Well-trained gundogs are central to any successful shoot day, but there can be few estates where their presence is quite as pivotal as it is at Heathfield Park in Old Heathfield, East Sussex. The estate encompasses 350 acres, a third of which is covered by the invasive, non-native rhododendron ponticum shrub. ?A small amount of rhododendron is good for holding gamebirds, but the amount we have means it is essential we have a large group of dogs on all 10 let days,? explained gamekeeper Jonny Garton as we watched more than 30 gundogs milling around the shoot lodge car park.
This beaters? day shoot was to consist of six drives on a walk-one, stand-one basis for the 21 Guns. ?There is a mix of regular beaters and local shooters here today,? added Jonny. ?Beaters? day provides an ideal opportunity to thank friends of the shoot. I am keen for there to be a relaxed, informal feel to the day, so we will not be drawing pegs.? The estate was bought by private equity investor Dominic Wainford four years ago. A keen Shot himself, Dominic, along with Jonny and his lifelong friend Mark Randle, has cleared around 10 acres of the thickest rhododendron to create rides for sewelling lines and for Guns to line out in.
?We?re signing up to Natural England?s Higher Level Stewardship scheme, but we will not be eradicating all the rhododendron, as it provides such good cover,? said Dominic as he carefully placed his Beretta EELL into its leather slip, adding that a section of the park has been designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest by Natural England. ?There is a biological interest due to the habitats provided by the ghyll woodland. According to government scientists, the lichen population here is important on a county level,? he explained.
A grand backdrop
The first of the day?s six drives, Garden, started in the Humphry Repton-designed grounds of the 17th century house in the middle of the park. The beaters passed alongside a tennis court and dressage ménage before coming to the first patch of impenetrable rhododendron. Shooting companions Lee Morgan and Stan Quinn were both beating and working black Labradors on this drive. Lee, a beatkeeper on the nearby Stonehouse shoot, was thrilled to be invited. He said: ?I worked alongside Jonny in the summer holidays while I was studying at Sparsholt College, so I am well aware how high these birds are presented to the Guns.? With their 12-bores broken over their forearms,the pair meticulously worked their dogs, Burr and Snipe, in the cover.
Stan, a tree surgeon, said that he was thinking about changing his career to something in the shooting industry. ?I?ve realised that I would like to work as either a keeper or professional deerstalker. I am only 21 years old, so it?s not too late to alter my path,? enthused Stan before he sent Snipe back out. The ride weaved round to meet Glen, the first of the Guns. As I walked down to talk to him on his peg, I spied him fell a racing cock bird that then crashed into the rhododendron behind him. Two young springer spaniels leapt from the undergrowth in front of us in pursuit of the fallen bird. ?One downside to having so much cover is that it can be very difficult to work your dog. You need to have a very strong recall,? Glen pointed out.
As we scanned the sky for his next bird, baker Glen told me how he had only just finished his night shift. ?I have come straight from an eight-hour shift, but I was not going to allow bread to get in the way of an invitation to Heathfield Park,? he said as a jay screeched its alarm call while hedge-hopping down the line of Guns.
The second drive, known as Tower, is named after Gibraltar Tower, which stands in one corner of the park and was built by former estate owner John Newbery in 1791 to commemorate Lord Heathfield?s defence of Gibraltar in 1782. After Jonny finished positioning the Guns for this drive, he explained that he is fairly new to professional keepering. ?I was a commercial fisherman for 24 years prior to becoming estate manager at Heathfield Park 18 months ago,? he said. ?I not only act as keeper, but also manage the herd of 300 fallow on the estate.? Jonny added that Mark Randle is an essential member of the team and played a fundamental part in establishing the shoot. ?Mark is a great ally and a real credit to the shoot,? Jonny said. ?On a normal let day he lines out the Guns, so I am keen he gets to enjoy shooting today.?
Mark revealed that it has taken a huge amount of work to get the shoot to where it is now. He said: ?The first shoot day of the season was nerve-racking. I can remember standing with my fingers firmly crossed behind my back hoping it would all work as planned. Thankfully it was a complete success.?
The next two drives, Handbrake and Dry Lake, made use of a narrow valley with steep banks. Handbrake earned its name after Jonny once left his truck on a bank there without properly securing it. ?It accelerated so quickly I almost couldn?t catch up with it,? Jonny laughed. ?The name stuck and has acted as a reminder ever since.? Fireman Pete Cockram was in the middle of the line. ?This has been my first season beating at Heathfield Park,? he revealed as he carefully closed his Beretta 686 and lifted the barrels upright. Behind Pete stood Brightling Park gamekeeper Jon Gaunt and his two springer spaniels, Jasper and Tilly. He explained that this was also his first season on the shoot.
?Beaters are treated to breakfast, elevenses, a full lunch and then afternoon tea and cake,? Jon said. ?From the outset, Dominic and Jonny were adamant that beaters would be properly catered for throughout the day, and a place in the beating line at Heathfield Park is highly coveted locally.? As planned, the ringnecks flew straight down the valley, corralled by its near-vertical sides. Both Pete and Jon proved to be standing on hot pegs as the pheasants attempted to gain enough height to be out of range. It was only the low flyers that made it to the woodland behind Jon, however. East Sussex is not well-known for its dramatic valleys, but Heathfield Park is blessed with particularly impressive topography. Gulley is one drive that puts this natural advantage to good use. To blank it in, the beaters and I had to scamper down a steep bank and then laboriously climb the vertical bank back up the other side.
By the top, my legs were burning from exhaustion. Just as beater and picker-up Richard Hemsley surfaced, his flat cap caught the wind and flew off his head, tumbling 100ft to the bottom of the valley, much to the amusement of onlookers. Without hesitating, Richard sent his field trial-winning springer spaniel back after the lost hat. To my amazement, she dutifully raced after it and brought it straight back to him. I was impressed.
Back with the Guns, and gardener Dinky Daunt was scanning the tops of the rhododendron bushes for his quarry. Dinky handled his gun with perfect precision, bringing down all but one bird, which back Gun Jack Holt claimed. Jack?s normal job on a let shoot day is to transport the beaters around the estate on a tractor. Farm worker Jack explained to me that he was lent his Rizzini by Mark Randle. ?My old Continental kept misfiring, so I really appreciated the kind gesture,? he said, popping two more 32g No.5 cartridges into the over-and-under.
A spectacular finish
The shoot ended with a showcase drive known as Diesel Pen. Farmer Graham Jones?s peg was on a small island at the side of a pond in front of some imposing sitka spruce. Armed with his 50th birthday present from his wife ? a Beretta Silver Pigeon ? he was ready to christen his new 12-bore. ?I have another shotgun that I use for everyday shooting, but I wanted to save this one for a special day,? explained Graham as the first couple of pheasants showed themselves at the end of the line. Then, a cock bird emerged from the conifers and tried to accelerate past Graham, but his 28g No.5 cartridges brought it somersaulting down into the pond. Further down the line, Dominic and Jonny were sharing a peg, taking it in turns to shoot. Both displayed a natural aptitude for the sport, bringing down only the highest crossers.
Heathfield Park may be a young shoot, but it has a diligent team behind it with an infectious enthusiasm for presenting well- shown birds. With enough cover to hold even the flightiest of gamebirds, the estate has the makings of a fantastic shoot.