The only sound is the sighing whisper of a westerly breeze, bending the grasses and sending the first leaves of autumn scattering from a tall bank of
beech and ash. The valley is a shallow V-shape, the banks on either side sloping to treeless crests and the line of Guns, poised beneath the scudding grey clouds, are motionless, tentatively waiting on this, the first drive of the day. No-one moves, the pickers-up and their dogs are poised for action while a beater, orange flag to hand, is silhouetted on the skyline, high above the line of Guns.
The minutes tick by and then, abruptly, the sky is filled with partridges skimming and swirling across the skyline and, despite the best efforts of the flagman to divert them, seemingly determined to stay out of danger. A late handful swing over the far end of the line to a crackle of shots and two birds plummet and bounce on the grass. Then, as the cries of the beaters become ever clearer, smaller packs and singles swing over the line, accompanied by fast-flying pheasants, smug in the knowledge that their time is yet to come.
A Wiltshire idyll
The Valley Farm shoot lies on the western flank of Salisbury Plain, close to the small, isolated village of Chitterne and some eight miles to the west of Stonehenge. This is an open landscape of vast sweeping fields and rolling grasslands, of small copses and vaulting skies, a place of lark song, of wild flowers and butterflies. Yet perhaps two millennia ago, the Plain was covered in woodland, for the ancient name of Chitterne means ?dwelling in the wood? in Anglo-Saxon.
The 500-acre farm, owned by the Harley family, is today managed by 26-year-old Neil Harley, whose father Jack is now a rancher in Oklahoma. Valley Farm is largely a beef farm, supplying Aberdeen Angus to Waitrose, and much of the land is rented from the Ministry of Defence. The shoot is divided into two parts, taking in another farm, North Farm, which provides some excellent partridge shooting. Due to farming operations, however, it was not available on the day?s sport covered by Shooting Times. As I was to see, though this was only the second week of the season, the partridges flew with verve and the determination which comes with strength, good feeding and early release.
The single-handed keeper, Ross Murray, told me that there are a few hares in the area, a sure magnet for poachers with long-dogs who cause a great deal of trouble. Unfortunately access on to Salisbury Plain is all too easy. There is a scattering of roe deer but this is not ideal country for deer, lacking woodland as it does, and there is little likelihood of a muntjac invasion.
A laid-back ethos
The shoot was started, Neil told me, by his father when he came to the farm in the late 1980s. ?While it has grown?, he said, ?I think it has retained much of the family character it started with. I took over two years ago and am helped on shoot days by my long-term girlfriend, Susie Whitfield, who keeps me in line and on time. She also prepares lots of tasty treats for breaks in the field as well as the lunch for the team at the end of the day. We are a laid-back shoot, there is no pressure on the Guns, there are pauses between drives and a long lunch when everyone involved in the shoot can socialise. After all, shooting is about having fun.?
Concentrating the birds
One of the great advantages of the Valley Farm shoot is the simple fact that it is entirely concentrated on a long, shallow valley, bounded on either flank by steeply sloping grassy banks to provide a series of drives, bringing the birds back and forth across the line, and all within comfortable walking distance. Out of sight is a series of covercrops, consisting mainly of fodder rash, fodder rape, mustard, maize, artichokes and wild-bird strips, while there are also 50 or so acres of miscanthus or elephant grass, now in its third year and productive in terms of providing cover and holding birds, as we were to see. This was particularly evident on the first drive of the day, named Jacqueline?s in honour of Neil?s young sister. Her older sister, Flora, aged 19, was one of the Guns.
I stood on the first drive with David Snelgrove, who was using an AYA No. 2 to good effect as the birds began to storm across the line. A steady fusillade of shots for 20 minutes, birds arcing to the ground, pheasants streaming over, high and fast (the Kansas strain), the flagman frantically turning the partridges and then, as the line of 17 beaters emerged on the crest of the slope, the horn blew to announce the end of the drive. With 24 brace in the bag, the standard was set for the day.
Two or three hundred yards on, the line moved up two on their pegs for a drive named The Buildings and, facing the same direction as the previous drive, waited as the beaters brought forward 16 acres of gamecover. By now the wind had risen and despite the fact that it was blowing against the drive, 50 or so birds flew over, but too low. Then came a vast everyone gets to socialise pack of several hundred partridges flying across the Guns, losing only one, as they vanished over a belt of trees behind the line. They were followed by singles and small coveys at which the Guns kept up a steady and fruitful volley. Andrew Hiles, standing at No. 7 and using a Woodward No. 3, dating from 1910, pulled down several good birds, while at the end of the line, Flora, an excellent shot, killed two corking high birds with her ubiquitous over-and-under Beretta 20-bore.
Driving over landfill
The next drive was simply a return drive, with the birds brought over the spinney facing the Guns and with the wind in their tails. A quick, soaking shower did nothing to deter the line and I noticed David Farr, dripping wet but pulling down bird after bird, while at the far end Gordon Smith and Bill Hird saw plenty of action, partridges bouncing on to the grassy slope behind them.
A pause for refreshment and a quick survey of the events so far: the bag after two drives stood at 56 and-a-half brace, well on the way to the 100 brace expected for the day. The picking-up team, consisting of Helen Gray, Martin Dennet, Kevin Harrison and Mike Anderson had been kept fully occupied and were grateful for a pause in the action.
Two more drives brought the day?s sport to a close. The fourth, The Tip, consisted of a landfill site, hidden behind a long, steep slope with four acres of new planting, a two-acre wood of mainly Scots pine and three acres of gamecover. The Guns stood with their backs to a wooded slope to deal with the fast and high birds, in coveys and singles. I stood with Bill Hird and watched in awe as he dropped bird after bird behind him, all dead in the air.
The Kansas strain
The last drive of the day, Combine, so named after an ancient combine harvester sited on the skyline, consisted of three-quarters of a mile of woodland on the far valley bank, a long stretch of artichokes and 100 acres of cover behind the trees. The partridges on this drive were dominated by pheasants which, though it was only early September, flew as though they had a couple of months shooting behind them. This pure Kansas strain seems to hold well and, when driven, claws the sky as soon as it is airborne. A dozen or so partridges were added to the bag here, one of which flew several hundred yards before towering to fall dead.
The team of Guns gathered at the farmhouse for lunch and, over a cup of tea, Neil announced that the bag for the day was 104½ brace with no various. Target met!