On a day of torrential rain and a wind strong enough to knock you off your feet, good hospitality and quality game shooting in Devon overcame the conditions.
As a sporting journalist it can be easy to lose sight of the real world.
When visiting some of the largest and most successful shoots the UK has to offer, inevitably populated by the successful and the powerful, it can be difficult not to be overawed by numbers.
We see thousands of acres of sporting rights, estates covering great swathes of the country and mind-boggling numbers of birds, all of which could easily come to be seen as the norm.
Of course, all of us are privileged to be able to take part in the sport that we love, but it is essential that we keep sight of what lies at the heart of shooting; not big bags and target practice, but a love of the great outdoors and good company.
I have yet to visit a shoot where friendship and love of our countryside, and a determination to conserve both, have not been at the heart of all they do. The Tarrant shoot on the Eastbury estate in Dorset is no exception.
Covering just under 2,000 acres, the shoot is based around the sporting potential of two valleys deep in the county’s rolling countryside, and is host to a very committed syndicate.
Eastbury Park was at one time a large estate owned by George Dodington, a founding governor of the Bank of England.
He employed the architect Sir John Vanbrugh, famous for his work on Castle Howard and Blenheim Palace, to design him a grand house, which he never lived to see.
Today the estate is owned by the Farquharson family, who acquired it as part of the purchase of some 23,000 acres in the late 18th century.
Only the west wing of the house now remains, a visible reminder on some of the drives of the Tarrant shoot of a grand past.
The estate has been farmed in-hand since the 1930s, and much of the woodland and scrub areas were cleared by ex-US army Sherman tanks and commandos as part of Britain’s post-war food production drive. Over the last 20 years, however, shooting and conservation have been significant elements in the estate’s plans.
The current owners partake in various stewardship schemes and have embarked on a programme to rejuvenate the estate’s many mature woods.
Shoot captain and headkeeper William Nobles has a passion for conservation and a desire to develop a sustainable shoot.
The work he has undertaken to manage the land, including work on field margins and hedgerows, has had a great effect on wild grey partridge numbers.
In 2009 the shoot started working with the GWCT, joining the Grey Partridge Award Scheme and releasing several coveys of greys onto the estate.
Aided by underkeeper Sam Trickey, William rears French partridges from day-olds and pheasants from poults.
Together with a dedicated team of beaters drawn in from the local area, they aim to present plenty of sporting birds which allow the guns to select those that will “live on in the memory”.
William is a skilled keeper, creating a shoot that uses the natural assets of the estate to great effect.
But he is also ambitious and is keen for the shoot to expand.
The terrain is ideal for shooting. Nestling just outside the small village of Tarrant Gunville on the Dorset/Wiltshire border, it is blessed with rolling arable countryside and deep valleys.
There is relatively little woodland, but with all the farming being in-hand the planting of cover crops can be closely controlled for the shoot’s benefit, and over 100 acres of cover crops are planted each season.
The Tarrant shoot’s drives are based around two large valleys that run away from the large farmyard which acts as its hub.
William has developed over 30 drives, allowing for shooting in a variety of conditions.
Syndicate days are for 150-200 birds, with an average of 175, but the shoot offers much more.
A team of eight or nine guns can have a full 100 bird driven day for £3,000, or 150-200 bird driven days for £31 per bird, both inclusive of hospitality.
The shoot also offers ‘walk one, stand one’ days of around 50-100 birds at £25 a bird, and walked-up boundary days for smaller teams at £150 a gun.
Last season the estate shot 40 driven days, the syndicate shooting every Tuesday and Saturday.
When I visited we were struck by some of the worst conditions I have ever had the misfortune to experience a day’s shooting in.
William’s skills were robustly tested, and it is a credit to all concerned that good birds were produced – and good birds taken – in spite of horizontal rain and a foul wind.
A cock pheasant bursts from cover at the urging of the beaters.
The Tarrant shoot syndicate is run by club secretary Barrie Taylor, whose charm and easy manner set an example followed by all the guns.
This collective spirit was a great pleasure to experience. Many of the guns had brought their partners with them, and all were keen to catch up and share shooting stories over a mug of coffee in the syndicate’s shoot room.
Complete with a dedicated kitchen and bar, the shoot room is where the day begins and where the guns take lunch and supper.
It was a welcome and warming sight on this particular day, not least because of the tremendous food.
Supplied by William’s fiancée Emily, described by the guns as “the star of the show”, we were treated to thick soup and sausages at lunch and a rich game casserole followed by chocolate tart for supper.
Emily’s energy and enthusiasm, just like that displayed by Barrie and William, is infectious: “We pay particular attention to eating here. I just cook what I know, and I know what boys need when they’re cold. Everyone loves good, honest English food.
“We like to use a bit of our own game where possible, but otherwise I will always support local business for all the produce we use. We have good people who shoot here; it’s just a big social gathering really. I love it.”
This love is obviously shared by all involved with the Tarrant shoot, conversation buzzing throughout the day, even when soaked to the skin.
A regular visitor, Peter Shaw, describes the hospitality as “flawless”, and it really is very difficult to disagree with him. Especially on a full stomach.
The shooting was testing, both due to the quality of the birds and the weather, and the guns took their opportunities where possible.
Unfortunately early in the day there was simply no wind; perhaps because the birds could sense the impending storm.
This behaviour was unusual – more than one gun noted that the birds weren’t flying as they would have expected.
When the rain did come it was so severe that those birds which could be encouraged from their hiding places by an experienced stick were absolutely sodden.
By the end of the day the skies had cleared, but the birds were still reluctant to fly.
That being said, each drive did present some excellent high birds, with particularly impressive flushes coming at their climax.
Guns and beaters make their way between drives.
This was entirely down to William’s meticulous planning and the hard work of the beating team, whose weary faces at the end of the day illustrated their efforts.
The final bag was 128 head, comprising 67 pheasants, 59 partridges and two pigeon, and the guns were delighted to have persevered through terrible conditions and had a full day’s shooting. All stayed long into the evening, enjoying their supper and one another’s company.
For me, this was a timely reminder of what shooting should really be about. Not simply the challenge and excitement of shooting, but the real pleasure of good company.