Whenever any gun tells you he is enjoying his 50th season of shooting on an estate, the odds are it’s somewhere special.
In this case that somewhere was Winderwath.
Nestling in the heart of the Eden Valley just a few miles outside Penrith, it’s an area I was already acquainted with; wild trout are found in the Eden and Eamont, two rivers that border the estate.
By the time I’d met our joint hosts for the day, John Slack and the estate’s agent Alan Bowe, it was clear the guns would be as interesting as the pheasant shooting.
“We’ve got a mixed team here today,” said John, “a high sheriff, a stockbroker, a chairman of industry, a gunsmith, a casino manager and a peasant farmer!”
The irrepressible John, our “peasant farmer”, had begun his acquaintance with Winderwath as a boy while working in the beating line.
“I enjoyed it here then and have enjoyed it here ever since,” he said. “I treat it as my own in some ways, it’s that sort of shoot.”
High and fast pheasant shooting on Tipperary.
The estate had been purchased in the 1940s by a Mr and Mrs Pollock, who started the shoot with the help of their first gamekeeper, Norman Dunn.
When he retired just four years ago, Norman had few worries about the ground being in safe hands.
His son, Richard, is now estate foreman and a key figure on the predominantly let shoot days.
The majority of the estate’s 2,800 acres are now owned by a family trust now operating the shoot, and Mr and Mrs Pollock’s daughter, Jane, is out on most shoot days and still farms several hundred acres.
I asked current headkeeper Dave Kellett if there was any pressure when he took over four years ago.
“Not at all. You’ve got to hand it to Norman, he started from nothing, got a few broody hens and built things up. Even the woods are down to what he could beg, borrow or steal,” he said.
“That’s not to say things couldn’t be improved, but Dave is a man for gentle evolution rather than revolution. His first season was spent watching, but he smiles about “creating one or two new drives and gingering things up a bit”.
He took the time to study the old shoot records too, telling me about the early days that leant heavily on a healthy population of grey partridge, rabbit and hare.
For a man who’d come from Muggleswick as the wild bird keeper on their low ground there was a lot to learn in the dusty tomes, and he gained genuine respect for the little grey birds and also his predecessor.
The current emphasis is on black neck pheasants, with enough birds released to cater for 15-18 pheasant shooting days a season.
Pepper and Dazzle were just two of the gundogs made to work hard during the day’s pheasant shooting.
Slaves to the river
We were soon en route to the first drive via an eminently sociable, as well as practical, gunbus.
The only gun missing was Darryl Thompson-Schwab, who was being ferried direct to his peg in an ATV by his host.
With our backs to the River Eamont we were facing Hornby Bank – one of the estate’s best drives – and it took a good and early shot to avoid putting birds in the river.
For a couple of the guns actually on the bank, waiting for the higher birds, it was almost impossible to avoid dropping birds there, but on the far bank Dave’s chief picker-up, Clive Atkinson, was on his usual station with a team of labs and spaniels, working in tandem with another picker-up on our bank.
Our second drive, Hullocks, involved bringing a field of turnips in before driving Hullocks Wood.
While Dave was in place to manage the line, he told me how much he relies on beaters such as Roy Hindson and his two lively cockers.
“Roy and another regular beater, Ian Mackenzie, take a lot of pressure off me on busy shoot days”.
Estate foreman Richard Dunn.
By the time we broke for elevenses the pheasant shooting had given everyone something to talk about.
We headed for High Moss “more to see if anything was there than get a bag” as John put it, and rather than shoot he went off to stand and watch another gun.
The final drive of the morning was Tipperary.
Normally the last drive of the day it can be a great drive, and as the sun finally broke through the chilly air it produced the goods.
Crouched behind co-host Alan Bowe’s son, Michael, I could see why; guns standing back from the wood were challenged by tall and fast left to right crossers.
Concentrating all the more after a light-hearted wigging for looking at his mobile phone earlier, Michael went off to lunch with a big smile on his face.
As soon as we could decently head away from the lunch table we were back on a riverbank, this time on the River Eden at Low Moss.
Emphasising the depth of cold that Cumbria had been enduring, lumps of ice, some the size of dining tables, floated past.
Adrian Hill (in Afghan hat) waits alongside long-term Winderwath picker-up Harvey Roper.
Stood between gunshop owner Tom Rosling and Pollock family member Adrian Hill – resplendent in his favourite hat, sourced from an Afghan market – I could see why the guns were looking forward to this drive.
Two of their number had joined the beaters in what Dave described as “like the first move in a game of chess”, starting half way down Udford Wood because quite a few birds could break back.
All too soon it was time for the last drive of the day – and the second move in Dave’s ‘big chess game’.
Stops had kept station to allow beaters to go back through the wood to their starting point, and while the guns slipped as quickly and as quietly as they could through to Gunstand at the other end of Udford Wood, the beaters formed up to drive the other half back the other way.
No rest for the committed
Despite a fine day’s pheasant shooting, Dave is determined to avoid a repeat of the disappointing cover crops the shoot experienced in the past.
With Kings and a new contractor on board for the 2011/12 season, the strips and little areas that are a crucial part of his “gingering up” plans will help support his development of the shoot.
The woods painstakingly planted by his predecessor, Norman, are in sore need of maintenance, and the Pollock family are supportive of any well thought through plan that he and Richard agree on, so there will be a lot more thinning and replanting.
Stuart Kinnear and Bob Woodhall made sure all of the birds were accounted for in the game cart.
This all bodes well for a shoot that favours continuity over fast exploitation.
For me, John Slack summed up the Winderwath approach to pheasant shooting best.
“This is essentially a family enterprise with an atmosphere to match. I’m not a fan of stand-off commercial operations; it’s eight guns maximum here and they’re invited because I enjoy their company. We all have a great day’s fun and a lot of it is down to the atmosphere and partnership between the guns, beaters and pickers-up. We have known them all personally for years.”
For more information on Winderwath contact Dave Kellett on 07733 260965.