It was hard to avoid feeling a tiny bit elated driving down the M4 to the Berwick Bassett shoot as everyone else on the road appeared to be heading to work in the morning rush hour. It was sunny with a heavy dew and a hint of autumn in the air. Thankfully, the tail end of Hurricane Katia, which had battered much of the British Isles two days previously, had passed and the day began with just a light breeze.
If you want to know anything about fieldsports on the North Wiltshire downs, then retired policeman Sid Vincent is the man to contact. He kindly took me out stalking fallow last month and then invited Shooting Times partridge shooting at Berwick Bassett, not far from Barbury Castle, earlier in September. It was the third day of the season there, but the first day for some of the six Guns. To add to the enjoyment, it was a double-gun day ? not for the purpose of achieving a huge bag, but for the fun of it.
Manning the frying pan in the 12-man ex-army hut that serves as the shoot lodge was Sid?s mother Joy, who provides all the food. Joy is 80 years old and has two artificial hips, but that doesn?t prevent her from marching across the downs with the beaters as a stop and she was out stalking with Sid before 5am the other morning. Not only does she make an excellent bacon sandwich, she has perfected the art of the fat-free fruitcake (well, almost fatfree as it requires only 4oz of margarine). It was delicious.
Friends and family first
Sid shares the keepering with Andy Purvis on their three shoots. While Sid spent his career in the police force, Andy owns a magnet factory in Swindon. He?s also a passionate big-game hunter. ?Andy and I set up the shoot with the aim of being able to repay friends who have invited us shooting, and it?s nice for my children to be able to shoot here as I wouldn?t be able to afford to buy days ewhere,? explained Sid. ?Everyone mucks in, from beaters to pickers-up, Guns and landowners ? there?s no segregation. It?s a family day. Mum is doing the cooking and beating and my son Rob is running the beating line today. We?re always keen to get new people involved and many of our beaters had no involvement with the countryside before coming on the shoot.?
The shoot hut is on James Hussey?s Weir Farm, which has been in the family for several generations and is the site of Uffcott shoot, one of Sid and Andy?s pheasant shoots. We moved next door to Berwick Bassett for the partridges, however. Interestingly, David White, whose family has farmed there for many years, was one of four finalists for the RSPB?s Nature of Farming Award 2011, which ?celebrates the fantastic work farmers are doing for wildlife?. David is a keen wildlife photographer, birds being his particular passion. There were 14 buzzards circling above the shoot hut and, on the first drive, a little owl, a tawny owl and a barn owl flew out of the covert. Birds of prey, among many other species of flora and fauna, are doing well on this part of the Marlborough Downs.
There is a small syndicate of local friends and landowners who shoot 30 or so days each season and the emphasis is on having a fun day with quality sport. Andy briefed the Guns at the hut, warning them that no ground game was permitted and to take care not to shoot any pheasants, and we moved off to the first drive.
The Guns lined a steep bank and I stood with Sid and his friend and loader for the day, David Moore. Lancashire born, David has been a keeper all his life on large estates in Devon, Dorset and elsewhere. There was much to chat about as the beaters set to work further along partridges. They weren?t the easiest, as they came quickly over the hill and above the trees against the sun ? challenging birds for the start of the season.
The wind picked up as the drive was reversed, and this time I stood with Craig Horton, who was end Gun on a drafty corner at the bottom of the slope. Craig had a beautifully behaved yellow Labrador named Max. ?My last dog died unexpectedly a little while ago and I found myself without a dog, so I bought Max. It?s the first time I?ve bought a fully trained gundog, but shooting isn?t the same without one,? he told me.
Andy was loading for Craig, and though the start of the drive was a little quiet it ended up being quite busy with the coveys of partridge looking surprisingly grouse-like as they zoomed towards us over the contours of the white grassy slope before gaining height or crossing to our left. It provided plenty of work for Max and for Craig?s wife, Jo, who was picking-up with their young black Labrador bitch, which was having its first day out. Both dogs made nice retrieves from a strip of wild-bird cover ? there is no maize on the farm.
A spectacular last drive
For the drive before elevenses we drove a little further along the downs and I yomped to the top of the hill with Ken Carter, who was having his first day of the season and a useful one before two days? grouse shooting at the end of the week. He didn?t appear to need too much practice, however. The other Guns were further down among the trees, so I can?t vouch for their sport, but at the end of this drive it was defi nitely time for some refreshment and a piece of that wonderful fat-free fruitcake.
It had warmed up for the three drives after break, and on the last double drive of the day we stood in a stunning glacial valley that was littered with Sarsen stones ? the perfect shooting seat for a spectator or weary loader who had struggled up the hill under the weight of a pair of guns and ample ammunition. The Guns who were not so well used to double-gunning had got the measure of it and stopped breaking their guns to reload out of habit, and there was an air of expectation in the line about the last two drives.
I stood with Count Konrad Goess-Saurau for the first of these drives. An avid stalker, he told me of a recent morning?s roebuck stalking with Sid, where he had called in a buck from 800 yards to less than 100 yards ? Konrad favours a special wooden call over the more popular Buttolo that many stalkers use. While he?s an ardent game Shot, his great passion is stalking and it was fascinating to hear about the chamois hunting at his Austrian home.
For the last drive James Hussey and his loader Will Nutland were kept extremely busy, to the point where they almost needed a third pair of hands. It was a spectacular drive and contributed to the bulk of the bag of 203 partridges and a myxy rabbit one of the beaters picked. It was hot work for Rob and his team of beaters too, as they appeared at the top of the steep slope at the end of the drive.
The day finished with a delicious lunch back at the hut, which was decorated with bunting and lanterns after one of James?s children held their 21st birthday there recently. Joy had made quiches, salads and a scrumptious apple tart, followed by cheese. It was a fitting end to a great day on a shoot that prides itself on creating the friendliest of atmospheres. There?s always something special about early partridge days, and this one will certainly stick in the memory for years to come.