Game shooting: The Tower shoot in West Malling, Kent, may be a small syndicate shoot, but it is run with the absolute precision of a large commercial affair.
The position of every drive, cover crop and release pen has been painstakingly deliberated over to maximize return. Since taking over three years ago, landowner Ian Barwick has invested more than £35,000 in infrastructure, game shooting consultants and educating himself and his keepers.
Ian explained that Douglas Homewood originally started the shoot in 1993.
“When I came on board, it was like the changing of the guard, which suited Doug who, at 79, wanted to slow down a little. I wanted to build on everything that Doug had already achieved.”
A voluntary affair
The shoot now sprawls over three different farms totalling 450 acres and attracts at least 30 beaters every single shoot day.
“Despite being surrounded by bigger commercial shoots we do not struggle to recruit and keep beaters, even though we do not pay them,” said Ian.
Guns, birds and beaters have all benefited from changes recommended by a GWCT report into the shoot.
So what’s his secret?
“Neighbouring shoot captains are perplexed as to why Tower shoot always has such a strong beating team. We may not offer a cash incentive, but we do treat everyone with respect and our guns have to provide a proper lunch at every shoot for the beaters, as well as a lavish end of season meal at a local Michelin-starred restaurant.”
As a successful businessman, Ian’s award-winning label and packaging company now allows him the flexibility to concentrate on making the shoot a triumph.
“The trouble is I try to turn everything I’m involved with into a business,” said Ian. “I want Tower shoot to work as efficiently as one of the top professional shoots but to keep its friendly and intimate atmosphere. It’s no easy task and one that most shoots want to achieve, but I think we are close to our goal.”
When Ian took over, one of the first things he did was enlist the expertise of the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT).
After conducting a full survey of the shoot, adviser for southern England, Mike Swan, delivered a detailed report and five-year plan.
It covered every aspect of the shoot including cover crop and release pen location, how to push drives and government environmental schemes.
“At nearly £700, the service is not cheap,” said Ian, “but we have implemented the recommendations and we are beginning to reap the benefits.”
Enthusiastic beaters Tom Perkins (left), Hugo Salter & Emily Salter on Elgees.
Ian also paid for himself, Dean Perkins and Alex Knight to attend a three-day game management course at the GWCT headquarters in Hampshire.
The shoot has two keepers – Dean and Jerry Relf – and two underkeepers – Alex and Helen Brooks.
“Extraordinarily, all four are volunteers and carry out their roles for the overall good of the shoot. Their dedication is astonishing, without their support the shoot would not be what it is today.” added Ian. “The same has to be said for our neighbouring landowners, who allow us to shoot over their patches.”
The talented Mr Pierce
The first drive of the day, Teston Road, saw the guns line up at the bottom of a valley between a copse of wild cherry trees and a disused orchard.
The drive provided stunning far-reaching views of the Kent countryside, with the distant white cowls of oast houses contrasting against the autumnal russet-leafed treetops.
On peg five, Andrew Pierce was flanked by former keeper Doug Homewood on his right and farmer Tom Green on his left.
“This drive always shows good birds,” explained Andrew, adding they pass over the top of the guns at about 50 feet. “To shoot birds on this drive I need to just swing through – it can be fatal to start calculating lead if you can see the bird approaching.”
Picker-up Roland White and black labrador Poacher did not have to wait long for a retrieve. A cock bird raced over Andrew’s head only to be shot.
“On this drive there is no such thing as a duff peg – every gun has plenty of sport,” Andrew shouted over his shoulder as he lined up another bird. “Before Ian bought the land, the bag would average about a third of what it is today, but now we consistently shoot around 100 birds each time,” he added.
No country for old foxes
For the second drive the guns walked up to a line of poplars on the ridge of the valley and lined up with their backs against a release pen.
Keen stalker Mike Bowyer-Jones explained that so far over 50 foxes had been shot that year alone.
“Ian is out with a rifle once a week on fox patrol and Jerry is trapping winged vermin in the close season,” said Mike as he loaded. According to Mike, this drive works well because it capitalises on the pheasants’ homing instinct.
“One of the next big jobs on the shoot is to extend this pen and make it much bigger,” explained Mike, adding that the beaters normally turn up to help as well. “Not many shoots can claim their beating team help with work parties in the summer,” he added.
Against a backdrop of more oast houses, pheasants took to the sky over the guns and back towards the pen as predicted.
