At first glance, the Netheravon shoot in Wiltshire, covering some 6,000 acres of Salisbury Plain to the north of Amesbury, is not short of ground. The land is mainly rolling grassland, dotted with small woods and some limited scrub, and seems ideal for an informal gameshoot. “If only it were so easy,” said field master Jay Duncan, “but we have to share it with the Army!”
In fact, the shoot operates under licence on the eastern side of one of the Ministry of Defence’s main training areas, and first priority must be given to military training. There are pressures from other users, including members of the public walking on the numerous rights of way, but Jay is philosophical: “We co-ordinate closely with the military authorities to avoid training exercises every time we go out, and liaise with everyone else. We keep our ears to the ground and stay flexible — it works, at least most of the time.”
Formed in 1972, the shoot meets every fortnight at Airfield Camp Netheravon. The camp was built in 1913 to house the first operational squadron of the Royal Flying Corps, which later became the Royal Air Force. Today it mainly hosts parachute training. “We just keep clear of the drop zone,” Jay told me. “But it can be disconcerting to have parachutists appearing overhead during a drive.”
I joined shoot members for the Saturday morning briefing at a vast hangar, built in 1919 to house Handley Page biplane bombers. We were grateful to be under cover as it had started to rain — a cold, persistent drizzle promising to get heavier as the day progressed. Nevertheless, the assembling field was undaunted. Keenest of all to get going was 12-year-old Lauren Blake, who has been coming along to beat for the past seven years with her father Dave, one of the shoot’s essential assistant keepers. Lauren is also in charge of the clicker and carefully counts the shots taken each day.
Netheravon is family-friendly, and the beating line is bolstered by families and friends. The Guns are an eclectic mix, ranging from retired generals and serving soldiers to local farmers; rank has no great importance here, and the shoot prides itself on its friendliness and informality.
As most of the Guns have 4×4 vehicles, chairman Keith Robinson decided to experiment with not having a beaters’ trailer this year. The shoot runs on a “stand one, beat one” basis, and pairing off alternating teams of Guns and beaters means that the vehicles end up parked in the right place at the end of each drive.
“We operate on a shoestring and made a decision to scale down as much as possible this year to reduce costs,” said Keith. “We put down around 500 pheasants each year and ask Guns to turn out for a few pre-season work days to put our pens in order before the poults come in.”
The shoot runs two Land Rovers — a 110 and a 1970 Series 2B forward control one-ton truck, which is classed as an historic vehicle. It is Jay’s bête noir — a tow rope is an essential part of its inventory — but fortunately he is mechanically minded as a result of his previous life as a helicopter flying instructor.
First drive of the day
By now the rain was falling harder, and with a final exhortation not to stand about in the wet any longer than was necessary, we set off across the plain towards the first drive, the site of a long-gone farmstead called Beach’s Barn. Results were disappointing, if not unexpected: the drive produced one solitary hen pheasant. “The rain’s the problem,” Jay mused. “It’s been on and off all night, so there’s no knowing where the birds have gone to try to keep dry.”
They were certainly not in the long patch of scrub and thorns we moved on to next, and only four shots were fired. “Never mind,” said Jay. “The next one should be better.” However, standing at my place in the line (Jay does not put out pegs, instead he places Guns individually) it was surreal to listen to the nearby sound of machine-gun fire as troops trained somewhere over the ridgeline.
Sadly, Jay’s confidence proved to be misplaced, as the woods bore the unmistakeable signs of having been occupied by troops until very recently, though we did manage to add a brace of pheasants to the bag. A couple of partridges were seen but not shot at. “We leave those alone,” explained Keith. “Salisbury Plain had plenty of greys about 30 years ago, but they have declined to the point that there’s only one or two coveys left. We don’t like to shoot them now.”
After three drives, and with only a handful of shots fired, we moved on to “the Hangings”, a large scrubby wood alongside a root field. Finally, we found birds. It seemed they had been attracted to the thicker cover available, and they climbed fast and high despite the wet conditions to provide most of the standing Guns with some shooting. Next in line to me, new Gun Jonathan Lewis was delighted with his first ever pheasant, a cock bird which he downed with a perfectly executed single shot. “I only took up shooting this year,” he said. “I did a course at Lains, near Andover, and it’s really paid off.”
The rain had finally stopped and a weak November sun was feebly trying to penetrate the thinning cloud base. A brief trackside halt for lunch allowed a chance to celebrate success at last, before we moved on to the fifth drive of the day. Here, by another of the isolated woods that are dotted across Salisbury Plain, we found a few more birds drying out in the long grass, before moving on to the final drive of the day, the Duck Pond.
After a timely reminder to load with non-lead shot, we lined up across a grassy meadow, facing the wooded pond area2. Some Guns had the disconcerting experience of being surrounded by 28 curious, pushy bullocks. “Don’t worry,” local farmer and shoot gamekeeper Mike Reed reassured them, “they’re all so tame you could lead them around on a halter!”
A horn blast announced that the beaters were on their way and almost immediately a flight of mallard erupted from the unseen pond. One of these duck was added to the bag thanks to some quick shooting by serving Bombardier Russell Lehman. In front of me a muntjac doe skipped out of the wood line and ran a few metres before dipping back in again — the first, I was told later, to be seen in this particular area. As the beating team continued to work their way through the cover, pheasants started to flush in all directions, a good number going back through the beaters and allowing some sport to the walking Guns.
The final tally for the day was 15 pheasants and one mallard, but that wasn’t important. “Our bags may not be large,” Keith said as he handed me a bird to take home, “but we have great fun working hard for them and everyone has had a chance of a shot or two. And for a wet day that started with such low expectations, we haven’t done badly, have we?” Judging by the smiles on faces all around us, I could hardly disagree.
Half and full Guns are occasionally available. For details, contact chairman Keith Robinson by email: firstname.lastname@example.org.