For many of us, supporting our servicemen and women can mean doing anything from wearing a wristband to running a marathon. For one group of sportsmen from the Royal Anglian Regiment however, a day’s sport was the perfect way for the game shooting world to show its gratitude.
Inspiration can come in many forms and shooting certainly provides fertile ground for the active mind.
The natural world is a constant source of wonder, and I was reminded of this as I drove to Norfolk on a cold, clear winter’s morning late last season, enormous, noisy skeins of geese lumbering overhead above the streams of traffic.
But it was our fellow man that had my attention that morning.
Very few of us readily put ourselves in harm’s way for others as the members of our armed forces do.
British servicemen and women are currently fighting in incredibly difficult conditions in Afghanistan, where at the time of writing 268 serving personnel have lost their lives.
Thousands more have been wounded, many seriously, stretching resources for their care back home to breaking point.
All of us are able to support our troops by putting our hands in our pockets and donating money to charities like Help for Heroes.
Indeed, many have done more than that, taking on incredible challenges to raise huge sums of money.
But this particular day’s activity was going to be a little different.
A group of sportsmen had decided to donate a day’s game shooting to a group of soldiers from the Royal Anglian Regiment.
The day was organised by Martin Gilvey and Peter Glenser, barrister, BASC council member and Shooting Gazette legal advisor.
Together they gathered anextraordinarily generous group who were determined to give some of our soldiers a personal thanks for their efforts.
Peter specialises in firearms law and military court-martials, and so has very close links with the armed forces.
He explained his motivation for organising the day:
“My nephew is in the Irish Guards and is a keen shot. He got me thinking about all these men and women coming back from Afghanistan. Most people can afford to give a bit of money to Help for Heroes, but I wanted to do something specifically for my local regiment. Shooting seemed a good way of integrating our returning soldiers into the local community.”
The Royal Anglian Regiment is made up of three battalions: the Vikings (First Battalion), a mechanised infantry battalion recently returned from a six-month tour of duty in Helmand Province, Afghanistan; the Poachers (Second Battalion), a light infantry battalion based in Celle, Germany, and recently returned from Iraq; and the Razorbacks (Third Battalion), a TA battalion, also recently back from Afghanistan.
The group of soldiers who would be shooting were drawn from First and Third battalions, with no preference for rank.
They were picked at random from those who signed up, and on the day a great mix of soldiers from privates to majors arrived to shoot.
I have been involved in field sports and the countryside one way or another all my life, and every shoot day still fills me with a sense of awe and excitement, even when I’m not shooting. I can only imagine what the guns must have been feeling.
Although used to handling firearms, they would all be taking a step into the unknown; some had experience of shotgun shooting but none had been on a driven day.
The Sedgeford Hall estate is run by Charlie Campbell, an ambitious young man with an entrepreneurial spirit.
Still only in his mid-twenties, Charlie has been responsible for the running of the estate for four years.
He and his wife Holly run a diverse range of businesses inside and outside the estate, from holiday cottages to a removals and storage service.
At the heart of the estate is the hall itself, an impressive house that is the home of the Campbell family.
Holly and her mother laid on fresh coffee and bacon rolls for blurry eyes and grumbling stomachs as protection against the cold.
Each of the novice guns had an experienced sportsman with them to ensure safety and to provide tuition, and all were fully equipped with coats, guns and cartridges.
After a safety briefing the guns loaded onto the back of the bus for a short trip to the first drive of the day, Alms House.
Charlie explained how the day would run:
“We’ll be doing smaller drives today because obviously for most of these guys this is their first time shooting. We’ll shoot drives where the birds are set quite high and all the shooting is safe. We’re only about six miles off the coast and we’ve got some reasonable hills for Norfolk, so they really can fly thick and fast on a good day.”
The nerves the guns were no doubt experiencing on the peg is something that Charlie can identify with, since his shooting career did not have the smoothest of starts:
“I’ve been running the shooting for five years now, but when I first started I hadn’t shot before. I came back from school and thought I’d quite like to have a go, so I asked for half a gun on the syndicate day. The syndicate said no, so my father, who was really quite upset at this, took the whole shoot back and gave it to me to run.
