The Great Easton shoot, near Market Harborough, in Leicestershire, is one of many small shoots that have grown as the sport has increased in popularity in recent years. Dwarfed on all sides by large well-established shooting estates, this syndicate has carved out its own corner of the countryside, flourishing on a stretch of terrain that the big commercial shoots might ignore.

The 138 acres of flood meadow that comprise the shoot were used by the landowner for growing arable crops until recently. Eventually, however, the flood became more dominant than the meadow, forcing him to search for

alternative land use. These flat fields are now planted with quick-growing willows, which will be used to make cricket bats.

In the meantime, they contribute to another sport as the Guns and beaters of the Great Easton shoot stride to the thicket on seven Saturdays of the season.

Typical of many small shoots, Great Easton has grown rapidly from a knockabout, two-men-and-theirdogs-chase-the-pheasant experiment to a regular affair with rules, routines, spreadsheets and budgets. It relies heavily on a handful of men to release the birds, control the vermin and orchestrate the drives, but the shoot has developed roles for all its members, resulting in a slick production.

The keeper is the key

The most important member of the Great Easton shoot is Dave Hardgrave, who is headkeeper. A lifelong fieldsportsman from Yorkshire, there was a time when Dave funded the whole Great Easton operation to get his fix of shooting, but as the number of Guns swelled, and with it the ambition to expand the bag from single figures to 25-plus, it became necessary to share the costs.

I come from a county where shooting is in the blood, so it would have felt wrong not to be surrounded by dogs and hear the sound of gunfire during the season,” Dave said, as the beaters pressed through the first quadrant of willow plantation, named Barn One. “Happily, this part of England also has a proud shooting tradition, so it wasn’t too hard to find like-minded folk. When the opportunity arose to set up a small shoot on this land about five years ago I jumped at it. Everything snowballed from then.”

The young shoot is finding the right path through trial and error. That, however, is a poor choice of words, as the “path” is something of a curse at Great Easton. The early drives especially suffer from a large number of dog walkers, runners and birdwatchers who often treat the whole meadow as a thoroughfare. “One stray dog before we get here in the morning can push out all the birds from first couple of drives,” explained Dave, as James Drury shot the first pheasant of the day, which had been flagged up by his son, Theo, at the far end of the drive. Moments later, Pete Binley

shot a crossing hen with his second barrel further along the line.

“There is a bridleway along the disused railway line,” Dave said. “But visitors seem to treat it only as a guideline, especially if we get a rare visitor such as a bittern. Then it is as busy as a shopping centre during the Boxing Day sales. I can understand birdwatchers’ excitement. I have spent many a happy hour watching kingfishers, short-eared owls and egrets on my rounds, but I wouldn’t walk across private land to see them or let my dog loose without permission.”

The syndicate of Guns is made up of six members, who pay an annual subscription of £350 for their seven days. The shoot stands seven on pegs, so each Gun has a chance to invite a guest on one day of the season. The vermin control is done on a voluntary basis, primarily by shoot stalwart Anthony Green. Most of the money is spent on rent, 200 ex-layers and birdfeed, with any leftovers put in the kitty for new equipment, or spent at the bar of the Queen’s Head pub in Sutton Bassett at the end of season knees-up.

Keeping out the cold

Aided by the ranks of willow trees and Dave’s loud voice, the beaters kept a straight line all day. Those with dogs were interspersed between those without. Karan Moore cracked her flag with expert timing, chasing forward any birds that broke from the cover. Lady beaters always give you a flush proclaimed a badge pinned to her jacket, with which only a brave man would quibble. Brought up on a beef and cotton farm in Zimbabwe, she was more accustomed to hunting impalat than pheasants, but has quickly settled

into local life.

“I would love to return to my home outside Harare,” she said on the Railway drive, where syndicate member Bernie Benford was in the hot seat, selecting a right-and-left from four pheasants that flew over his head. “But I don’t know if I would recognise it anymore. Mugabe has turned the countryside into a skeleton. People eat whatever they can find to survive. I am fortunate that I could come here. I do enjoy England and it too feels like home. Events like today’s shoot help you become part of the local community. The only problem is that I have to wear long-johns because it is so cold.”

Indeed, out of the sun the January frost quickly penetrated even the thickest clothing. Puddles cracked underfoot and a water trough was frozen solid. As the sun reached the top of the sky, however, so the layers of beaters’ clothing were shed. Lunch in a nearby shed included some excellent soup and hot sausage rolls provided by Jean Callow, which soon chased out any chills.

A superb snipe retrieve

After lunch the beaters were able to stretch their legs on the Top Pond drive, skirting round the far end of a field to flag a boggy stretch of reeds that released eight snipe towards the Guns. Most jinked their way to safety, but Matthew Canning, guest of his father Mike, was able to bring one down. The delicate wader was gently retrieved by Martin Wainwright’s black Labrador Paddy, just in front of a blue-roan cocker named Murphy, owned by Martin’s son Ben.

The final drive of the shoot was named River, as it ran along the banks of the fast-flowing Welland. It was beyond the reach of dog-walkers and birdwatchers, so the undergrowth held many more surprises. Soon, all of the Guns were sounding off, quickly reloading, ready for the next pair or trio of birds pushed forward by the beaters. The bag was doubled in that last half-hour, as Dave cautioned his team to creep past the willow trees, ensuring a steady trickle of birds.

“Now that wasn’t half bad,” said the keeper, as the Guns and beaters shuffled

back to the barn in the bright sunshine. “It just goes to show that even the fanciest boots can be tied up with a shoestring.”