We have probably all seen an advertisement that says shooting rights to let and thought how great it would be to have our own shoot somewhere – somewhere to go and potter about on our own or with friends, or maybe to form a syndicate with like-minded people to help share the costs and workload.
This would be a daunting experience for anyone but Malcolm Bennett has done just that on his Forestry Commission shoot at Thistle Storr Wood, Lincolnshire. On an unseasonally mild late December day, I was invited to join him.
Malcolm, or Mally to his friends, gave me a warm welcome and a firm handshake when we met just after 8.30am. Mally is a big man with a booming voice, and it was clear from the outset that sporting traditions, safe shooting and gentlemanly conduct were his driving forces, and there would be no exceptions to these rules.
I asked Mally how he first got into shooting. He said, “I was 13 when I first heard the sound of gunfire, when I went with some other lads to help out at a local clay shoot. I then got into beating on a regular basis and I became fascinated by everything that was happening on a shoot day. I was amazed that a gundog could be sent into the undergrowth and then emerge with a bird and deliver it to hand, and I dreamed of the day when I could own such a dog and go shooting myself.”
One Christmas, Mally?s wife bought him a place in a syndicate not far from the wood we were shootingin on this day, run by an old gamekeeper named Les Rich. Mally got to know Les and started helping out and learning all he could. He bought himself a black Labrador called Molly and trained her with the aid of books, videos and advice from other shooters.
In 2006, a friend of Mally?s, Ian Burkit, approached him with the suggestion of setting up their own shoot from scratch. Ian had heard of a Forestry Commission wood of 250 acres that was available nearby, and after a visit they agreed that it had good potential.
Ian and Mally decided to form a syndicate, and members were recruited. Work parties were then formed, and they set about tidying up and selecting sites for release pens. Having never reared a pheasant before, Mally sought the advice of a local turkey farmer, and with his help they were able to rear some day-old pheasant chicks.
Mally commented: ?I had, by this time, joined the National Gamekeepers? Organisation (NGO) and was poring over books and DVDs on keepering, trying to absorb as much knowledge as possible. Things did not always go to plan, but by trial and error and with regular calls to the NGO we got our first batch of nine- week-old birds into the woods.
?This was just the start of the real work, though, because as well as running the shoot I work 12-hour night shifts, and the shoot is a 50-mile round trip from my home in Nottinghamshire, so I spent days without sleep as I drove back and forth every day to check on my charges. Slowly but surely our birds found their wings and we were into our first season.?
In 2007, Mally and Ian were joined by Gary Burkinshaw, a keeper from Mansfield, who initially joined as a Gun but offered his invaluable knowledge to ease the workload. By the shoot?s third season, they had made the decision to buy-in poults, and with improved pens and efforts by the Forestry Commission to improve the wood, they were releasing between 1,200 and 1,400 birds, as they do to this day.
Mally?s daughter, Chelsie, who is 18 years old, has become interested in shooting, and she spends many early mornings helping her father top up feeders and check pens. She organises the welcome on shoot days, making sure every Gun has a glass of port to start the day, as well as preparing afternoon tea for everyone. Sadly Chelsie was unable to join us on the day, but Mally says she has become an integral part of the team with her cocker spaniel Kate. Gary?s son, Charlie, also helps out, and Mally sees him as a future keeper.
By 2011, due to other commitments Ian took the decision to leave the shoot, and Mally continues to run it himself. The shoot is a walk-and-stand one with 24 members who pay a subscription of £450 each for 10 days? shooting.
With the formalities over and having been divided into two teams, we set off for the first drive. Being such a compact shoot, every drive can be reached on foot, and I was part of the team to stand first. I was placed just outside a woodland corner and was able to account for two single hen pheasants that were making their bid for freedom over the trees.
On the next drive it was our turn to walk, so we handed our guns over to the standing team, who took them to their pegs, where we would pick them up after our walk. This is a good system, as beating in woodland is tough enough without having to carry extra weight.
After three drives and with a few birds in the bag, we headed for lunch in a glade bathed in glorious sunshine, where a table had been laid. A hot sausage stew was simmering on a gas range, with French bread and butter, plus pork pies, Scotch eggs and an array of cheese and biscuits. I assumed this spread had been laid on for the Shooting Times visit, but in truth Mally and one or two others provide this banquet every shoot day.
Over lunch I took the opportunity to ask two regular Guns what makes this shoot so special. Twins Tirzah (pronounced Tear-za) and Naomi Woodthorpe agreed that the reason was the friendliness between everyone involved. The two girls got into shooting through their father, Wayne, who is also a regular on the shoot but was unable to attend on the day. I?m sure he must be immensely proud that the future of our sport is in the hands of youngsters like these.
With a few further drives in the afternoon, the day closed with a bag of 16 pheasants and five various ? not huge by some standards, but typical of hundreds of shoots where the pleasure of the day outweighs the bag.
Before I left I asked Mally how he maintains his motivation and he said, ?When I look around at everyone?s beaming faces at the end of the day, I know that my efforts are appreciated, and that?s enough for me.?