On a morning of brilliant sunshine with the fields below the nearby Quantock Hills frost-hardened, eight Guns, plus beaters and pickersup, gathered in the yard of the ancient red-brick Manor Farm to the north of Wiveliscombe, in Somerset. It was a sparkling morning to set the blood tingling, to pile on the clothing and to thank your lucky stars for being alive and in such good company. This was my sort of shoot, modest in its aims but friendly and sporting.
The farmhouse has its origins in the 13th century, but the building can be dated from 1630, when a layer of the small red bricks of the period were laid over the slate stone of the earlier era. John Elliott is the farmer and now shoots over 700 acres, which include his fathers farm and the neighbouring 160-acre Westcott Farm, owned by Magnus Mowat. This is a countryside which, with its combes, gulleys, steep banks and spinneys, lends itself perfectly to driven shooting on either a small or large scale.
Four years ago, the shoot switched from organised intensive days with substantial bags to a less structured approach, which placed the emphasis on fun and informality. John started the shoot in 1985 from nothing, and in the first year the bag was 50 foxes and 20 pheasants. Slowly, however, he built up an average-sized shoot, which he and his wife Pat ran successfully for 20 years until they decided that organising the shoot was becoming too fraught with problems. A year free of rearing and shooting resulted in downsizing to a modest walk-and-stand shoot where expectations would not be too high, but enjoyment of the sport would be key. This is our third season, said John, and all we are looking for is 30 or 40 birds in the bag. Its an enjoyable day out with friends and has taken the pressure off Pat and me.
When I gave up the old shoot we lost some of the high-quality drives, but we are very lucky to have a lovely Somerset combe running through the middle of the farm and my neighbours land has some very steep banks. We used to put down seven acres of gamecover, but we now have a much smaller input as there are numerous small spinneys and copses on the shoot. However, because were an organic farm we always have a gamecrop in the rotation and that has been very successful. We provide Aberdeen Angus for Waitrose, lambs for Sainsburys and, by growing organic cereals, are completely self-sufficient.
Today, John puts down a few hundred pheasants, using two small pens as opposed to the thousand-plus birds he formerly released. There are two shoots on the boundaries from which they gain a few birds inevitably they also lose some to their neighbours. The keepering is mostly undertaken by John himself and though there is a large fox population in the area, he has a team of young lads who deal with them. Its never my intention to wipe out the foxes, he explained, for an old chap once told me that if you shoot one fox, five come to the funeral. There are masses of buzzards I counted 20 last autumn following the plough, but theyre not a problem. They may take the occasional poult and theyre welcome to do so.
The Manor shoot is a syndicate of seven friends run with a simple rule: if someone wishes to bring a guest they must beat for that day. None of the beaters or pickers-up is paid. They come simply to enjoy a day in the countryside and are rewarded with a good meal at a local inn. There is, in fact, a reliable hardcore of four beaters who always turn out and bring their own dogs for the seven or eight shoot days each season.
Hills and gulleys
With the Guns booted and the dozen or so beaters poised for some tendon-testing action, we departed for Ollery, the first drive on Manor Farm. The sun was melting the frost as we walked two fields to where a two-acre gamecrop of kale led into a two-and-a-half-acre spinney with a pond. Three Guns stood in a horseshoe pattern 200 yards away, with a hedge to their backs, and the remainder were out of my sight behind another tall hedge to the right. Sometimes this drive works brilliantly, sometimes it doesnt, said John. This last, regrettably, was the case as only a handful of birds got up from the kale and copse. A nice cock sailed over Roger King, which he neatly despatched, while several hens, one killed by an unseen Gun, went out to the right as a buzzard lifted from the trees and a raven croaked behind me in alarm. On then to the second drive, The Goyle. It was a lengthy tree-and- bush-clad gulley. The Guns stood on rising banks either side while beaters and dogs, mainly springers, worked it down. I stood at the far end of the gulley with Charles Mowat and Jim Elliott, Johns brother. As the drive began, the distinctive silhouette of a woodcock sped down the line weaving through the trees to emerge unscathed, while a cock pheasant whirred high overhead to be well shot by Charles. The birds flew steadily. Jim killed a hen and Alan Forestier-Walker hit another which, though he thought it pricked, was picked-up dead at the end of the drive. There were more shots from either side, a mallard beat the Guns and a cock bird and two hens were killed on the far bank.
We walked back towards the farmhouse and the third drive, The Orchard, which was pushed through from the farm side, with some old setaside brought in on one flank. This drive produced only a handful of birds, but one, a cock, flew cloud-high to beat every Gun, and on the left, hidden by a hedge, Alan Forestier-Walker neatly killed four hens in succession. Then, with grey clouds looming up from the west, it was time for a grog stop for everyone, Guns and beaters alike, in an ancient stone barn by the farmhouse.
Snow on The Steep
Refreshed, we emerged into a flurry of snow and drove half a mile to the neighbouring Westcott Farm with its steep banks and deep, small valleys dotted with spinneys, thick hedges and woodland. Two quick drives, Kale
Corner (a recently planted oak wood)and Freddys Barn, produced several good birds and some sharp shooting, notably from John Roulston, who killed three good cock pheasants. The sixth drive of the day was the formidable and well-named The Steep, where the birds were incredibly testing. Most got through unscathed, but Jim Elliott pulled down a corking hen, while Mark Clayton, Guy Bottard and Roger King shot well. The last drive of the day, Woodcock Brake, lived up to its name as three woodcock flushed with a dozen fast and high pheasants, most of which beat the team. The sky was now a leaden grey and snowflakes were beginning to fill the air as we returned to the farm where the bag of 44 pheasants and one woodcock was distributed among Guns and beaters. With dogs watered and cared for, we drove a short distance to the welcoming warmth of the Three Horses Inn at Langley Marsh for a hearty meal. What better way to end an outstanding days sport?