Game shooting: Appending the word Magna to the name of any settlement conjures up images of days long ago.
This feeling is reinforced when you visit Dalton Magna’s tiny cluster of houses and green space, squeezed between the town of Rotherham to the west and the villages of Flanderwell and Sunnyside to the east.
The 400 acres of Low Farm’s Dalton Magna shoot is pocket-sized in comparison to others, but the land which makes up the Burdon family’s arable farm could have been created specifically to produce a textbook partridge shoot.
Hilltop woodlands and wide belts of cover compliment large rolling fields, hedges and walls.
Shooting between six to nine days per season, with pheasants added to the mix from November onwards, it would be incorrect to describe the Dalton Magna shoot as a syndicate.
Rather, it’s a coming together of 10 friends and their occasional guests, each gun contributing equally to the initial stock of redlegs with reciprocal days.
Run from the two houses of brothers Rob and Stuart Burden, the early October day of my visit was eagerly anticipated.
Simon Cotton was in the thick of it on Wood Drive.
Early morning coffee in the main farmhouse gave the 10 guns and their guests the chance to debate the day ahead and draw pegs.
Rob outlined which six of the possible eight drives would form the day’s sport, each one markedly different to the other and guaranteed to show testing birds.
With the beaters already en route to their starting point, the guns grouped in the farm yard prior to mounting up in their purpose-built transport.
The early morning start meant the first drive, Water Works, wasn’t going to be easy. The low October sun was still desperately trying to burn its way through the autumn fog which had enveloped Dalton Magna from early dawn.
With the guns lined out along the edge of a cover crop, the few penetrating rays offered early coveys nigh on total immunity as they sprang into view over anxiously shaded eyes.
“This will sort a few of them out,” said Ian Wood, a neighbouring farmer who shares a gun with his son, Westley.
“Until the sun lifts it will be a quick shot which adds to the early bag.”
Many of Dalton Magna’s partridges endured nothing more than a number of loud bangs as they curved away into the woods to the left of the guns.
However, as the beating line came into view and the mist started to lift, the guns, who had stood patiently towards the bottom of the line, were suddenly presented with some searing birds; Frank Cotton, Gary Thacker and Eric Humphries certainly warmed their barrels.
No time is wasted on the Magna shoot.
Gary Thacker passes on his techniques for shooting en route to the afternoon’s first drive.
Long, lengthy discussions between drives are the preserve of the gun bus, whilst mid-morning breaks are dispensed with in favour of more drives and encouraging a suitable appetite for the infamous Dalton Magna lunches.
Cold Riding Bank saw the guns standing just back from dense trees lining the top of a hill.
The terrain increases the elevation of the birds as they fly over the waiting guns, with the pickers-up standing far back at the bottom of a field behind. This was an indication those birds shot would travel some distance before coming to earth.
One gun, Simon Cotton, was determined to make his mark with the number one gun of his matched pair of Brownings.
“They’ll be good birds off here. The beaters lift the birds from the various cover crops and small woods, so they always come from the right and either turn before or climb high above the trees and then turn towards us,” he explained.
“All we’ve to be careful of is not game shooting any of the pheasants they occasionally bring with them, especially the white ones. Shoot one of those and it’s a £50 fine for charity, whilst the others have to be left for later in the season.”
No sooner had Simon explained the drive’s format than the first covey came into view. Spreading wide, each gun added to the bag whilst rapid identification ensured none of the occasional pheasants fell.
There was only just enough time to refill pockets with cartridges, with wave after wave of strong flying birds breaking over the trees and demonstrating exactly why Dalton Magna’s partridges have achieved the reputation they so richly deserve.
Each one was more than up to the mark and a true test of those who profess even a passing ability at these small birds.
Touching Rotherham’s rooftops
Back in the gun bus on their way to the fourth drive, Ken’s Wood, the air was abuzz with talk of the day so far and the prospect of the coming drive.
The morning was nearly over, but three more of Dalton Magna’s drives were still awaiting them, the now unseasonable weather akin to an August heatwave.
The day is always divided equally, unlike many other shoots.
Rob and Stuart have always operated the shoot along these lines, finding the guns prefer an extra drive over regular breaks and an extended lunch, and it is an arrangement which seems to particularly suit them.
