The Wykeham estate is one of a pair owned by the Dawnay family and it contains the Abbey shoot, which sprawls over an area of approximately 4,000 acres.
Across its three undulating valleys one can shoot a mixture of high pheasants and partridges on drives requiring a range of game shooting skills.
The other estate in the family is Danby near Whitby, and its 10,000 acres of grouse moor, where the game shooting is let by the day, or two consecutive days, game shooting bags of between 80 and 100 brace per day.
But it was the pheasants at the Abbey we were interested in on this visit and the varied weather we awoke to – glorious bright sunshine and fine rain falling from a cloudless sky – proved a good indicator of the wonderful mixed day of sport that lay ahead.
We left our lodgings at the nearby Ox Pasture Hall and made our way to the rendezvous point: the old kitchen at Wykeham Abbey.
The shoot offers visiting guns a superb medley of game shooting opportunities.
On arrival we met resident agent and shoot captain Robert Sword. Robert moved to Yorkshire 26 years ago and has worked for the 12th Viscount, Lord Downe, for 18 years, having previously worked for Humberts estate agents.
The old kitchen where the guns take lunch had for decades remained unused, until its rediscovery by Robert.
The room has a high ceiling, tiled floor and a traditional ‘big house’ cooker, which reaches from floor to ceiling and looks like an industrial installation with its multiple ovens and hobs and roaring log fire.
It certainly proved to be the ideal place for the guns to gather before and after a bracing day in the line.
Wykeham Abbey is built on the site of a Cistercian Priory, founded in 1153.
Seeing my immediate interest, Robert explained the room further: “I began looking for somewhere to have lunch on the estate instead of at the local pub, as was the norm. I eventually stumbled upon this room and had to give it a good clear out, as it was stacked with old furniture. During the cleaning we found several tied bundles of newspapers. They dated from 1939 when the room had been closed at the start of the Second World War, and never opened since.”
There has been a long tradition of game shooting at Wykeham and Danby, stemming back to the days of the 9th Viscount Downe.
He was a famous and outstanding shot, as borne witness by his game books, with entries of game shooting at Bolton Abbey, Abbeystead and Sandringham amongst others.
It was he who is also credited for developing and introducing the Dawnay estates tweed.
Elevenses are taken in the field, in particularly beautiful surroundings.
The Abbey shoot is formed of the Bedale, Yedmandale and Sawdondale beats, which comprise steep wooded hills over which the pheasants and partridges are flushed to produce some spectacular and challenging game shooting.
The estate plays host to teams of guns from around the world, with regular groups coming each year from Europe for the high ground game shooting.
“We have teams of Dutch and Canadian guns who like to come every year for the high driven stuff,” explained Robert. “The team today is comprised of some local guns from Yorkshire, some from Wales and others have come from Cyprus. They have been game shooting here for nearly 30 years, so we must be doing something right.
“As well as high driven partridges and pheasants we can offer low ground game shooting to visiting teams. We like to offer some walked-up and smaller bag days on the estates in the more traditional game shooting areas around Wykeham Abbey, the park and the surrounding woodland and spinneys – so we literally have something to suit everyone’s taste and pocket.”
The varied terrain on the estate offers plenty of game shooting.
Our day was structured to take place over four drives, the guns game shooting through due to the short days and long nights of winter.
This was to be the fifth season they had shot the new high ground of the Bedale beat, which Robert described as ‘the core’ of their high ground shoot.
Headkeeper Matthew Steadman has used his shrewd knowledge to extend the game shooting over this high ground terrain, with the addition of several new drives.
The valleys at Wykeham have been adapted to achieve maximum results over its acreage.
Aside from the physical changes he has made to the dales to produce a fecund game shooting environment, his birds have also undergone some reshuffling.
“We put down around 25,000 pheasants and 10,000 partridges. The eggs we buy from France,” said Matthew. “The redlegs we use are your standard bird, but while we used to use normal ringneck pheasants, now we use Michigan cross French common.
“The previous keeper used to use pure Michigans but they were very difficult to hold on to – the new crosses fly much better but still give us a few problems with holding.”
Headkeeper Matthew Steadman.
Holding issues aside, the birds were there in force and flew high and true, giving the guns some fast and consistent game shooting, truly befitting the Abbey shoot’s high-bird commercial status.
Despite this status, guns can enjoy all the hospitality and camaraderie that would befit a shoot a fraction of the size.
And the sensible attitude towards overage demonstrates the overall approach here.
“We like to try and avoid the outwardly commercial aspects of many shoots, keeping the days as simple as possible for the guns so they can focus on simply having fun. We like to offer challenging game shooting with a friendly atmosphere. We keep the process of letting days on the Abbey shoot uncomplicated – days are let on a fixed price based on an agreed bag, therefore avoiding any dispute about overage.”
The first drive on the day of our visit was the Spinney, which comprises a long, sweeping open bowl of terrain with maize covers at the summit. The expansive topography gave the guns some incredible sport, with an often-bewildering array of left and rights for the team to cut its teeth on.
The second drive of the day was Clear Fell, a long ride with a steep bank facing the line, giving the guns some stratospheric shooting. During the drive a north-easterly wind got up, curling the birds through the cold, crisp air and confounding some of the team.
Ernie Forrester, a former headkeeper, had his ashes spread on the estate as per his last request.
The third drive was Firebreak. As the name suggests this was a narrowly cut path through the wood with high Douglas firs and red cedar lining the route. The guns didn’t seem to have their eye in so well on this drive and headkeeper Matt skillfully prolonged the drive with careful transmissions over his radio. This careful monitoring ensured the entire line received good coverage throughout.
The fourth and final drive of the day was Hazel Bank, which saw a return to the same dale as the first drive. This time the guns were further into the spinney and had the birds driven at them from the opposing bank. This gave some amazing long-range shots at partridges flanking the line and proved a fitting finale to a fine day’s game shooting.
The Dawnay estates tweed
The origins of the Dawnay tweed go back many years, although it is unclear when it was introduced, or why the subtle colours were chosen. It was certainly used at the time of the 9th Viscount Downe (1872-1931). The keepers of that period wore the Dawnay tweed with a white shirt, red tie (still worn today) and white spats which have, thankfully for all concerned, now been dispensed with.
The pattern for the tweed was lost for a time, but Paul Hutton, the agent up until 1978, found a pair of trousers, and so it was possible to resurrect a replica, made by Hunters of Brora.
Unfortunately they went bankrupt, but after a careful search it was decided to ask Lovat Mills of Hawick to produce another matching Dawnay tweed. Robert Sword visited the mill, and after two separate attempts to approve the final pattern, the tweed is now worn by the five keepers on the Dawnay estates.
For more information contact the Abbey shoot on 01723 866600 or email: firstname.lastname@example.org