Mr John Carr has owned and managed shoots for around 40 years and, at the time of writing, has two all of his own: Hoddern near Newhaven and Stonehouse near Heathfield, both in East Sussex. Hoddern occupies 2,000 acres at the eastern end of the South Downs National Park and consists of typical rolling downland. John owns around half of the acreage with the remainder leased from two neighbours.
Nowadays the ground is shot over around 50 days a season, utilising some 15 drives in the process. Bags are around the 250 to 300-bird mark but can occasionally get larger during the season.
“I first started running shoots in the mid-1970s,” John told me. “It was a syndicate that shot over my father’s farm. I began here at Hoddern in 1985. Today the syndicate shoot every Thursday and let days make up the remainder. I always try to be here to host and, together with my other shoot at Stonehouse, it is pretty much a full-time job – no wonder I have left my son to do the farming!”
I met the syndicate at Hoddern’s farmyard on a calm and chilly grey day in early January; many of the guns had taken 20-odd days during the season so I could immediately appreciate the popularity of the shoot. We met up at around 9am and after a quick cup of coffee, a safety briefing and drawing of pegs, set off in 4x4s for the five-minute journey to the first drive, Appleton’s Bank. This is, I suppose, fairly typical of a drive in this part of the South Downs, with the guns lined out in a deep, wide valley and the birds driven over the top.
Michael Loveday in the thick of some serious action on Appleton’s Bank.
With a lack of serious woodland, game crops are hugely important at Hoddern. There is an area of scrubby trees and bushes to the left of the guns that is tapped through by beaters to push the birds into the cover over the brow of the hill and then over the line of guns. Partridges soon began to show, joined by pheasants as the drive progressed – and despite the lack of wind many of the birds flew high and fast. The experienced team proved choosy, selecting only the most challenging targets to shoot at and missing few.
As the picking-up team went about their business after the drive, I noticed one of the dogs had some sort of leather contraption on her right fore leg. The dog turned out to be Sally, an English springer belonging to syndicate member Robert Mandry.
“She has had a lot of trouble with her elbow and although I’ve had it pinned and so on, it wouldn’t improve. I thought her shooting days were over,” said Robert.
Not Robodog but an English springer, Sally, who has had her shooting life extended by a leg brace.
“Then I found an American company that made these braces to order. We had a cast taken of the elbow, sent it away to America and the brace duly appeared. It’s given her a new lease of life.”
Robert’s smile said it all. She may not have been the fastest dog in the field but she was steady, in no pain and clearly having a fantastic time. Telscombe Lane is set in another beautiful downland valley, where cover crops are once again cleverly used. From the end of the line I was able to watch syndicate member Ross Coker, one of the 20-day-a-season guns, shooting in a relaxed fashion with a 28 bore.
“I have shot since I was young and moved to the smaller gauge to add a bit of an edge to my shooting,” said Ross.
“I find standing with the gun broken makes for a more natural shot and helps my timing.”
Two drives in and it’s time for some warming refreshments, and to offer a word of thanks to a faithful companion.
A short break for sausages and a small glass of something or other gave me the opportunity to meet the pickers-up, who provided more evidence that John knows what he is doing. Two individuals, Bill Sandercock and Tom Wright, picked-up on Hoddern for some years but had also been half guns in the syndicate back in 1985. If someone is prepared to be involved with a shoot for the best part of 30 years that indicated it must be a pretty well-run affair.
Mick Light reaches skyward and uses one of his pair of Purdey 20 bores to good effect.
The third drive, Hoddern, was quite different, with the birds being pushed out of scrubby woodland over guns arranged on terraces below. The lack of wind didn’t help anyone but the birds, tending to fly along the contours, offered a variety of interesting crossers as they curled around the hillside.
Donning boots and coats after lunch, we left the comforts of the house feeling refreshed – and slightly heavier – and headed towards Golf Course. John had left the best till last. The valley is deep and wide. To the left the hilltop is covered in an area of the usual low scrubby bushes and gorse, which butt onto a football pitch-sized area of cover crop directly in front. Behind, the other side of the valley rises up to a wooded area and release pen.
It looked good but I was not prepared for the sheer quality of what followed. After complimenting one of the guns on his choice of shotgun, a Purdey, he insisted that I had a shot myself. I declined (I was there to shoot with a camera after all) but when the birds started to appear I almost regretted my decision. The pheasants were good, very good in fact, but the partridges were sublime, covey after covey bursting over the line showing no tendency to follow the contours, more concerned with gaining height. At last the whistle was blown and it was over, and one could almost hear a collective satisfied sigh.
A brief chat with the Hoddern shoot headkeeper
As we walked back to the farm at the day’s end I talked to headkeeper Craig Dennis, who joined Hoddern nine years ago.
“I went to Lincolnshire School of Agriculture (now Riseholme Park) in Lincoln and then spent several seasons working at various shoots in both Lincolnshire and Yorkshire. Some people suggested I should stay for longer in each job but every shoot is different, the ground varies and each keeper has his own ideas – I was learning my trade,” he explained.
Hoddern shoot headkeeper Craig Dennis.
After some years Craig went for a job as headkeeper at a shoot in Lincolnshire. The position went to the keeper at Hoddern but his prospective employer was so impressed by Craig that he put him forward for the vacant job and he moved down south. He also runs a game-breeding company and knows how important the strain of cock birds can be. He prefers Manchurian, Japanese Green and Bazanty varieties for their strong flight and reluctance to wander.
We also talked game cover. “With no woodland to speak of, cover crop is obviously important. We have 40-50 acres here and I mostly choose maize, sorghum and canary grass. By siting it correctly it lets us use the geography to its best advantage,” said Craig. It certainly does. The final bag was 138 partridge and 141 pheasants for 952 shots.
Keeping food in-house
We drove in convoy up onto the chalk escarpment and arrived at a most charming large brick and flint farmhouse. Suddenly the syndicate shoot was transformed into a country house shoot, as we were welcomed into gracious surroundings. After preprandials in the sitting room we transferred to the dining room and were served British food of restaurant quality that had been given a modern twist. The farmhouse used to belong to John’s brother but when it was put on the market, Louise Tidmarsh, who already did the shoot lunches there, snapped it up and continued to cater for the shoot.