In 2009 the sporting press was awash with articles concerned about the height partridge were flying over guns.
According to the National Gamekeepers’ Organisation, redlegs were not flying as high or as fast as they used to.
The cause of the low-flying was unknown, with breeding regimes, food and even the wet weather being blamed.
With this in mind, I was intrigued to see how well the home-reared partridges on the Dullingham estate in Cambridgeshire would fly.
On this day in October 2010 I was just in time for freshly-brewed coffee and pastries at Dullingham’s oldest pub – the King’s Head on Stetchworth Road – when I met the eager guns at 9am.
Dressed in matching blue-and-yellow striped silk ties, The Yorkshire Hawks syndicate is fivet years old and is made up of nine London-based guns who all grew up in God’s Own County.
Jim Meysey-Thompson, the syndicate’s treasurer, explained the day is afforded by putting aside a small amount every payday.
Bedlam Hill is the kind of drive where topography and carefully orchestrated beating combine to produce fine partridge shooting.
“Each of the members have a standing order which is transferred to a dedicated bank account. It is a nominal amount of money, but it soon adds up and means we can buy a proper day’s sport.”
Syndicate member Tom Wilson explained the roving syndicate gives them the opportunity to explore other shoots and counties around the UK.
“Before today, some of the guns had never even been to Cambridgeshire. We rarely get the opportunity to meet up in London so this day is an eagerly anticipated event each year.”
Tom Stoddart-Scott, this year’s syndicate captain, booked the 150 bird day through Jedburgh-based sporting agent Charles Brownlow, whose agency specialises in shooting days and weeks, predominantly in Scotland.
Former wine merchant Charles was recommended to Tom by a mutual friend who hadn’t realised the pair had actually known each other for 10 years. Charles revealed that he was thrilled to be able to source a day for the syndicate.
Sporting agent Charles Brownlow.
“The Dullingham shoot is a traditional East Anglian partridge shoot,” he said. “Formerly a beat on Six Mile Bottom, the shoot is now under the management of Branches Park Hatcheries. The estate lends itself to showing classic partridge shooting, all within a stone’s throw of Newmarket race course.”
The first drive, known as Horseshoe, took place on the west side of the 1,000 acre estate.
The gun bus, a converted grain trailer, dropped the guns off alongside a field of young oilseed rape just as the sky started to cloud over.
Standing behind Tom Stoddart-Scott on his peg, the first drops of rain fell against our faces.
Oblivious to the darkening sky, Tom intently studied the plantation in front of us in anticipation of the first redlegs of the day.
Flanked by Sam Graham on the right and Tom Bourne-Arton on the left, the ribbing over missing birds began even before the whistle was blown to start the drive.
With his side-by-side at the ready, Tom waited for the flutter of wings.
In perfect waves, the partridge came with alarming speed.
Tom wasted no time in felling the first bird that soared over him.
By mid-October partridge are much wiser to gun shot and fly that bit higher over guns, but Tom made light work of these buff-bellied game birds.
Dullingham gamekeeper Peter Bailey with his hardy redlegs, which are brought in from south west France.
Early release programme
After purchasing the sporting lease at the beginning of 2010, this is gamekeeper Pete Bailey’s first season on the estate.
“My assistant James Hanbury and I grew up beating and picking-up on all the shoots in the village, so I know the land inside out,” he explained.
Pete also runs another shoot as well as a game farm on his family farm at Branches Park.
“We produce around 100,000 poults each year and supply the birds here at Dullingham. Compared to many shoots, we release our birds extremely early – by late July everything is out of the pens. In fact, some of the birds only spend 24 hours in the pens. In my opinion, the longer they live wild the better.”
The landowner still cuts the shoot hedges in the old traditional way for grey partridge.
Pete explained that when English partridge were in abundance, keepers cut turrets into the hedges.
“We no longer shoot the greys, but it is an interesting feature of the shoot to keep the turrets. The idea was that they disguised the gun behind them. Grey partridge would make many modern guns look like amateurs. There are a few coveys still on the farm, and I am trying to grow their population.”
The Yorkshire Hawks roving syndicate is made up of Yorkshire-bred London-based guns who explore the UK in search of a proper day’s sport.
Before setting off for the second drive, a breakfast of bacon rolls was served outside as the pickers-up collected the last of the fallen birds.
