When Tony Cooper says he loves shooting he is not telling fibs. As the man behind Southfields Farm shoot, he has transformed it from a thoroughly decent 100-bird day affair into a piece of ground capable of delivering 350-bird pheasant and partridge days of unexpected quality. Unexpected because the shoot’s 400 or so acres are surrounded on three sides by the A6, the A46 and a railway line. And immediately to the north lies the village of Rothley.

Shooting runs in Tony Cooper’s blood – he loves every minute of managing the action at Southfields Farm, Leicestershire.

To put it frankly, this does not look like ideal shooting territory, from whichever angle it’s approached. However, doubts are quickly dispelled on arrival in the farmyard full of beaters, guns and dogs. Once you have driven through Rothley Park Golf Course to get there, that is!

Tony’s father farmed this land before him, and since the late 1970s the Cooper family has owned the farm, so Southfields is very much home for this local man with a deeply ingrained love of shooting. He explains the history a little more:

“We always had a shoot here but it was more like 15 guns in three teams doing walk one drive, stand one drive and beat one drive. They would be roughly 100-bird days including a fair few ducks. However, after my father died in 2002 I changed things quite a bit, including selling the dairy herd. We re-structured the way the farm is run and sold off a lot of machinery, which made it more economical. And I have put a greater amount of time and energy into running the shoot, which I love. I am also very fortunate to have tremendous support from my business partner Charles Palmer-Tomkinson.”

All for one, one for all at Southfields Farm

To describe Tony’s management style in one word, it is inclusive. He explained:

“What I want for everybody involved in the day – the guns, the beaters and the pickers-up – is enjoyment. It’s about meeting for breakfast and enjoying each other’s company. I won’t have a them-and-us situation with the beaters and the guns. There are some real characters on a shoot day and I want everyone to rub along together.”

Southfields is blessed with an enthusiastic team of helpers during the season and beyond.

And he is true to his word in every sense. Breakfast is massive and communal. Guns and beaters mingle in the farmhouse kitchen and dining room, munching sausages, eggs and black pudding and discussing local news. The team of guns on the day of my visit were almost all local farmers, keepers and shoot managers. Which one can always take as a fair endorsement of a shoot’s credentials. When the local shooting mafia are regulars then things are definitely going well.

There are 10 days a season at Southfields and Tony personally oversees the management of each one, and he never picks up a gun here, either. Although, of course, he doesn’t run the shoot on his own:

Tony Cooper has a hands-on approach to shoot-day management and likes to see everybody involved mixing together.

“I am lucky to have the services of three or four brilliant volunteers. Chris Rowe works full time on the weighbridge at the local quarry, but he will be out on the shoot here at 4am and 10pm doing pest control. Calum Morley and Rocky Ford also do a huge amount of work. We rear all our pheasants and partridges from day-olds and these guys do all the work. They are a cracking bunch of lads from local mining communities like Whitwick and Coalville, and they share all the feeding and clearing out during the rearing season. I reckon they do 130-150 hours a week between them at that time of year. And they are all volunteers. To put it into perspective, the rearing sheds were completely cleared out and sterilised five times during the rearing season. There is no way I could do it without them.”

The Higher Level Stewardship Scheme

So we know that the shoot owner is passionate and he has the services of a hard-working and enthusiastic team of volunteers, but what about the actual shooting? With just the 400 acres to play with, you would be forgiven for thinking things might be limited. But Tony’s joker card is his canny use of the Higher Lever Stewardship Scheme over the last three years. This scheme is delivered for the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs by Natural England and offers payments to farmers and land managers in England for effective land management to protect and enhance the environment and wildlife. In short, the scheme will pay for the planting of successful game cover crops, as long as there is good evidence that lots of other species will benefit too. And at Southfields Farm there is a wide variety of cover:

There was no shortage of work for the efficient picking-up team on this day.

“We have very heavy ground here, not like Norfolk or Hampshire, so it’s a real challenge. But we now have maize, cereal mix, millet, millet mix, chicory and Christmas trees. And the chicory has been a revelation this year in terms of its holding capacity.” This amount of cover certainly means that the 400 acres is capable of holding a lot more birds than it would normally manage on farmland outside the HLS scheme. And everyone benefits.

