It was only a thin glazing of frost that covered my windscreen, but enough to say that winter was on the way and the shooting season was starting to shift into top gear. On this chill morning I was off to the St Giles estate shoot, in Dorset, for a day of October pheasants and partridges. The shoot consists of acres of fine rolling farmland and was wide open to a cold wind that would fight a battle all day with what warmth the sun had to offer.
Beaters and Guns met in a courtyard surrounded by old estate buildings that form the timber yard where, after drawing pegs, headkeeper Ron Thorpe gave the usual orders: no low shooting and no ground game. One of the Guns had his own speech prepared: dont shoot your neighbouring Gun unless his wife has requested it, and dont shoot the keeper until the end of the last drive!
The key to shooting partridges in October and also having pheasants on the menu is to be selective. While the partridges should be fighting fit, the pheasants may still be a little lethargic, so shoot only long tailers where possible. Ron prefers it if the early birds that are shot are cock birds with only a good hen being taken.
Whatever the weather
Wind plays a varied role in the world of fieldsports and it is as relevant in its own way to a keeper as it is to a stalker or fowler. Some shoots feel the wind will drive the birds down, but on the St Giles estates rolling landscape, a steady wind helps to lift the birds. There are about 45 drives, so if the weather is adverse there is plenty of room to manoeuvre, Ron said. Maize or kale makes good cover, but planting at the right time is crucial.
Farringdon Wood was the first drive and was mixed pheasants and partridges. It was the first time that it had been driven this season and any inaugural attempt can be a bit of a lottery. The majority of the birds flew well, however. We like a westerly wind that will lift the birds, Ron told me. This is an easy drive because the beating team knows what it is doing. Pure partridge driving is harder than pheasants and we try to drive the birds into a westerly wind, which curls them back over the Guns. All our drives are planned for westerly winds. We can reverse the drive if the wind is easterly, but westerlies are preferred. The Guns were seasoned campaigners and all shot well, but perhaps top marks went to Lord Head, who pulled down a beauty and drew a round of applause.
After a couple of drives there was a pause for some welcome soup and sausages, and time to admire the landscape of stubbles and drilled fields that shone white in the sun. There was much talk about the previous drives, where birds had been hoovered up by an abundance of good pickers-up. So after a little tincture to loosen the shoulders it was off for more.
The day was a relaxed one, as it was a family and friends day hosted by Lady Shaftesbury, who has shown tremendous enthusiasm during the past decade in running the shoot. There was none of the urgency that can sometimes be detected on commercial days and it flowed along nicely. It was interesting to note that on the day not a single Gun was equipped with an over-and-under. All were using side-by-sides with some fine walnut to match. The over-and-under seems to have edged out the side-by-side in many areas of fieldsports, so it was a pleasure to see a team flying the flag for what is arguably the most elegant guise a shotgun can assume. Working at Shooting Times, you do occasionally have to spare peoples blushes, but the Guns insisted that I report that one fellow managed to forget his gun twice for the start of two drives.
Silence is golden
Ron insists on a silent beating team except for tapping: something that the previous headkeeper, Don Ford, practised. This is quite right. I have been on some shoots where the beaters can sound like football supporters, and I have even heard Tarzan and grizzly bear impressions among other utterances that should perhaps be spared mention. Ron likes the beaters to slip away like ghosts at the end of each drive.
To reach the last two drives Wyke Hanging and Horseground we had to drive along the banks of the river Allen. Ron recalled as a boy swimming in the deep waters and its abundance of fish. Now, due to water abstraction, the depleted river is kept alive by water piped from under Wyke Down, which pours out to form the headwaters in the valley between the two drives. For the final drive, the partridges performed superbly and end Gun Tom Troubridge and his neighbour, Brian Stevens, did them justice.
The St Giles estate is a truly beautiful chunk of Dorset that has some super shooting to offer. Comprising parkland, woods, water meadows and arable fields, the estate retains that whiff of the old days that the modern world has not quite managed to erase. Many of the team have been going there for decades as with many shoots, it has its own community. Perhaps the only old rural icon absent is the once plentiful grey partridge. There are few roads running through the estate and Ron and his two beatkeepers, Paul Allen and Craig Elmey, still work quietly among the old beeches and hedgerows, as that stalwart of the gamekeeping world Don Ford and those who came before them used to.
As far as vermin control goes, rats are Rons main source of problems. As well as the efforts of Ron, Paul and Craig, Don accounted for 408 head of vermin last year. Despite these vermin problems, the estate boasts some fine conservation successes. There are some good areas of water meadows on the estate that are home to a variety of flora and fauna. Volunteers look after butterfly conservation areas, planting cowslips, which have proved popular with the Duke of Burgundy butterfly. In addition, there are 15 owl nesting boxes on the estate and six pairs of nesting barn owls in the area.
For more information and to book shooting on the St Giles estate, contact the estate office, tel 01725 517214.