It is a bright, unseasonably mild November morning, and in the yard a stallion wakes the seven guns. Within an hour all are soaking up the dregs of last night’s beef ribs, Yorkshire pudding and red wine with plates of bulbous poached eggs, smoked bacon, sausages and orange juice. On the plasma screen television behind the breakfast table, talking heads debate Tory plans to halt a three pence increase in fuel tax, and on the front page of The Times is a teaser for the Margaret Thatcher biopic, The Iron Lady. One gun looking out at the fresh new day admits to feeling nervous about being able to pick raspberries this late in the year. His neighbour, nodding while plunging a knife into a butter cylinder, keeps one eye on The Racing Post.
Host David Bond.
The day’s bag will not exceed 100, everybody knows this, and they will have to work for every single bird. Racehorse trainer Alan King is one of the guns listening as shoot captain and host David Bond reiterates these points during his briefing. “Bondy”, as he is known to his friends, is a racehorse breeder who bought Withyslade Farm with his partner, Helen Pease, around six years ago. Thin and fine haired with glasses perched on the end of his nose, David whisks through the layout of the day in a sensible and friendly fashion: five drives, walking between each one, nice and casual…
A peculiarly shaped wood links each drive at Withyslade: imagine a large lower case ‘v’ and lower case ‘n’ attached to one another and you are halfway there. The gentle, open terrain on Lakes, the first drive, is in stark contrast to the two-drives-in-one of Gorse and Castle Ditches with its steep and twisting banks, and despite the shoot putting down a quarter of the birds that it did a decade ago, these pheasants can still make goons of the guns.
Being such a small shoot, guns on every peg have to be aware of beaters, led by Tom Carter, who might appear at a moment’s notice. There are between 15-18 pairs of hands in their line today, some in ties and breeks, all drawn from local farms. Many have taken a day’s holiday to be here, and according to Helen each of the shoots in the immediate vicinity (there are several) is able to rely on this kind of loyalty in one form or another throughout the year, in return for favours in other shapes and guises.
You need to keep your eyes peeled on Castle Ditches.
One or two guns are almost down to shirtsleeves by mid-morning, and on Castle Ditches their barrels are shielding their eyes from the sun as they scan a small wood above that hides the remains of an ancient Roman fort. David mentions the banks ahead had been built entirely by hand but sounds as unconvinced as he is astonished. The birds are greater in number and faster in flight here, with guns having only seconds to pull the trigger before their quarry is gone forever. The height of the trees leering over their shoulders adds to the difficulty of trying to concentrate while a bi-plane buzzes around overhead. Given the expected small bag, the behaviour of non-quarry species is an essential clue as to when birds will appear. Barrels are stroking treetops the second a songbird or pigeon bursts through the mangled branches ahead, even if it is often a false alarm.
Jason Waters is an integral part of the farm and shooting operation.
Elevenses is an opportunity to warm the insides, and between cheeses and chocolate, some retina-bursting concoctions are passed around by flask. My taste buds are numbed further when someone suggests partnering whisky with Drambuie, whisky with Cointreau and whisky with jolly nice ginger beer, although the latter actually proves a hit among the group when they try it. My suggestion of adding ice to soften the edges of these sharpeners is waved away, but could have come in useful after downing a Bloody Mary so strong it would strip the lawn of its grass if carelessly discarded.
Withyslade Farm’s terrain makes for challenging work for the gundogs.
Bungalow Over is just one enormous field. It is surrounded on three sides by woodland and populated by scores of sheep, each of which follows its woolly neighbour once the pheasant shooting begins. Guns have to wait for their sport, David shortening the width of the line and creating a back gun in time to cope with the numbers that eventually soar across the left-most pegs. Halfway through the drive a huge racket in the woods marks the appearance of the two highest birds of the day; several guns attempt to add them to the bag but only one gets anywhere close.
High birds soar above Bungalow Over – one of the day’s best drives.
Bungalow Over is tricky for the guns on account of the birds’ natural instinct to set their wings once clear of the bank in front of the wood – no great help to those closest to the quarry, who would be pheasant shooting into the trees if they pulled the trigger. Small coveys soon come but an emerging sun and inability to load in time mean many sail behind the line untouched.
The day ends at Gorse, a drive that uses the right-hand pocket of Castle Ditches as its epicentre. Guns make their way through the wood they’d confronted on Lakes, although in the shade the guns are a little closer together, which means the pheasant shooting is a little cosier than before. The beaters endure their hardest work of the afternoon in the more treacherous parts of the wood, proving why they’re of such value to this small shoot.
The guns head back to the farm at the pheasant shooting day’s end.
No bird they flush is left alone, and the pickers-up and their dogs have a job to find quarry felled by guns, who use every inch of sky before pulling the trigger. It is a shame things end so soon, as it appears even after five drives that the guns are hungry for more, and they admit as much as they sink ale in the golden November sunset.
The shoot lodge has been beautifully renovated and includes a fully licensed bar.
Accommodation at Withyslade Farm
Guns pheasant shooting at Withyslade Farm or larger shoots like nearby Ashcombe, Fonthill, Prescombe Down and Stockton can enjoy accommodation in one of several cottages on the premises. Shoot owners Helen Pease and David Bond found that guns visiting the area often struggled to find places large enough to take their entire party, so hatched a plan to convert a former cattle shed into three separate cottages – another stand alone cottage sits just across their driveway.
After 14 months of planning and a further 14 months of meticulous refurbishment, it is no exaggeration to suggest that the farm now offers some of the most comprehensive shooting accommodation in the area. While from the outside my billet, Partridge Cottage, looked small, it compromised an open-plan kitchen, living room and dining area, large double bedroom and bathroom. Modern touches such as spotlights on the staircase and a plasma screen TV blend in well with the more traditional exposed beams and flagstone flooring.
Classily refurbished accommodation in four separate cottages.
The presence of a gun cabinet will be one less thing for guns to worry about, and those with dogs are able to kennel them on-site, too.
Guns get bed and breakfast (prepared by Helen), and lunch if they wish. The menu is the kind that has the potential to make you wear elasticated trousers; breakfast includes everything from a full English to kippers and salmon with scrambled eggs; while the lunch menu offers game pie, cottage pie, shepherd’s pie, roast beef (taken from the farm) and some guilt-ridden custard covered puddings and crumbles for afters. All of this takes place in the shoot lodge, around which hang trophies of game shot and caught by friends of the hosts.
The fantastic fully licensed bar was a real draw for guns and beaters during my stay, and quirky touches like the sign and bell from the now closed Starting Gate pub behind the bar made for a good conversation starter. The cottages look out onto a courtyard and stirring views of the Wiltshire countryside beyond, and I’m willing to bet some guests have set off later than planned on a clear day for want of being hypnotised by it. Nearby Tisbury railway station is on the London Waterloo to Exeter St. David’s line, making Withyslade within easy reach for city guns visiting for the weekend.