Three miles from Bude Bay and the Atlantic coast, and a short distance from the Cornish village of Week St Mary, Hele Barton shoot is in the vanguard of weather fronts streaming in from the west. Rain and sunshine, gales and calm are the norm here and as I soon discovered, vehicles can only go so far on this remarkable shoot, and then its a question of using Shankss Pony to reach the drives and pegs. There are muddy tracks and steep slopes, but the sport and the high quality of the birds place any discomfort on the back-burner.The shoot is run in a thoroughly friendly fashion by shoot manager Steven McDonald and his keeper Tom Hasson. The duo obviously work well as a team, with Tom seeing to the shoot and Steven handling the marketing and organisation. It is remarkable, too, for the fact that there is not a single covercrop on the ground. The need for gamecover is eliminated by the presence of dry woods and copses, and the fact that Tom does a Trojan job of holding the birds using feeders and by hand feeding.
The shoot was started in 1988, when the farm was owned by Tim and Jeremy Ward. Within a decade, Hele Barton had gained a reputation for being a well-run, high-bird commercial shoot and it was here that Tom Hasson learned his trade. After leaving school at the age of 16 he became an underkeeper. Every morning he rode his 50cc moped down the A39, armed with a packed lunch, a pocketful of cartridges and a gun on his back. He was always late, but he never missed a day.
Switch to a syndicate
In 1999, the farm was sold to the current owner, Peter Chapman, and the shoot carried on for a further two years before closing. However, in 2002, Tom was offered the shooting rights. He seized the opportunity with both hands, setting about repairing the pens and building new ones. Tom quickly reorganised the shoot as a syndicate with a dozen Guns, on a walk-one- stand-one basis. This continued for five years with 12 days a season and bags of about 80 birds. However, the financing of the shoot became a problem and despite the best efforts of the Guns it had to be disbanded at the end of the 2006/2007 season.
Six years ago, Steven McDonald moved to Cornwall from Essex and bought five holiday cottages in the area. He joined Hele Barton shoot when it was still a syndicate. When it folded, he decided to team up with Tom Hasson to take it into the commercial sector, using his cottages as accommodation for visiting Guns. The first season was a great success. They shot 18 days with a 50 per cent rebooking ratio. In the 2008/2009 season, they shot on 28 days, including woodcock shoots. Despite the recession, the season just passed has proved to be the best yet, with 32 days following a rush of late bookings.
Today, the shoot covers 1,500 acres over four farms. It has a total of 11 main drives and eight smaller ones. Variety is the key. From mid-October, 100- to 250-bird days are available and in January there are smaller driven days with bags of around 50 birds. In addition, the shoot offers 100-bird days for teams of eight Guns made up of single Guns or small parties.
There are three flightponds, and woodland and marshy areas provide a haven for woodcock and snipe. Woodcock days are dependant on an influx of birds from November onwards.
On a late January morning with mist sweeping in from the Atlantic, I joined the team of Guns assembled on the edge of an old quarry. There were a dozen beaters and two pickers-up: Preston Baker with two black Labrador halfsisters Holly and Josie, and Stewart Povey working his golden retriever Chrissie.
Woodcock at the quarry
Tom Hasson told me that apart from foxes, the shoot was relatively free of predators. He said buzzards were not a problem, but he did say they had seen and trapped many more stoats in the past year. There were five drives on the day I visited. The first, The Quarry, entailed the Guns walking a short distance to a marshy field where they lined up facing a high quarry wall and with their backs to a small river, which had woodland on its far bank. The beaters drove the birds through another wood behind the quarry.
The first bird to leave cover was a high woodcock, which sped over Jonathan Cook on the right of the line. It was shot dead in the air, fell through an oak tree and then stopped abruptly, hanging by its beak from a branch 30ft above the ground. Birds now began to stream over the line to a crackle of gunfire. There were two more woodcock, both high and both missed. They were followed by some scorching pheasants, most of which beat the Guns, though Jonathan again distinguished himself by killing a cloud-climbing cock pheasant. The bird almost fell on the suspended woodcock behind and it was neatly retrieved by Steven McDonalds black Labrador. At the end of the drive, the woodcock was brought to ground with a well-aimed stick from Steven.
Despite a slight breeze, a mist was descending as the Guns set off for Penhallam drive. I stood on a steep lynchet-lined slope to watch the Guns below me. On my left was Colin Knight and on my right Denis Jones, father of one of the other Guns, Shaun, who was himself out of sight in the valley bottom. As soon as the drive began a series of high, speeding pheasants rocketed from the wood in front to provide the entire line with sporting shots.
Denis killed a cracking cock bird which fell way behind, while Shaun Millership and Nicky Lay, both hidden from my sight by mist and trees, killed several scorching birds, some so high that they were little more than blurs in the mist. Another woodcock, one of several seen, also fell to Nickys gun, while Jonathan Cook, a New Forest keeper, more than held his own with his 30-year-old Browning over-and-under. At the end of the drive, as Tom Hasson was stringing the birds, I noticed that a large proportion of those shot were melanistics. Tom told me that he also puts down a large number of Kansas-strain pheasants and finds they not only hold well, but also fly like rockets.
After a muddy walk back to a hard track close by the next two drives, the Guns and beaters paused for a drink and some home-made Cornish pasties brought to us by Mrs Ann Wilton. These were the genuine article and so different in texture and flavour to the commercial variety.
Refreshed and invigorated, we set out for the Pole Hill drive. It consisted of a three-acre wood with the Guns staggered in two rows and separated by a high hedge. Behind us was a winding river on the far side of which, strategically placed, was picker-up Stewart Povey with his golden retriever. It was just as well he was there, as both Shaun Millership and Nicky Lay, standing behind the hedge, dealt in dramatic fashion with a series of stunning birds, several of which dropped into the river to be swiftly retrieved by Chrissie.
Two more drives followed: Dimmer, a long stretch of woodland holding a large release-pen, was blanked-in on two sides to produce some fine sporting birds and half a dozen mallard, which departed unscathed. I did notice, however, that Denis Jones wiped his sons eye with a cracking hen pheasant killed behind. On to the Corridor drive, consisting of a steep hill rising to woodland and with a tall hedge leading down to the line of Guns standing with their backs to the river.
Brilliant late afternoon sunshine now brought colour and light to the scene, gorse bushes were flecked with yellow and a light breeze in our faces suited the birds, which seemed determined to put on a final display of acrobatic high flying. A hare ran forward, a woodcock flicked over the line and Shaun Millership, using a side-by-side back-action Charles Lancaster dating from 1890, killed bird after bird.
As the light began to fail, we gathered in the quarry to see the bag of 103 pheasants and three woodcock hung up, counted and then distributed to Guns and beaters alike. This had been a quite outstanding day. All the Guns had enjoyed sporting shooting with much good fun and laughter besides.
To book shoot days at Hele Barton contact Steven McDonald, tel 07973 835117 or 01409 211246, email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.westvennsporting.co.uk.