But not all of them made it as the game shooting continued to be remarkably straight.
A man with a plan
For Elgees, the penultimate drive before lunch, I accompanied walking gun Ian Barwick. As we walked he explained how he found the right kind of cover crop for the shoot.
“I obtained 250 tons of green waste from the local garden recycling centre as well as 100 tons of horse manure to help improve the soil. I then had the soil tested and planted five different types of cover crop before deciding to go with seven acres of maize and sorghum in combination with five acres of wild bird seed from Kings Game Cover. ”
Ian added he was very choosy about where he bought his poults from.
“I did a lot of homework – I wanted to buy the birds from someone local,” said Ian, adding the shoot looks out for the environment. “I try to ensure the shoot does its bit for conservation. This year we have put up five owl boxes.”
So how else does Ian ensure the shoot runs like clockwork?
“I bulk buy all the guns’ cartridges so we can save money and send out newsletters every quarter to keep everyone up to speed with the shoot. As the shoot had already been in existence for 15 years before I bought the land, I was keen to make my mark but not upset the apple cart too much. I hope my new ideas help make the shoot run more efficiently.”
Mike Bowyer-Jones awaits the start of Quarry Mounds.
The Elgees drive turned out to be one that was full of redleg partridge.
Covey after covey broke from the L-shaped maize crop and screamed above the guns.
Sadly the birds peeled away from Ian, but the other guns had plenty of sport – particularly John Jameson who felled several of the diminutive game birds with his gun.
Picker-up Michelle Diprose’s pair of pointers had their work cut out as they were sent back again and again to retrieve birds from the woods.
As we watched her work her dogs, Ian revealed the shoot members had commissioned Michelle to paint Doug’s portrait to mark his retirement in 2008.
“He was thrilled when we presented it to him at a special dinner,” said Ian.
On sacred ground
The last drive of the morning, Tia, was held around the newly-restored shoot lodge.
One of the founding members of Tower shoot, Peter Simmonds, explained that the drive was named after his now deceased spaniel, Tia.
“Tia was 15 when she died and is buried in the woods, about five metres from this peg,” he said. “She was a brilliant gundog, and I am thrilled that she is remembered in this way.”
Peter was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease three years ago. I asked if his illness affects his sport.
“I try not to let it get in the way. I have good and bad days, but I want to be an inspiration to other sufferers. The moment you let it take over, you are done for. You have to fight it.”
Game shooting on Tia requires snap game shooting through the trees, Peter remarking that the drive always gets the pulse racing.
Where there’s muck…
After lunch, the team shot Dairy/Nick Shaw, which was designed by the GWCT.
Guest gun Tom Green said he was particularly keen on this drive because all the guns can see each other.
“There’s a lot to be said for being able to share in your neighbour’s delight at a good shot,” explained Tom, who runs a livery yard next to the shoot. “In the future I will be providing all the manure for the cover crops and some of the drives are now held on my land.”
Despite the guns facing into the low winter sun, they were as accurate as ever.
The pheasants streamed over their heads and Tom handled his shotgun with alarming proficiency.
“I have had this gun for 25 years now, and it has never let me down,” he commented.
The last two drives utilised the man-made topography of a nearby ragstone quarry.
“Quarry Mounds and Quarry Wood are saved for the end of the day, to end on a very high note,” quipped Tom.
The guns get very little notice before the birds appear at Quarry Mounds.
The picking-up team relied solely on the ability of their highly-trained dogs to retrieve felled birds as the impenetrable undergrowth was thick with brambles and nettles.
Gun Chris Wilshire explained that today was a practice run on the last drive, Quarry Wood.
“The leaves need to drop before we can make full use of this drive,” he said as a scold of jays raised the alarm while the guns walked to their pegs.
Game shooting under the leafy canopy, I saw what Chris meant.
His neighbour Simon Tree was positioned in a slightly less dense part of the wood and had more sky above him, but it was still difficult game shooting.
Keen rough shooter Simon told me the shoot offers game shooting for all abilities.
“Yes some of the drives produce exceptionally high birds by Kent standards, but there are also other drives that produce birds of varying heights.”
As thought, the canopy was still too leafy for any real sport to be had – but this did not stop both Chris and Simon from having a courageous pop at everything that flew over them.
It is the unwavering passion of all involved for game shooting and conservation which makes this shoot work so well.
There are no spaces on the syndicate at the moment, but I shall definitely be adding my name to the waiting list.