Game shooting at Swinton Park, Yorkshire.
Wind is an essential part of any game shooting day, the invisible force that enables pheasants to lock their wings and hurl themselves across the sky and over the guns.
On this day late last November the wind provided some spectacular birds, but it was also the cause of more than one loss of a shooting hat.
A howling gale wiped out any hope of polite conversation outside of the cosseted confines of the Swinton Park estate Land Rovers.
On the plus side it also meant that iPhones and Blackberries remained hidden deep inside pockets. And the guns would need to focus all of their attention on shooting, for the pheasants here are not for the faint-hearted.
A vast dam holds back the waters of Roundhill Reservoir while the birds soar over the guns on Pott Hall Oakes.
Swinton Park is a magnificent 20,000 acre estate owned by the Cunliffe-Lister family.
Run by Mark and his wife Felicity, Lord and Lady Masham, the estate stretches from the River Ure in Wensleydale up onto the Yorkshire Dales, a beautiful mixture of moorland and deep valleys.
For the keen game shot there is grouse, partridge and pheasant shooting available on the estate.
The moorland covers 9,000 acres which is divided into three blocks of 3,000 acres, each providing days of 100 brace of grouse.
There are over 2,000 acres of woodland on the estate, much of which is given over to a team of three forestry men, and 9,000 acres of farmland which is tenanted out.
The focus of our November visit was the pheasant shoot, which covers 5,000 acres and which sees 45 days a season. The pheasant shooting is done over a mixture of park woods and game crops, and tends to be on higher estate ground.
There is also the opportunity for duck flighting, walked-up days and fishing for rainbow trout on one of the estate’s two reservoirs.
It was a chilly start in the shoot yard adjacent to the hotel, and as the guns gathered and Mark ran through the day’s drives, the expressions on the guns’ faces ranged from joy to horror.
One of the team’s most experienced guns, Sandy Henderson, exhorting: “It will be an advantage to be tall today!”
Paddy Dingwall lost his hat to the wind on the first drive, Leighton Dam.
A testing day of sport had been planned, with four drives in the morning, a break for lunch and a final drive in the afternoon before the winter sun dipped below the horizon.
The first drive of the day was Leighton Dam, one of two drives in the shadow of huge reservoirs built in the 1900s to supply water to Leeds and Harrogate.
It was certainly an impressive sight to start a day’s shooting, a vast expanse of almost 100 acres of water stretching into the distance.
The north of England had just been subjected to one of the wettest periods in recent memory, and water levels were extremely high.
At the bottom of the vast earthworks holding back the water, the guns were placed in a wooded belt and along the lines of a millrace with a constant torrent of water flowing down behind them.
It was at this point the wind arrived, whistling over the water and down towards the guns, and bringing with it vast amounts of spray which threatened to put an early dampener on the sport.
The pheasants, however, seemingly flying out of the end of a rainbow and soaring out over the guns were unperturbed.
But the wind really was quite something; all participants were blown off balance, loose clothing threatening to lift the occupant into the air like an errant kite.
Those who chose over-ear defenders rather than ear plugs had displayed exceptional foresight, not only for keeping exposed ears warm but also for holding on hats.
Remarkably the quality of shooting did not seem to suffer, the dogs being kept busy on the far bank and leaping into the watercourse with abandon.
As the wind mercifully dropped, the guns bubbled with excitement after an impressive start.
One beater, with a wicked gleam in his eyes, shouted from the back of the beaters’ wagon: “You haven’t seen anything yet!”
As we travelled on to Lower Grimesgill, a drive which takes place in the shadow of an impressive bridge spanning the far end of Leighton Reservoir, Mark explained a little of the estate’s history.
“My family bought the estate in 1880. We came from Bradford having made our money in the woollen mills and the estate has stayed in the family since then. The actual house, the castle, was sold in 1980, but we managed to buy it back in 2000. My great-grandmother Molly, Countess of Swinton, was the last member of the family to live there before that.
“It was my uncle, the last Earl of Swinton, who really loved his shooting. Though Swinton was already a sporting estate he did a lot of work to make it what it is today.
“My father preferred beating to shooting. He loved walking and got very bored standing still and shooting, so he went out beating. They were like chalk and cheese.
“I used to go out with a gun a little bit, but more often than not I was beating too. When I was at university in Durham I was still doing quite a few days beating. Going out on the moor really is an amazing experience – there are worse day’s work to had!”
