Starting a shoot of your own is a daunting prospect for anyone; even experienced Guns with many years? shooting under their belts don?t fancy it. However, 34-year-old Mark Pykett from Hawton in Nottinghamshire has done just that: after helping look after the shooting on the family farm for years, he has taken on a shoot of his own, two miles up the road.

Mark started shooting aged 11. He and his father, Roger, also a keen Shot, would visit family friend and shooting ground owner, Bob Valentine, at Llanbedrog in Wales. It was here that Mark learned to shoot and also met the legendary American skeet shooter, Ed Scherer.

Unlike most young boys, who probably started with a .410 or maybe a 20-bore, Mark kicked off with a 12-bore Beretta semi-automatic, before switching to an over-and-under for a few years. He now uses a traditional side-by-side because he feels it is more suited to English gameshooting.

Shooting on the family farm had always been fairly low-key due to the fact that much of the ground was quarried for gypsum. As a result, many fields were interspersed with huge holes in the ground and there was always industrial machinery rumbling about. This did not lend itself to developing a shoot. In recent years, the quarrying has ceased and the land has been re-instated. Thousands of trees have been planted, along with hedges and shelter belts, and this has allowed Mark and his younger brother, Mathew, together with their father, to do much more.

In spite of these improvements, Mark still hankered after a shoot of his own ? one on which he could put his stamp. Earlier last year, when part of an established shoot that had folded came up for tender, Mark saw his chance. He was very familiar with the ground, which was just up the road and farmed by a friend, and, with shooting pals queuing up to pitch-in as syndicate Guns, he felt he had to have it. Though there was a number of other bidders, Mark was successful and secured a long lease on the 450 acres that are now his shoot.

Woodland benefits

Now, 450 acres might not seem much on which to establish a driven shoot, but this ground has the benefit of 50 acres of woodland, which is divided into three separate woods. It also has a long-disused, overgrown railway running through part of it. However, what it did not have to begin with was good access. One of the first jobs was developing gateways and tracks so vehicles could get in and out.

As part of the previous shoot, it had been out on a limb so had been rather neglected as regards any sort of infrastructure. Plans were made and work parties set up. As Mark explained: ?When we first went into the woods, they were just overgrown jungles, ideal for hiding pheasants, but we could not get in. So, with the help of friends Pete Stone and Geoff Fletcher, and the use of a teleporter and chainsaws, we set about opening things up so that we could build release pens and create feed rides.

?At the same time we got some late covercrops in. These were drilled away from the woods so that we might drive birds back home, and with 1,000 pheasants already ordered, there was no time to lose. Taking advice from the former gamekeeper, we decided to build two release pens: one to hold 300 birds and a larger one in a different wood to hold the remaining 700.?

I joined them in early December on their second day of the season. As I arrived at the Staunton Arms, near Newark in Nottinghamshire, I found about a dozen Guns and pickers-up all booked in for the ?full English?. It got the day?s meet-and-greet off to a civilised and positive start, allowing us time to relax and talk about the day ahead.

With breakfast over, we headed half-a-mile up the road before turning into the farmyard, where beaters and dogs were milling about in anticipation. Within a few minutes, we were booted and suited and Mark was giving his briefing and drawing for pegs. A drop of sloe gin from numbered cups gave everyone their first peg. As an extra man, I was kindly invited to slot in as a back Gun. This not only gave me a chance of a shot or two, but also allowed me to watch the action as it unfolded.

As this was the second time through, Mark could get a better idea of where the birds had flown best and where they were heading to. It is well-known that it

is diffi cult to drive a pheasant where it does not want to go ? it?s better to let the birds choose and put the Guns under them.

The first drive was the aptly named Thin Cover, so-called because it was exactly that ? thin. It had, however, shown a few birds when blanked in last time, so this time it was to be done as a drive. It was a wise decision and a dozen fine-flying birds were put in the bag, getting the day off to a great start.

Refreshing exercise

This is a compact shoot and every drive is walked to without the need for the almost ubiquitous convoy of 4x4s. This does, of course, result in a bit of forced exercise, but no-one was complaining. Allowing the beaters to get a head start, we moved off to the second drive, called ?Big Sykes? ? a wood of about five acres out on its own.

Arriving at my peg with the warmth of the sun on my back, I was able to soak up the shoot-day atmosphere as a family of long-tailed tits flitted about in the hedgerow and a great spotted woodpecker went past. Listening to the beaters tapping their way up the wood and surveying my surroundings, I was reminded, as always, how those of us who take part in country sports are truly blessed in that we can get so close to the land and to nature.

The drive finished with a few more birds in the bag, though not as many as expected. This was put down to the early exit of a fox, but in spite of that, half-a-dozen fine hen pheasants were shot, which allowed retired police officer Rob Newham, who was picking up with his spaniel, to make a couple of good retrieves.

After completing one more drive, we had a customary break for elevenses. On many shoots these days, the mid-morning break has become more than just a quick bite; in fact, many shoots are judged by the fare on offer. This was no exception, with superb Scotch eggs and the fattest sausage rolls I have ever seen.

We didn?t tarry long, however, and after 15 minutes, Mark had us on the move again and heading for Crow Wood. As we stood waiting for the first birds to appear, a roe deer took us by surprise as it bounded between pegs four and five.

All too soon, it was the last drive of the day and we took our positions blessed in that we can get so close to the land and to nature. The drive finished with a few more birds in the bag, though not as many as expected. This was put down to the early exit of a fox, but in spite of that, half-a-dozen fine hen pheasants were shot, which allowed retired police officer Rob Newham, who was picking up with his spaniel, to make a couple of good retrieves.

After completing one more drive, we had a customary break for elevenses. On many shoots these days, the mid-morning break has become more than just a quick bite; in fact, many shoots are judged by the fare on offer. This was no exception, with superb Scotch eggs and the fattest sausage rolls I have ever seen. We didn?t tarry long, however, and after 15 minutes, Mark had us on the move again and heading for Crow Wood. As we stood waiting for the first birds to appear, a roe deer took us by surprise as it bounded between pegs four and five.

All too soon, it was the last drive of the day and we took our positions around a corner of Big Wood. With some inspired shooting, we brought down a few more pheasants and some unwary pigeon, to make a total bag of 62 head, before ending our day as we had begun it: back at the Staunton Arms. With the drinks in, we were able to recount the highlights of the day as well as looking at different ways of doing things for next time.

Lessons for the future

The day had gone well ? as with many shoots up and down the country, success is not judged by the bag total, and looking at the happy faces as a second round was ordered, it was clear that everyone agreed. At this point, I bade Mark and his friends farewell ? it was clear that a session was starting and I could hear my cocoa calling.

This is a shoot in its infancy and the first few shoot days are always an unknown quantity. You have to learn which way the pheasants want to go before you can really set your stall out and try to outwit them. There is plenty of room for improvement here as experience is gained and lessons are learned, but this was still a great day out in good company and I enjoyed it immensely; every day out with a gun is a good day.