shot with the family for a number of years and are good friends. The days are spread out throughout the season, starting with partridge only days in September and finishing with some smaller pheasant days at the end of January. Normally they shoot through, with guests having a choice of meals produced by Dominic following the day’s shooting. And there is a break during the shooting for a snack of locally-baked pies, soup and refreshments. The estate is about 1,000 feet above sea level and last winter’s early snowfall produced some very challenging conditions for shooting. In total three days had to be cancelled, as it was impossible to gain access to many drives and access to our property as extremely treacherous. John strongly advocates that visiting teams arrange shoot cancellation insurance.
The shoot is near the beautiful market town of Helmsley, which boasts some well-known excellent shooting hotels, such as The Feversham Arms and The Black Swan. The Star Inn at Harome is also a popular hotel and is not far from the shoot. Meanwhile Laskill Grange is another excellent option and is only 10 minutes from the estate.
Headkeeper Sean Mason.
The headkeeper and his team
Headkeeper Sean Mason started off his career working at Newby Hall near Ripon, then Constable Burton and finally Studley Royal as an underkeeper before joining the Reeve family some 16 years ago. Sean’s underkeeper is 21-year-old Gavin Wilson. The beaters and pickers-up are drawn from the local area and some of them have been coming to the estate for over 20 years. They are a dedicated team and have to be extremely fit to work effectively in this inhospitable terrain.
For more information email firstname.lastname@example.org or telephone 01642 778000.