If you are familiar with the steepsided banks and hills of Devon, with the lung-testing valleys and ankle-gripping red soil, you will perhaps have an inkling of the determination and energy demanded of both Guns and beaters to show and enjoy good sport at the Cotleigh shoot, a few miles from Honiton.
It is a remarkable shoot, renowned not only for the effort and time invested by the team of a dozen Guns, but also for the quality of the birds shown over its 600 acres of hilly grassland, thick hedges and extensive woodland. The coverts are dense with good bottom and, in conjunction with gamecrops, produce spectacular sporting birds.
How did it all start? John Woollacott is joint shoot captain with local farrier David Olive, and he told me that in the early 1980s he and a friend, Gerald Lye, still one of the Guns today, fed the wild pheasants on the ground and enjoyed a couple of walked-up days each season. However, it was decided that for the 1985-86 season some 200 birds would be released to cater for a small syndicate of local sportsmen, a team of a dozen Guns who had agreed that they would shoot half a day and beat the other half. This has worked well over the years, and any Gun who joins understands that he is not only enjoying sport,
but helping to provide it.
David Olive, who joined the shoot at its conception as a 17-year-old lad, now has four boys, aged between nine and 14, each of whom helps with the feeding and acts as a beater. The two eldest, Daniel, aged 14, and Andrew, aged 12, both shoot whenever possible and are safe and competent Shots. Apart from the six Guns acting as beaters, their numbers are supplemented by at least another seven or eight volunteers, including several youngsters, all of whom come along for the day because they thoroughly enjoy the exercise, the sport and a chance to be in the glorious Devon countryside. Ruth Woollacott, Johns wife and the principal beater, makes sure everyone knows exactly what they should be doing, while other helpers and pickersup include Brian Sansom, Christopher Duffet and Des Doble.
John Woollacott told me: David and I have always insisted on quality birds and the gamecrops we introduced two years ago have made a big difference to
the shoot. Before that we were reduced to about 20 per cent return on birds put down, which was very disheartening. Now weve been allowed to plough four patches of land, each owned by a different farmer, and weve put in maize at one end of the crop and kale at the other. This has turned the shoot around and we now have roughly 40 per cent return on the 900 poults we release.
This year the kale proved to be excellent and definitely contributed to the shoots success. We have no problem finding Guns, though its only half a days shooting and the other half beating, and its very much a doggy shoot. The picking-up is not easy, but most people bring dogs and if you like working them then its ideal. An important point to make is that we have at least 10 different landowners in the shoot, so its existence depends on good public relations.
So, on a morning when the prospect of dense mist, an overcast sky and drizzling rain boded ill for the day, we gathered in a farmyard overlooking the main valley to prepare for the sport ahead. The first drive was to be Bobs Pit. A three-acre gamecover straddles the summit of a steep slope and is out of sight of the six Guns, who are lined out in the valley below with their backs to the river and surrounded by woodland. Reaching the pegs was no mean test of balance! The riverbank, once one had descended the precipitous slope, was a glutinous morass of muddy leaf mould, which gripped ones boots in a vice-like clasp. I stood behind young Daniel Olive, who was using an over-and-under 28-bore, and hoped that no bird would fall on the far bank, for the river, enlarged by thaw run-off, was a torrent of deep swirling water into which I had no intention of sending my Labrador.
The clouds had lifted and a weak sun filtered through the tracery of grey winter branches to bring life and light to the scene. Several fast and high pheasants flicked over, a woodcock swung in front of Daniel and though he swore a feather drifted on the breeze, it carried on. To my right Ian Doble pulled down two hens, a roe doe cantered past and forded the river and then a whistle blew to announce the end of the drive.
On to Big Field Bottom, a narrow stretch of woodland on the far side of the river with the Guns placed in a field and Andrew Olive, using his fathers 12- bore, forward in a clearing. This was the first time through this season and only a handful of birds came forward. Andrew pulled down a nice cock bird, which, recovering, ran up the side of a hedge to be brilliantly retrieved by a scampering 10-year-old Tom Olive, who delivered it to hand. One more short drive by the river and close to a release pen produced several more birds to bring the lunchtime bag to 14 pheasants.
A flow of testing birds
The most productive drive of the day was the Church drive, after lunch. I stood with Gerald Lye on the extreme right of the line and poised on the side of a reedy, wet bank rising to a line of trees on the skyline. Behind us was a large, river-girt copse, there was more woodland to our left and the remaining five Guns stood in a semicircle, ready to tackle birds driven from gamecover. A shout from the out-of-sight beating line marked a high, swift cock, which foolishly headed for Gerald and collapsed at his second shot into the wood behind to be followed by a hen. Meanwhile, intermittent but steady shooting on our left marked a flow of testing birds over the line and when we came to pick-up, a smiling Neil Sansom confirmed he had shot and collected half a dozen birds.
At the end of the day, the bag had risen to 30 pheasants, all the Guns had enjoyed some sport and exercised their legs on the steep banks, and both John Woollacott and David Olive announced that they were pleased with the day, considering that it was towards the end of the season. This is a small shoot that offers modest bags gained through hard graft, but enthusiasm and good relations with local farmers and landowners have ensured its success. The Cotleigh shoot is an example of what can be achieved through determined dedication and support.