Back in October 2010, an unusual auction lot was provided for the Gloucestershire Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust’s annual dinner held at Elmore Court near Gloucester. Following some vigorous bidding, overseen by auctioneer Gordon Gilder, the hammer fell at £7,300 for a day’s game shooting with a difference – four drives on four different shoots! The winning bid was placed by Gavin Loynes, a member of the Gloucestershire GWCT committee. The day was conceived by fellow committee member and gamekeeper Andrew Holloway, who co-ordinated the project having heard about the success of a similar event in Wiltshire.
And so it was that in November 2011, thanks to the kind permission of the four shoot owners, the careful planning was put to the test. The team of guns met on a typically damp, misty Cotswold morning at Soundborough near Cheltenham for coffee and the pre-shoot briefing. Heading up the team was Gavin Loynes who, game shooting with his camera for the day, explained that the team shot regularly together as a roving syndicate throughout the UK and was excited and intrigued about the sport that lay ahead.
Brealey’s Larches at Foxcote Manor – the first of the day’s four shoots.
All the funds raised from the auction lot were going straight to the GWCT to support its valuable research work. As a result, each drive had been donated by the shoot owner, and the beaters and pickers-up were kindly giving their time for free. Also, mid-morning drinks were sponsored by Kings Game Cover and Conservation Crops and, given the plan to shoot through, lunch was to be taken at – and generously supplied by – the Wheatsheaf Inn at nearby Northleach.
A rugby international in the game shooting line
The first drive was held at Foxcote Manor, well known by many in the area for its support of a wide range of country pursuits. The Vestey family regularly hosts the Cotswold Hunt (whose kennels are just five minutes away), enjoys an active polo calendar through the summer and provides full racehorse training facilities for local trainer, Kim Bailey. In addition, the estate has an excellent pheasant shoot, providing testing sport for the family and their friends.
Former Gloucester, England and British Lions rugby player Phil Blakeway was in the line.
Once lined out at Brealey’s Larches, a combination of spinney and cover crops, the first clinical shot of the day at a stratospheric pigeon set the standard – this team could shoot straight. As the beaters quietly rattled the birds towards the flushing point, pheasants started to move steadily across the line and flew remarkably well, given the still conditions. Phil Blakeway, former Gloucester, England and British Lions rugby player was greeted, among a flurry of high pheasants, by a brace of foxes sneaking out of the cover mid-drive; a fitting sight for an estate with such hunting heritage.
Birds flew thick and fast across the line and it was a relieved keeper, Bryan Whitehouse, who blew the whistle to end the drive: “Every shoot day can be stressful,” he commented, “but being the first drive on such a day adds a whole new dimension to the worry!” With 66 birds in the bag and everyone seeing some excellent sport, he clearly needn’t have been so concerned.
An absent friend
The second drive, Spring Hill, at Compton Abdale involved a five-minute drive up the A40 and with guns quickly onto their pegs, the mist and drizzle descended just as the first birds started to appear. Gamekeeper Guy Vincent – regional branch chairman for the NGO – and the beating team did a great job given the poor visibility with a mix of partridge and pheasants spreading nicely through the line. The guns picked their birds and took some excellent soaring partridges, although a single, high-performance hen pheasant progressed through a barrage of shots unscathed. The drive finished with a tremendous flurry of action and the guns retired for drinks with a further 47 mixed head on the game cart.
Simon Ford keeps his eyes fixed on the fast-paced action while reloading.
Before drinks, the guns paused for a minute’s silence in memory of a dear collective friend, John Round, who had died tragically in April and was due to have been game shooting as part of the team for the day. Reflecting on John’s life, Simon Ford, who had known John since early school days, said: “John was a great friend of us all who loved his game shooting. We have had some wonderful adventures with him and it is very sad he is not able to be with us today.”
The guns raised a glass in his memory and Simon expanded on how the team of guns got together: “We spend a lot of time game shooting in each other’s company and travel the country top to toe in search of high, testing pheasants and partridges. The great thing about today is that we are game shooting on estates that do not normally provide days on the ‘open’ market and it is a real treat, and indeed unusual, to enjoy four shoots in one day.”
For the third drive we crossed the A40 to Shipton Downs, which is owned by the Baillie-Hamilton family. Our host Charles met us at the selected drive, High Rise. And as the guns fanned out along the grass valley, the anticipation increased as the tall woodland strip and surrounding stubble disappeared back over the horizon.
While waiting for the drive to begin I took the chance to ask Charles why he had agreed to provide a drive for the day: “It’s a great initiative and as a shoot owner it provides a practical way to support the work of the Trust while opening up our shoot to a team of guns who would otherwise be unable to see it in action.”
Simon Ford in action on the High Rise drive, Shipton Downs.
Once gamekeeper Chris (Stumpy) Hammett started the beaters, it was clear that this would be a drive to test the best, with a steady show of pheasants and partridges breaking out over all the guns. The middle of the line saw some tall pheasants, many of which carried on unscathed while numbers one and two had some fine sport at a few long redleg partridges that were trying to take the side exit. The whistle blew to bring the game shooting to a halt and the pickers-up (local keeper Billy Wilson, Carol Whitehouse, wife of Bryan from Foxcote Manor, and near full-time local picker-up John Petchey) worked the stubble and wooded areas thoroughly to record a bag of 69.
The final drive
With the weather clearing by the minute and the sun picking up the finest of the autumn colours, we left for the final drive at Soundborough. With the bag at 182 there was little debate between the four gamekeepers that another 50-bird drive should be provided to honour the mutual commitment. After a quick refreshment stop, the party lined up for Hampen Hill – a pretty drive where the guns spread out along the valley, with cover crops of reed canary grass and maize fore and aft.
The host keepers, from left: Chris Hammett (Shipton Downs), Andrew Holloway (Soundborough), Guy Vincent (Compton Abdale) & Bryan Whitehouse (Foxcote Manor).
Listening to the four keepers on the radio, as the guns gathered in the surrounding fields of stubble and oilseed rape, it was clear the banter was intensifying as they reminded each other of the previous scores. A couple of coveys of redlegs broke through early, focusing everyone’s concentration, followed by a cracking mixture of lofty pheasants in twos and threes and further coveys of partridges. The guns continued with the same clinical accuracy with which they started and very few made it through the middle of the line.
As the sun threw a sheen of orange and yellow light across the valley, Andrew Holloway, the Soundborough keeper, blew the whistle for the final time to close an intriguing yet challenging day’s sport. The bag was enhanced by a further 52 with the final score comprising 152 pheasants and 82 French partridges – a total of 234 for a very respectable 720 shots.
The guns were, from left: Ola Baalack, Simon James, Alan Smith, Chris Cook, Gavin Loynes, Simon Ford, Ian Mustow, Phil Blakeway & Snowy Heaton.
Retiring back to the shoot room in the farmyard for tea and coffee, everyone agreed what a cracking day it had been. Ola Baalack, local farmer and wild grey partridge enthusiast, summed it up: “It has been a lovely day game shooting over some stunning yet discrete local estates – all involved should be applauded for pulling such an interesting day together with faultless logistics and timing.”
As the guns retreated to the Wheatsheaf, the beaters, pickers-up and gamekeepers retired to the local pub for a welcome pint and four drives worth of debate, mickey taking and note swapping!