Ken’s Wood either shoots well or can be extremely quiet. It is also the nearest drive to the suburbs of Rotherham, the proximity giving the guns the sensation they could almost reach out and touch the rooftops.
Apart from a brace of unwitting woodpigeons, it was those guns on the extreme left of the line who enjoyed the best of the sport, only the occasional crosser making its way over to the right.
“I told you it can be quiet!” said Alan.
“There again, last season I connected with one of the best partridge I’ve ever shot while standing on the exact same peg. You just can’t say one way or the other on this drive.”
From Ken’s Wood it was time to head back to Low Farm and enjoy one of Chris and Sheila Burden’s luncheons.
Served in Stuart’s home, all those present are well-known, as you’d expect on any informal game shooting day.
Three flatcoats ready and waiting for the afternoon’s drives to begin.
Examples of what might have been perceived as inaccurate game shooting and other sporting shortcomings were quickly picked upon, the conversation humorous in the extreme.
“Dad and I share a gun,” said Westley Wood.
“Today I’m shooting and Dad is making sure the guns and beaters are all where they should be at the right time. Well, that’s the official reason – apart from the fact he always ensures he’s stood behind me offering unwanted advice and generally trying to put me off at every opportunity. But when the roles are reversed I do the exact same thing!”
The afternoon drives were appreciably different, the landscape changing as the guns moved to what they referred to as ‘the other side of the road.’
The gentle sloping terrain on Throstle Well allows the guns to line out along a gracefully arcing field closely following the line of one of the shoot’s largest woods.
Driven diagonally towards the pegs, it was the guns stood on the opposite side of a hedge on the right-hand side who benefited most from the birds’ natural instinct to head to the nearest cover.
The gentle breeze also added to their speed as they crossed in front of the main line, before climbing over a hawthorn boundary.
A grandstand finish
Wood Drive, I was assured, was to be one of the best. Guns were lined out in two rows, six or so at the front, the rest over a hedge in a smaller field just behind.
It started off slowly, but then suddenly exploded into life.
By the time the birds got over the guns they were high and fast, making their way to the woods from the previous drive and offered some of the best sport of the day as a result.
It was an exciting drive indeed, every gun wearing a red face by its end.
The final drive of the day was Drapers Quarry, and was an ideal way to wind down after an excellent day’s sport.
Although the birds were fewer, their appearance over a high banking as they pushed into the clear blue sky meant Dalton Magna and the Burden family signed off in spectacular fashion.
Guns line up on the graceful slopes of Throstle Well.
After the drive was the first time in the day Rob was free for more than a few seconds.
He joined the guns on their way back to the house, finally explaining why the shoot looks like it does and why neither he nor his brother, Stuart, ever actually stand in line on their own shoot.
“Although we’d always shot over our land for over 30 years, when we went totally arable the land instantly became partridge friendly. We started off just putting a few pheasants down and then partridge, but as time went by it changed into what we have today.
“Stuart and I act as the keepers, which we incorporate into the everyday activities of running the farm. Similarly we operate it as a non-profit making setup, all the money the shoot makes being put straight back in. To a degree the numbers don’t mean a great deal here, since at heart it’s a friendly farmers’ shoot.Those who come here invite us to shoot over their land and with their syndicates. Likewise, we don’t really have a signature drive – to our mind they are all good. All the drives are as near perfect as you’ll get for presenting partridge, whilst some of those we shot today also work especially well for late-season pheasants.Basically, we’ve worked with the land as much as we can but we couldn’t have asked for better terrain.”
We returned to Rob’s house for afternoon tea, he and his son quickly sorting and bracing the bag in anticipation of the usual demand for their birds.
“This isn’t so much an average day, but more or less what we always aim for,” explained Rob. “Whether it’s just partridges or including pheasants, we’ve got to the stage where we seem to know when enough’s enough. By the end of the season it always means we’ve left sufficient birds for a small wild stock to develop, which rewards us with some excellent early season birds. The guns and guests always enjoy taking three or four brace of birds home. That’s the beauty of game shooting here: just because the day comes to an end doesn’t mean you have to stop enjoying it.”