I was fortunate to be able to spend Boxing Day with the Penley Shoot in the Chilterns. It?s a comparatively new venture, having been set up four years ago by Paul Rogers, and though it covers only a modest area, it is run in a professional yet relaxed manner.
Following a safety briefing, the seven Guns drew for pegs and set off for the first drive. This was the Pond drive and consisted of a covercrop from which the birds headed out across winter wheat towards Butterleys Plantation. Most of them reached it safely, but their relief would be short-lived, as the plantation forms the centrepiece of the last drive of the day.
The second drive, Coco Bank, was more typical of the Chilterns ? a deep valley, across which it is possible to show high birds as they flush from the covercrops atop the hill. The drive is named after a large but friendly Rottweiler, now dead, that used to come out every time the drive was shot.
The youngest Gun was 14-year-old Angus Edgely, who was having his first day gameshooting under the watchful eye of his father, Charlie, and coach Russell Lamb. Sadly, success eluded him, both on this drive and the later ones. Angus has done some clayshooting, but Russell reckoned a bit more dry practice with snap caps wouldn?t go amiss.
Most of the action was to the right of the line, with some nice birds providing a challenge. A few were missed, but several satisfying thumps behind indicated good shots and work for the dogs at the end.
Hedge drive was a reminder of how close the M40 is ? though just far enough away for spent shot not to cause a problem for passing cars. I wondered how many of the motorists, no doubt on their way to see friends and relations, realised just how close they were to a typically British Boxing Day scene. The relaxed style of the shoot was a million miles away from the frenetic bustle and noise of the motorway.
The beaters blanked-in the surrounding woods to the strip of kale that runs alongside the hedge. Little areas of cover such as this, where a crop backs up a natural feature, lie at the heart of successful small shoots. The drive produced a good covey of partridges, which by this stage of the season had discovered the advantage of all making a break at the same time. Nevertheless, two went into the bag, along with a few pheasants.
We then paused in the shelter of a hedge in anticipation of Becky Rogers, Paul?s wife, arriving with soup and sausages ? and very welcome they were, too. It was only once we were all gathered that I realised how many small children there were in the beating line. The youngest was just under two and usually comes out for half a day.
Paul?s mother, Jackie, is in charge of the beaters. She said: ?I?ve always been involved in shooting and I beat on a nearby commercial shoot as well. Most of the beaters are acquaintances. We take pride in it being a family shoot where children are welcome ? it makes a difference to the mindset of the Guns when they come.?
Jackie believes it is important that the skills of the countryside are maintained. The children all go to school in nearby Stokenchurch, and Paul sometimes takes the tractor up to the school so that the other children can see working farm machinery.
She said, ?They?re all country children; not the sort that sit in front of the television, and I think that?s important if shooting is to continue. Youngsters should understand the whys and wherefores of shooting.
?They?re not very good at keeping in a straight line,? she added. ?As a parent, you have to allow them their playtime, but when you call them in, they understand it?s time to come. It?s important that it be fun for them and they should enjoy it. The covercrops are quite small, so they don?t tend to get lost, but they do enjoy running through the maize. They?ve been coming for so long, they all know the drives well.?
Most farms in the area are now wholly commercial and not one traditional farm remains on the nearby big estates. Much of the work is done under contract.
I asked Paul how the gamekeeping is done. He explained that he started off catching up a few hens, then incubating the eggs. The hatching rate was as low as 20 per cent and he ended up with birds varying widely in age, so he decided to buy-in day-olds and rear them instead. He?s been doing that for the past three years and the birds are reared in a field at the back of the house, where his children can be involved.
?The covercrops are mostly maize,? said Paul. ?It was a terrible job to grow it this season with the weather we had in the summer. This year we tried kale for the first time and it seems to have done well.? I noticed some millet in the maize, but apparently that was an accident. Paul prefers maize, as it stands better in the cold weather, whereas the millet collapses in the frost and snow, often bringing the maize down with it.
The Flagpole drive, which was the first after lunch, is new this season. A covercrop allied to a small area of scrub holds the birds, which are flushed out over a deep valley. Mostly, it was a pheasant drive, but one partridge was also added to the bag. One Gun had a runner disappear out of sight at the top of the hill behind, so I sent my Labrador Asi for it, fearing it would reach the safety of the nearby wood. It must have given Asi a run for his money, as it was several minutes before he returned with a lively cock. At the end of the drive, Ricky Caine?s Labrador, Poppy, enjoyed picking-up the remainder of the birds. Several of the Guns had dogs, which is good on small shoots that can?t justify a team of pickers-up.
The drive with no name
The last drive was out of a wood. It has yet to be named, so we had an impromptu naming session and came up with Penley Bank. It produced a good number of birds, several of which fell into the thorns behind and made the dogs work. ?That?s the name of the game,? said Paul. ?I don?t want to produce low birds.
It?s important that drives, even on small shoots, should be memorable for the Guns. We shoot seven Guns and I reckon a bag of around 50 is ideal for a shoot of this size, though we have sometimes gone over that.?
I asked Paul how he saw the shoot developing. ?It?s big enough for us now,? he replied. ?We can stop early in the afternoon, which the beaters like, as they have the afternoon free. If we did more, it would require far more organisation and change the whole nature of the shoot. Sometimes we go and do a duck flight on another bit of land we have.
?We may put some more maize in different places next season. I?d like to improve some of the existing drives and I?m hoping to rear more partridges next year, too. We?re lucky in having no footpaths ? that helps to keep the birds at home. The less disturbance, the more likely you are to keep them on the premises.?
Personally, I?m grateful for all the commercial shoots that exist around here: they provide fun for the Guns and employment for locals. But it?s nice to know that you can have just as much fun on a small, well-run, family shoot such as Penley. It?s especially nice to see so many children being introduced to shooting and the countryside at such a young age ? long may it continue.