“I hadn’t actually ever fired a shotgun, but found myself running a shoot with my own gamekeeper and having to balance the books. That first year was very difficult. For example on my fourth day running a shoot the beaters’ trailer came off the tractor pulling it. On the very first drive we did on my first day one of the guns shot a lovely high bird, which promptly plummeted onto the bonnet of a BMW in the driveway of a house behind. All the disasters you can imagine might happen on a shoot day seemed to happen.
“But we’ve come on a lot since then. We’ve had some good support from people like Nick Holt, who has helped me get the name going. No one really wanted to spend a lot of money on a 22-year-old novice businessman who had just taken on a shoot. We needed a few people to spread a positive feeling about the place; that we do take it seriously, that the ground is good and that it is actually a good shoot.
“We normally shoot 10 days a season, but we’ve had such a good year this year that we’ve been able to shoot 15. It’s a commercial shoot really, so where we can we try and put a few more days in January to try and help balance the books.
“I didn’t really enjoy running the shoot very much early on because it was so stressful. I worried about everything; what if I have corporate clients with a bag of 200 who can’t shoot very well? What if they shoot too well? I found managing the day very tough. This year I’ve brought in Stuart Dickerson from one of my other businesses who loves shooting, and I’ve never enjoyed it so much. Not having to worry about all those little things has been a great relief. It’s meant that I get to enjoy actually being out and about.”
Charlie is now fully immersed in the world of shooting, and approaches the running of his estate with a refreshing honesty. His shoot is driven by pleasure, not by profit:
“We put down around 6,000-7,000 birds. It’s just a case of hitting that careful balance of finding enough birds to satisfy your clients and running enough days to cover your costs.
“It can be a vicious circle, but we’re lucky in that we hold game really well here. We’ve done a couple of larger days this season, which we would not normally do, but on those rare occasions where the conditions are good you accept that it is part and parcel of running a shoot.
“We never have people here looking for big numbers but I don’t charge overage. I hate the commercialism of it, people getting their cheque books out at the end of the day reminds you that people are paying for it, rather shattering the idea that this is a group of mates out for a day’s fun. It’s certainly a conundrum, but it’s all about managing your day well.
“Underage is more of an issue. Is it that you haven’t presented the birds, or is it that the guns haven’t shot very well? This is why we now have a shooting contract that specifies a ratio of 3:1. We’ve never had a problem with it because the guns we have here are all shooting people.
“I don’t know about you, but I just love being outside with the dog and spending a day in the countryside.”
This is a viewpoint wholeheartedly endorsed by Charlie’s close friend Tom Markham, a doctor who picks-up on the estate at every opportunity and who kept a watchful eye on the guns:
“I love shooting, it’s about having fun with your mates in the countryside. I love coming to Sedgeford for exactly that reason.”
Our conversation was interrupted by the first shots ringing out into the still morning, shortly followed by cries of “Good shot!” Captain Olley Ormiston, who was back-gunning, was left with an enormous grin as he took his first-ever bird, a cracking high cock straight overhead.
By the end of the drive all of the guns were smiling whether or not they had taken any birds, excited conversation suggesting that this was a fine introduction to a new sport.
The drives took in a huge variety of terrain, from rolling stubble fields to thick woodland, and on each the guns were presented with excellent birds.
Although not all the soldiers were successful, every one of them was smiling by the end of the day.
The two youngest men, Privates Jaie Read and Lloyd Jones had particular reason to be pleased with their performance.
Private Jones had an excellent close to the day, taking three cock birds on the final drive after struggling early on.
Seeing the soldiers enjoy themselves was of course the aim of the day. For those returning from war zones or those about to go it is vital they know their efforts are genuinely appreciated.
But it can be easy to forget just how much these men sacrifice in war, as Major Chris Pook reminded us:
“One of the guys shooting here today was hit by a 1,000lb bomb. The soldiers either side of him were killed and he was very severely injured, including losing a lung. His reaction was: ‘I’m alright boss; it’s halved my chance of getting lung cancer.’ Since the injury he’s gone on to run a marathon.”
It was incredible stories like this which made the decision to run the day an easy one for Charlie: “When you hear a story like that you have two choices; either you can feel sorry for them, or you can stick your hand in your pocket and give something back. So when the opportunity came along for me to do something like this, I had to take it. It’s been a fantastic day for the soldiers and for us.”
For more information on the Sedgeford Hall estate visit: www.sedgefordhallestate.co.uk. If you would like to run your own day for a local regiment and would like advice, contact Peter Glenser through Shooting Gazette by telephoning 01780 485350.