Several of the guns on this day had been shooting at Swinton for many years, and one of Mark’s guests on the day was Paddy Dingwall, a 20-year veteran of the estate.
He first shot there when it was under the stewardship of Mark’s late uncle, David.
“There are two syndicates which run together here, all with history attached. All the people have either been here a great many years or their sons have filled their spots,” he explained.
“David was just the most fabulous individual and he just adored his shooting. He was quite a character – he shot two or three days a week on the estate, and used to get very cross if you missed.
“I rented a cottage on the estate, and I didn’t realise at the age of 22 that this meant he would expect me to turn out to shoot whenever I was wanted. If someone didn’t turn up, he used to just send someone down to ask one of us young chaps living on the estate to join the line. We all used to wait until about 9.30am before we went to work during the season.
“He was a wonderful man and we all miss him terribly, but his legacy is all here, which is a real joy. It’s a rare old spot, Swinton. I think it’s about some of the best shooting to be had in north Yorkshire, and north Yorkshire is pretty good for shooting.
“Mark has made the castle a great success as a hotel. Even in my lifetime it’s been two or three different things, but he’s really grabbed it and made it a success. It’s so nice to see that as the centre of the estate, but also to see young blood and enthusiasm back, and in Mark’s case that quiet, steady hand. It’s exactly what the estate needs, because it is such a splendid place.”
As we sat around the table for lunch, deconstructing the morning’s events, it became clear that, despite excellent hospitality and dramatic surroundings, shooting at Swinton Park is defined by the quality of the sporting experience.
With breathless enthusiasm the guns shared stories of taking tall birds which would stay with them far beyond the long journey home.
It’s good to know shoots like Swinton are continuing to evolve and deliver the highest sporting standards.
More than just a hotel
Under Mark and Felicity’s stewardship, Swinton Park has developed into a luxurious hotel and a wonderful estate offering a superb range of sport. Alongside the grouse shooting and driven and walked-up pheasant shooting, there is duck flighting and clay pigeon shooting. They have also put together a new package for proficient clay shots who wish to learn more about game shooting. Guns will have an intense half day course at Warren Gill shooting school, followed by lunch at the hotel and an afternoon of driven pheasant shooting. On top of all this there are estate tours, off-road adventures, walking, including picnic lunches at the moorland lunch huts used during the grouse shooting season, horse riding and pony trekking, golf, and even displays of birds of prey. For those more interested in relaxing, there is a superb spa. The castle stable blocks have also been converted into an excellent cookery school, which has a vast array of courses on offer for cooks of all ages and abilities, including residential courses run by chef Rosemary Shrager. Any stay at Swinton Park is sure to be a memorable one.
With three full-time gamekeepers and a further part-time keeper under his stewardship, along with several thousand acres of land and many more pheasants, head keeper Stephen Abbott has a lot on his plate managing the shooting at Swinton Park. He is a quiet man, but commands the respect of all who cross his path with an ever-present smile on his face. Originally from Thirsk, Stephen has spent his entire 30 year keeping career at Swinton. Having failed to coax his life story from him, one of the guns told me about him over lunch: “He is the perfect keeper because he is a superb diplomat. He deals with the hunt, the foresters, all his keepers, the guns, beaters and pickers-up with ease, even though he’s very difficult to get a word out of. “He wins everyone’s respect. He has done this by deed rather than word, simply by being incredibly good at his job. He will never admit to his abilities, but the quality of sport on offer shows a master at work.”
Top drive: Pott Hall Oakes
This drive takes place in the shadows of the huge Victorian dam holding back the Roundhill reservoir. The guns stand down in a wooded belt on the valley floor beside a river running down into the Leighton reservoir, with peg eight closest to the dam on the exposed valley side. The beaters bring in a long strip of woods and cover on the opposite side of the valley to the north west, the birds breaking over the guns and heading towards the fringes of the moorland behind. The birds are supremely high, flying over the tops of the trees and providing a real test to the guns below. They were aided on this day by a wind howling over the open reservoir and down onto the guns below, seemingly taking much of the reservoir’s water with it. Waterproof clothing is therefore a must. This was certainly one of the most talked-about drives of the day, not only for the quality and consistency of the sport, but also the setting. Very few sportsmen could honestly say they have shot anywhere quite so spectacular, or at the least with such an impressive and imposing construction looming over them.
For more information about the sporting opportunities at Swinton Park contact the estate’s shoot agent James Raynar on 01765 689224. Information about the shoot and the full range of services at Swinton Park can also be found at www.swintonpark.com.