Crack shots in the jungle

Not least the lucky visiting guns, who soon find themselves confronted with more cover crops than a Kings catalogue as they wait on the peg for Tony to marshall his team through the varied jungle. Clearly the time spent on the rearing field pays off, as the partridge get up early and fly hard. Meanwhile the bazanty pheasants from Heart of England Farms live up to their reputation and rapidly gain height to add some challenging variety to this predominantly partridge-focused shoot. And, as if to emphasise the positive effect of the varied cover, a barn owl was one of the birds flying through the line on the first drive.

On this day the crack team of local guns picked the best birds every time during the first two drives, but such was the quantity of shooting on offer that the bag was soon mounting. Elevenses brought the inevitable pork pies – what else this close to Melton Mowbray?

Randall Boddy in action on Bentleys, the drive of the day, which clearly overlooks the A6.

And as the rain became heavier and the wind picked up, the team moved on to the next drive, Bentleys, which overlooks the A6 to the east. As buses, cars and vans rolled along this important East Midlands trunk road on a wet and cold November day, their drivers and passengers were no doubt unaware of the far more exciting events unwinding in a gentle fold in the land less than half a mile to the west.

Pegs four, five and six saw the most action here, as they ought to in a line of nine, but nonetheless the rest of the team were not mere spectators as the partridge rose early from the back of the cover and soared on the wind, accelerating all the way to present the most exciting shooting for the lucky few lined out below. Experienced shooters walked away with a tell-tale grin from this triumph of a drive.

One more drive was followed by further refreshments – flapjack, shortbread and a slug of Madeira to keep the cold at bay. With 300 in the bag from four drives this was a happy team, but there was time for one last drive back towards the farmhouse and overlooking the golf course. Sometimes the shot pheasants and partridges land on the fairway here, and its not unheard of, or unwelcome, for the golfers to take home an extra birdie from their round. Finders keepers…

This part of the shoot lends itself to pheasants, with more woodland and steeper land, so it was no surprise to see a higher ratio of pheasant to partridge testing the guns and providing a fitting finale to a classic lowlands shoot day.

The Purdey Awards

Having done so much work with the HLS scheme in recent years, Tony was encouraged by the likes of Shooting Gazette’s very own Will Garfit to enter the Purdey Awards for Game and Conservation:

“Will said, ‘Why don’t you enter?’ and I originally thought it wasn’t for us and there was no point, but then thought, why not? There was a lot of paperwork involved in putting the entry together, but it actually gave me a great opportunity to re-assess the way we do things. For instance, I had been planning to put dust shelters in for some time and entering the awards gave me the extra motivation required. We now have 12 dusting stations on the farm, to go with the 57 feeders!

Neil Clark picks out the best bird of a flush with acres of cover spread out in front of him.

“The judging team that visited included Sandringham headkeeper David Clark and Tim Furbank from Oakbank Game, so I saw it as an opportunity to pick their brains as much as anything. Obviously it’s quite daunting to have such knowledgeable people inspecting your shoot but the chance to learn was too good to miss. It was a great experience and made me sit up and look at the way we do things.”

In the eventual analysis, Southfields Farm made it to the final judging session of this year’s Purdey Awards and took away a finalist’s certificate to add to the plaudits of all who shoot here.

A passion for shooting as well as managing

Even though he never picks up his own gun on the shoot, Tony is not short of shooting opportunities around the UK. He shoots at Pentillie in Cornwall with Tony Kennedy (as featured in the December issue) and in Worcestershire and Herefordshire, as well as enjoying some grouse days near Settle in north Yorkshire. And, of course, there is plenty of shooting to be had nearer to home at the likes of Nanpantan, Barkby and Edmondthorpe.

Most of the guns here are involved in running other shoots in the area.

And, interestingly, Tony is a small-bore convert:

“I shoot almost everything with a 28 bore now. I got to a point where I was doing reasonably well with the 12 bore and thought it would be a challenge to try the smaller bores. And it has revolutionised my shooting. This sport needs to be a challenge and I now get better results with the 28 than I did with the 12 bore.”

I didn’t get the opportunity to watch Tony shooting when I visited Southfields Farm, but if he shoots anywhere as near as well as he manages a shoot day then I am sure it is well worth observing.

One man’s passion has certainly transformed this very small corner of the East Midlands and the motivation is clear:

“I eat, drink and sleep shooting. I love being out and not just for the action – it’s the company, the teamwork, and the chance to enjoy the stunning British countryside. We are all very privileged to be able to enjoy this wonderful sport.”

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Factfile on Southfields Farm, Leicestershire

Size: 400 acres
Quarry: Pheasant and partridge
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