“You can tell we are all from Yorkshire as the ketchup has been discarded in favour of the brown sauce!” quipped one gun.
A strong team spirit
Over breakfast there was much debate over whether or not Tom Stoddart- Scott should be fined for shooting a pigeon.
Fellow gun Ed Stoddart-Scott, also known as ‘Weights and Measures’, explained that the syndicate rules are taken very seriously.
“We have a written constitution that was drawn up by our in-house barrister, Tom Bourne-Arton. Failure to adhere to the rules, at all times, gives me the power to hand out harsh penalties at the end of the day”
The second drive, known as Bedlam Hill, saw the guns surround a coppice on a muddy stubble field located in the middle of the estate.
With a rainbow arching over the line, I stood behind Tom Bourne-Arton to see how he fared.
Of all the guns, Tom had received the most teasing – primarily because he had forgotten to wear his obligatory syndicate tie.
“I had tried to keep my jacket zipped up, but I was caught out at breakfast,” he shrugged.
Armed with his impressive Atkinson side-by-side, Tom was well-equipped for the next drive.
“This gun is on long term-loan from my godfather. In fact, I think all the syndicate members shoot with an English side-by-side,” he whispered.
As the birds poured over our heads, Tom picked out the highest flyers. Incredibly, with every cartridge fired a bird crumpled in the air.
At the end of the drive, Charles emerged with two wicker baskets filled with rose champagne for a break between drives.
Over drinks, I enquired why Charles had decided to set up a sporting agency in such an uncertain economic climate.
“There was actually a method to my madness,” he explained. “As a direct result of the downturn, I have been given opportunities to sell days for clients that would normally have sold all their let days the year before. Of course it has been slightly more challenging to sell the days, but so far I have sold everything I have had the opportunity to sell,” he confirmed.
Girls Grove, the penultimate drive of the day, did not give the guns an easy ride.
The penultimate drive, Girls Grove, saw the guns line up in front of 40 feet high conifers. This time, I chose to watch fund manager Robert Clough shoot. He explained to me why being part of The Yorkshire Hawks is so important to him.
“We are all in our thirties now and starting to settle down, so a boys’ weekend away will soon become much more difficult to organise when children come along. So many people talk about setting up syndicates with old friends but never get past the logistics – I am thrilled that we have managed to keep this going for as long as we have.”
Lunch was held back at the King’s Head, in an outbuilding converted into a dining room specifically for shoot lunches.
The walls are adorned with unusual taxidermy – turtles watched over us as we ate our lamb shanks.
By mid-afternoon the bad weather had passed over Dullingham to reveal a clear azure sky.
For the last drive, New Plantation, I stood with stockbroker Adam Horsley.
“I am shooting with a gun that was given to me by my father. It was made by a distant family relation, Thomas Horsley, in the 1870s,” he explained.
Pete’s team of adroit beaters produced an extraordinarily steady flow of high birds that cascaded over the guns.
The pickers-up had to keep a keen eye on proceedings.
Despite having the low autumnal sun in his eyes, Adam still managed to pick off the fastest partridge, cleanly pulling the birds down from the sky.
As Adam placed his gun back in its slip, he commented on how testing the last drive had been.
“New Plantation certainly presents challenging birds. They tended to curl away due to the wind, so you have to react quickly!”
As I drove away from the shoot along the lanes back towards the M11 a redleg glided alongside my pick-up.
There were no signs of lacklustre partridge here.
Any faster or higher and Pete’s partridges would be almost unshootable.
His unorthodox early releasing of birds teamed with his hand-picked chick supplier in south west France has had the desired effect on the quarry.
Best Drive: New Plantation
This is an L-shaped drive with two young belts of trees meeting in a central point. Guns are placed centrally where the two belts come together. Four teams of beaters are used. One team brings the left belt towards the guns, another team acts as the left-hand flank to stop partridge breaking wide of gun number one. The third team brings the right-hand belt down towards the guns and the final team acts as a right-hand flank stopping partridge breaking wide of gun eight. All teams converge on the central point where the two belts come together. Partridge are making for three separate drives farther back from the guns, and as a result of this the birds spread over the whole line which, combined with the fact they are coming from two separate directions, make for tricky curling birds.