Game shooting: When the late Peter Wheeler bought Meanley in 1996, the owner of TVR hadn’t been looking for an estate with ready-made game shooting.
He had no interest in somewhere where all of the drives were already laid out and plans were in place to take into account the weather, the time of the season or the experience of the guns.
He wanted to design every detail from scratch to create something genuinely different, exciting and of the very highest quality.
Stretching along the southern side of the Hodder Valley, and a near-neighbour to the Whitewell, Dunsop Bridge and Knowlmere shoots, it was clear the estate had incorporated a shoot at some point in the past.
Testing partridge on Easington Low Fell.
From the valley bottom to the tops of the fells, it had been spectacularly over-grazed for generations. There were signs woods had been planted to provide cover in useful places, but not one was fenced off and there wasn’t much game around.
Pretty much everyone thought Peter was mad, but he could see the shoot’s potential.
The idea was to encourage both the grouse and the heather back on the top of the fells to create some partridge shooting at the fell edge and a pheasant shoot a little further down.
Peter being Peter, he never made a big noise about things, he just got on and did them.
He planted around one million trees, double-fenced more than 30 miles of hedging, bought all the sheep rights he could on the fell and hired helicopters to spray the bracken.
More than a decade of keepering later, there is significant regeneration of the heather and a very good show of grouse pairs at the last count. But it’s a project Peter professed would be one for the next generation.
Just five years after he bought it, Meanley won a Purdey Award.
From that green desert a habitat has been created that has seen 123 species of bird recorded on or over it during the past decade.
From soil that was initially measured as being PH 2.8 (sulphuric acid is PH 4), a great deal of management has seen cover crops growing on the north west facing slopes of a 1,000ft hill in a place that has seen an annual rainfall of 89 inches.
Vicky Wheeler has continued to run the game shooting at Meanley, Lancashire, in the same vein as her late husband, Peter.
I’ve been fortunate enough to shoot at Meanley many times over the years, but last year Peter’s widow, Vicky, invited me to record a day for posterity.
You get an early indication this isn’t going to be a normal day’s shooting when beaters and guns walk out to tracked vehicles, which are ex-Royal Marines issue from the Falklands War.
The first drive was Easington Low Fell, one of the partridge-driven-as-grouse drives that forms the mainstay of the shoot earlier on in the season, especially in September.
Some of the drives on the top of the fell use lines of grouse butts from the 19th century, and it was a strange experience to shoot straight out in front of oneself. A gill runs up the centre of the fell, at the bottom of which the guns lined up while beaters brought in 300 acres.
One of Meanley’s traditions is that Peter, and now Vicky, choose which gun stands where on each drive, so everyone gets their fair share of the shooting; and the home team’s younger members get the most climbing.
Partridge launched themselves from 1,300ft up, flying up to three-quarters of a mile down the side of the fell, gathering speed all the time.
As they saw the flank they swung through 180 degrees and then flew over the guns on the diagonal, giving the guns minimal reaction time and maximum excitement.
Sixty seconds later another covey came through 30 yards high, giving the guns a bit more notice.
As the beaters got closer, a blast of horns warned guns of their approach and to only shoot above and behind.
After the picking-up team went about their business in extremely difficult conditions, it was back into the tanks for the journey to Lime Kiln.
For this pheasant drive, the beaters brought in about 250 acres, including three game crops.
Some of the birds here were incredible – with the energy to fly something like half a mile before seeing the guns and climbing on their tails as the valley falls away beneath them.
Jeremy Clarkson once described Plane Wood as his favourite drive ever.
Good birds come in from left to right, right to left, straight over and even from behind.
This is one of the many opportunities for headkeeper Ian Farndale-Brown’s beating team to shine.
As Peter used to say: “We can stand facing this wood as long as we want, but if the beaters don’t go in and do the job, nowt’ll come out.”
In nice steady straight lines, Ian’s carefully choreographed tactics were played out quietly without any shouting or bellowing.
Every time birds flushed the line stopped and it is down to the beating team’s professionalism that the birds come out in a steady stream.
It was appropriate to see the beaters fed and watered before the guns during lunch. “The beaters get better looked after than at any shoot I have seen, which is truly appreciated,” said Ian.
Game shooting at Meanley, Lancashire, presents a number of challenges.
After lunch it was off to Meanley’s signature drive – High Wood.
It’s been there since 1833 and you would only plant a wood on the edge of a hill like this for shooting.
Three further woods are steadily blanked into it, including the aptly named Long Wood, before the beaters push towards a flushing line at the highest point, furthest from the guns and some 200 metres above them.
The other side of the valley is some three miles away, so the birds are essentially flying out into empty space.
A steady stream of 80 yard pheasants flew over every gun in the line in an astonishing display that is testament to the standards of shoot layout, pheasant breeding, keepering and beating.
The day’s shooting concluded with a flourish in the form of Bluebell Wood.
Here, as some beaters blanked in Slough Clough others lined up some two fields back.
The guns lined up in two gullies 20 yards deep, with tall trees on the tops of the banks that the birds fly over.
Quick reactions, and crampons and ropes for the climb in and out, are required for some pegs.
“Our basic aim has always been to improve the landscape and to provide a great environment in which to raise our family,” said Vicky when I asked about the shoot’s ethos.
“Peter liked high, challenging birds and as it was never run commercially he was able to go for the very best of everything to make it enjoyable for our guests.
“Meanley will stay a private shoot and we’ll continue developing the land, and the shoot and the extra 850 acres we’ve recently taken will even mean we will be able to let the odd day to friends now.”
Beaters Frankie Dunn (left), Gary Heron, Martin Sharpe, Toby Greenwood & Fern Farndale-Brown.
Whatever he was designing, Peter always questioned every bit of received wisdom and did things the hard way if he felt it was the best way.
Meanley is as much a result of this as was a TVR. Huge areas are blanked in like on a wild bird shoot – there’s never any whistling or feeding in.
The whole country is scoured for the best strains of birds so they always fly well, even if they sometimes wander.
It’s that unwillingness to settle for less than the best that makes Meanley the shoot it is.
Ian Farndale-Brown has been at Meanley since 2000, having already worked as a gamekeeper for the best part of 20 years, including three years with wild grey partridge. Other than occasional help for specific projects, he has no underkeepers working for him on the estate.
Pam Breaks and her team have provided the food at Meanley for many years and where possible meat, vegetables and fruit are all provided by the estate. Both guns and beaters are provided with three fantastic meals – high quality takes on traditional shoot lunches.