Game shooting: The very names of the famous drives at Stoke Edith; Dormington Bank, The Punch Bowl, Bunkers Hill, Five Gates and The Swillows are enough to start the flow of adrenalin in any red-blooded game shooting sportsman.
Stoke Edith shoot is one of the great jewels in the Herefordshire game shooting crown, and consists of some 5,000 acres of wooded hills and valleys which have challenged the finest shots.
Sport was at its most testing on The Quarry drive.
The estate has been owned by the Foley family since 1670.
They were ironmasters who supplied iron for cannons in Oliver Cromwell’s time, and Paul Foley was even speaker of the House of Commons between 1695 and 1698.
The estate has seen a number of changes under its game shooting tenants over the years.
The huge acreage of woodland has grown, been felled and grown up again to offer challenges to gamekeepers and guns alike.
Nowadays, the guns meet in a dining room attached to the main family house.
They are welcomed by host and shoot captain Bob Taylor, a roaring log fire and a huge breakfast prepared by Elizabeth Godsall.
The breakfast over, the guns draw pegs, receive an earnest briefing from Bob and are then driven off to the first drive.
On the day of my visit he guns were all well known to each other – on their third day’s game shooting of the week together – and were guests of the current game shooting tenant at Stoke Edith, Ian Musto.
Ian has had the tenancy for five seasons and invested heavily into re-building the shoot to its former glory.
He has had the unqualified support of the Foley family, particularly the late Andrew Foley, and is blessed with a local headkeeper, Simon Baker.
Ian and Simon have worked hard during their five seasons together to do the estate’s topography justice.
Loaders John Ford (left) & George Magan.
The 5,000 acres are mostly wooded, and 3,500 acres are regularly shot over.
There are at least 15 prime drives, a dozen or more pens (the largest of which covers several acres), four gamekeepers, at least half a dozen pickers-up (around 20 dogs between them) and 15-20 beaters on bigger days.
The birds are brought in as day-olds and the estate is currently rearing almost exclusively Bazanty pheasants, which hold well.
Like many forward-thinking shoots, Stoke Edith has plucking facilities and the guns are offered oven-ready birds at the end of their day.
Much of the game shooting is commercial, but Ian is a generous man and many days, like the one reported on here, are spent hosting like-minded souls.
The weather, somewhat overcast, damp and still, was perfect for the pheasants.
The Quarry is on what Ian describes as a “modest slope” from south to north, the guns facing a steep bank topped by larches and beech.
The birds did not break through the trees from the cover crop atop the bank, but flew over the tops of the larches and hurled themselves down toward woods on the other side of the narrow valley.
There were a few singletons before the main flushes and we all waited to see who would have the first shot.
A single high cock soared out, only to be dropped from a great height by a gun at the top of the line.
The loaders were certainly kept busy.
Fast and furious sport
A quick stop for sloe gin and then on into the woods where we wound our way past the famous Punch Bowl drive to emerge into another valley.
Alan Smith prepares to pull the trigger, watched by Shelley Spencer.
Standing on Cockgrove at the bottom of this valley, and looking up the grass covered hill from where the pheasants would appear, was enough to make even these guns take a deep breath and hope their chokes and cartridges were well chosen.
The woods behind the guns were ablaze with autumn colours and silence reigned as the guns made their way up the hill to their pegs.
After a few minutes wait the whistle blew and the pheasants soared over the top of the hill down into the valley below.
They curled, glided and then powered their way back into the woods.
The game shooting was fast and almost continuous.
Ian is of the view that if enough birds are shown there will be something for everyone and there will never be a need to shoot anything low.
I watched from high up on the hill, and saw birds soaring into the sky and tumbling from amazing heights to thump on to the grass.
These guns could shoot.
Jack Musto, Ian’s son, was there with springer spaniel, Robby, and picking-up bird after bird for the game cart.
The pickers-up were busy back in the woods as we moved on, deep into the forestry, to another type of drive entirely.
Park Cottage is situated below a forestry track and down a steep bank to where once stood a lonely estate cottage.
The first three pegs are on or near the track itself, which in turn is below a steep bank lined with venerable beech trees.
The birds would come from both left and right, down through the trees to then soar over the guns at the bottom of the slope.
This would be instinctive game shooting at its best – guns on the higher track would have seconds to choose and address a bird as it swooped through the trees.
The guns, watching and waiting below, would often latch onto a bird only to see it fall to a shot from a neighbouring gun on the track, and then have to re-focus on another which made it, unscathed, towards the lower ground – not a drive for the faint hearted.
The final drive
After a glass of champagne and a sausage roll we moved on to Highnam, the final drive of the day and one with a reputation.
To call it high is a gross understatement.
Vehicles will not attempt the slope down to the pegs – this is walking, sliding territory.
The valley in which Highnam is situated starts with a vista of Herefordshire that would be hard to top, with Clee Hill in the distance and the Malverns in the middle ground.
Then it is down the slippery slope to the very bottom.
Pickers-up collect birds on The Quarry.
The birds fly from a maize cover crop on the very top of the hill and curl down to the valley hundreds of feet below.
The guns were finally in place, looking from the top like dots on the landscape, and the birds started to fly.
No-one could ask for a greater game shooting challenge than Highnam and these guns revelled in the skills of the keepers as they sent flush after flush across the field above the valley to plunge down towards the line.
There is an ash tree half-way down the slope and birds were taken over the tops of the branches in fine style while other guns were kept busy with birds from the front and the side.
A glorious drive, a great partnership between guns, keepers, beaters and pickers-up to end the day in style.
The beaming team made their way back to the dining room for roast beef and all the trimmings.
This was game shooting at its best and, thanks to the dedication of Ian and his team, Stoke Edith is as good as it ever was.