When I was given the rare opportunity to shoot at Richard Caring’s famous shoot I jumped at the chance, and didn’t have too much trouble assembling an international team of like-minded aficionados. Having gathered the night before at the Crown in Taunton we were all chomping at the bit when Henry Greswell, our shoot captain, arrived in the morning. He led us to the shoot, where the keepers and loaders were ready with a warm welcome – a good omen for what was to come. Henry suggested moving down three pegs each drive but, as we were a team of nine, I suggested moving up two, so guns did not end up on the same peg as they began. Moving up or down three works well for teams of eight or 10, but when numbering from the right, moving up two is perfect for a team of nine. Headkeeper Ernie Taylor agreed with me, so we were nearly ready to start shooting.
Sound advice on any shoot.
Parking the vehicles near well-behaved crocodiles (life-size statues, actually) I moved to peg one on Haddon End, our first drive. Ernie explained the drive: “Guns stand with a small stream behind them, looking up onto a grass bank and a hardwood tree line, with a small wood to the left, and gorse bank and fir wood to the right. The birds are driven from plots consisting of wild bird cover and maize, and flushed out from kale over the tree line.”
Many guns shoot the tallest birds of their lives at The Lakes.
I was placed in a corner so I could not really see the rest of the line, although I did have interesting shooting as some birds appeared without much warning, while others that I thought were coming to me vanished into the woods to my right before they were in range. I could, however, see wonderful birds floating over the line. At the whistle the team walked toward me, commenting on what an amazing drive it had been. On this testing opener the team’s cartridge-to-birds ratio was slightly more than five to one.
Curling and slipping
The next drive, Cliffs, produces very technical birds with lots of curl and slip and they often change their line. I had Robert Hefner on my left and Howard Ross on my right and the shooting was superb again. These were extremely tricky birds because the considerable wind caused them to drift deceptively. Birds that one originally presumed would be in range often drifted two pegs to the left. The line often beat me; although I did manage to kill one bird that was so good it had both my loader and myself jumping up and down for joy. The cartridge-to-birds ratio on Cliffs was fractionally more than six to one.
Like everything else at The Lakes, elevenses are delivered with fizz – in every sense of the word.
After the second drive we retired to a folly for bouillon and very civilized elevenses, including champagne served by a butler. As with everything else on this memorable day there was an elegance and panache that is hard to achieve without over-stepping the mark.
Tallest birds of the day
The third drive was Larches and it was, perhaps, the best drive of the day. Guns stand with a small river behind them looking up onto bracken and the hardwood tree line. The birds are flushed from miscanthus beyond the wood and aim for the oak wood behind the guns. As the drive progressed it became clear the birds actually climb over the wood to the front, and therefore gain considerable height before crossing the gun line. Rob Evans told me he shot the tallest bird of his life on this drive and I don’t think he was alone. Although, in fact, they were actually a little bit easier to read than those on the previous drive, Cliffs – because line will beat you more often than lead. The success ratio was approximately eight-to-one on this drive, indicating the quality of the birds.
We decided to shoot through, primarily because the light was fading fast in the narrow valleys. So Larches Top was our fourth and final drive of the day and we shot it before lunch. Splendid birds tested the team again for a ratio of six-and-a-half to one. And then it was time for lunch.
Teriyaki takes the biscuit
I have had some great meals on shoots: fantastic goose at Castle Hill; roast pork with crackling followed by a ‘67 port at Stoke Edith; Spanish ham and proper fizz on arrival at North Molton, followed by a wonderful roast at lunch. But nothing prepared me for the brilliance of lunch at The Lakes.
Shoot owner Richard Caring had sent out a teriyaki chef and the lunch hut was set up Japanese style with a teppanyaki grill, so that our cook could quickly grill everything. The combination of foods, from jumbo prawns to chicken and beef with sticky rice, was mind-blowing.
A shoot lunch like no other, prepared by a teriyaki chef.
Everyone from the head keeper to the shoot manager to the loaders, the pickers-up and the butler did everything they could to ensure a wonderful and seamlessly run shoot day.
In the top five
My one regret, if regret is the right word, and it is minimal, is that I did not have the opportunity to experience The Lake drive itself. It had been shot a couple of days earlier by the owner, which is most understandable. I have been very fortunate in having shot most of the best syndicate shoots in the West Country: namely Castle Hill, North Molton, Haddeo, and Combe Sydenham. The Lakes is certainly as good as any of these and joins them in my top five West Country high bird venues. But don’t just take it from me. Jamie Lee, who is widely regarded as one of the finest shots in the country and runs Ashcombe and Rushmore in Dorset, said: “In my opinion, The Lakes is the best high bird shoot around. It’s a 10 out of 10 in all aspects.”
Behind the scenes with The Lakes’ headkeeper Ernie Taylor
Headkeeper Ernie Taylor said: “I left school and worked on a farm for a few years, then went to work for my father-in-law, Ron Gibbs, in forestry. He had lived at the top end of the main valley here since my wife was five. I rented the shooting in the main valley here, with the help and encouragement of a couple of keeper friends. We put up a small pen and let go a few ex-layers. I did this part-time for two years, which led to Steve Thomas taking me on full time as an underkeeper and then as headkeeper. He rented the main valley and the surrounding farmer’s ground, where we have plots and pens.” [Steve Thomas also runs Prescombe in Dorset, regarded as one of the finest shoots in the south of England].
Headkeeper Ernie Taylor (left) was already in place when Richard Caring took on the shoot.
“I originally worked under Steve’s headkeeper and learnt most of what I know about keepering, but my farm and forestry background has also been very handy. After two years I became headkeeper at The Lakes and have now been here in that role for 11 years.
“The main valley came up for sale seven years ago, which is when Richard Caring bought it. And over the past six years we have extended game plots and tweaked quite a lot. Mr Caring has put in a shoot lodge, looking out over one of the lakes and the two elevenses areas, which helps to make the shoot what it is now! There are 13 main drives and I have two underkeepers, Daniel Burden and Kevin Marshall. They have both been with us for three years now and they are passionate about keepering.
“My wife Wendy helps me with everything, from dogging-in with Ron to sorting out the loaders, pickers-up and the beaters. And our two boys Michael and John get stuck in and lend a hand with lots of jobs.”