Fosseway Game is connected to the Sutton shoot, a homely shoot with a steely determination to succeed in the North Cotswolds, run by Joe Smith.
How can I start to tell you about 39-year-old Joe Smith, the current leaseholder of the Sutton shoot and owner of Fosseway Game on Manor Farm in the North Cotswolds? If I just described him as a father, a husband, a shoot manager or a game farmer, you might think to yourself ‘fair enough but not unremarkable in this magazine’. Then it occurred to me while driving away from the shoot that I could try and persuade you that he is Joe the grafter or Joe the survivor. By my journey’s end I realised however I referred to him in this article, this modest man would probably just shrug with a polite smile and say that he’s just plain and straight “Joe”. I’ll let you decide for yourself.
Joe’s journey from teenage underkeeper at the Chesterton Shoot in Cirencester to shoot captain at Sutton has taken him from Cornwall to the Harwood Estate in the Scottish Borders. Game farming has been in the background since he established Fosseway Game eight years ago, initially with his brother, Daniel.
But things have not been easy since its foundation, and that’s before you even start to factor in the effects of the recession. In 2006 the Harwood shoot closed and Joe was made redundant. As is so common in this situation, he had to be prepared to do anything to provide for his wife Melissa (a native of the North Cotswolds), who was heavily pregnant with their first child, Maisie. After a brief stint at a duck farm in Cornwall, Joe added stints as a security guard and a milkman to his curriculum vitae before leaving keepering all together in 2008 to concentrate on running Fosseway Game full-time.
Then in the summer of 2014 a huge gas explosion at Fosseway Game altered the course of both his professional and personal life forever. Joe suffered full thickness burns to his hands and arms and before months of intensive care doctors told Melissa that her husband, by now in a coma, might not pull through. But evidently he did.
Recovery was slow and carefully managed. Joe says he is determined by nature but had to accept that a supervisory role, especially at Fosseway Game, was necessary to facilitate this rehabilitation. The accident was turned into a motivation to make Fosseway Game a success, the Smiths asserting there could be no room for half measures, whether on time served or on safety and hygiene. The need for a proper family life was also put firmly in perspective.
“I view my working life very differently since my accident,” Joe told me following our visit. “Something like that makes you think about what’s important. Before the accident work was the top of my list, it came first regardless. There were days where I didn’t go to bed or even come home, and this was commonplace in the middle of the rearing season. Game farming is a high-pressure industry and the demands take their toll on your family life. The accident taught me to relax a bit more and put more trust in my employees to do the job I employ them to do. Having the injuries I had is a hard lesson and a reminder that you just can’t do it all, all of the time. I still supervise everything on the field but I am now more realistic and sensible about our workload.”
That workload now includes running the shoot of course, and after learning of his accident I couldn’t help view Joe, Melissa and two of their four children who were out on the day in a different light. Melissa is clearly the calming voice a shoot captain needs and it’s important to them both that the children are not only out on the shoot but also getting involved with their dogs too.
The day started early, the misty journey from the East Midlands to Warwickshire easy enough until we found ourselves crawling those “difficult” last few hundred yards. Local villagers have always been a great help when directing me to farm yards and shoot lodges and I was about to accost an elderly lady steering a pack of spaniels when I spied an indication we were in the right place: a crescent of 4x4s containing men in flat caps leaning out of windows pointing to far off places while dogs in the boot nosed the air from their boxes. We crawled forward, sure the men and their dogs were here for the same purpose as us, and were relieved when their directions of left, left, right and second left led us into home port.
Parking up in front of the shoot lodge, a new barn of wood, stone and steel with fieldsports prints looking down on hand-carved tables and chairs, we found Joe busying himself at a water tank. Despite this being only his second shoot day in his first full season at Sutton, there were no signs of nerves in either his tone or body language; the minor blotches on his red tie, well brushed Tattersall shirt and mud-splattered dog whistle were evidence this was a man who comes alive when out in the field, especially, it seems, when in the company of friends. He let out an optimistic sigh before expressing optimism for the day ahead.
Central to this shoot day was Martin Elliott, a pipe-smoking surveyor I was sure I had seen before on my travels but couldn’t place. Martin has farming interests in the area and it was he who had also persuaded Joe to return to Warwickshire after his time away, eventually becoming his landlord. The pair have known each other for around a decade and the 60-something blatantly respects his shoot captain…
“Joe is extraordinary,” Martin explained as we drove to Ash Poles, the first drive. “He has an incredible brain. It’s amazing how he keeps all these numbers in his head… and his ability to organise people. He’s solid through and through.”
Solid was a word I thought back to when Martin recalled Joe’s first shoot day at Sutton a few weeks before. It was apparently a day to learn from mistakes but one that still managed to achieve a bag of 150 head. There was the odd “oops” moment on our day too, but even the sight of dozens of partridges lifting out of standing cover moments before we pulled up at Ash Poles didn’t send Joe into any discernable sort of panic.
We eventually saw some very good birds right across the line on Ash Poles a sloping drive where guns were pegged out in a crescent and where the coveys were neither too low nor too high. The number of birds being brought back to the game cart showed that those on the right hand side of the line had enjoyed the fruits of the opener the most, with Joe subtly greeting each gun, beater and picker-up with a smile, tip of the cap or just a simple “how was that?”
The personal touches at Sutton went a long way to making everyone feel at ease faster than other shoots are perhaps able to. With 4x4s kept to a minimum, anyone unfamiliar with anyone else was soon talking, and Martin’s car, already teeming with coats, cartridges and gunslips, was soon full of shooting stories, including a hint his wife Sam and her lurcher Tigger were coming to lend a hand.
Tigger, a patting dog who can regularly be found being made a fuss of by hospital patients, is also no stranger to the field. Martin has a great affection for his wife’s four-footed companion and recalled a moment when Tigger decided to show a shooting party what he was made of. “I had my back to a wood and there was a game cover up front… I had a few birds down behind me but the first bird I’d shot had landed over the brow in a gateway. At the end of the drive I sent my spaniels into the wood and Sam let Tigger off the lead to help. He went straight to the gateway. He picked the bird, ran up the hill in front of all of the guns and then stopped and must have thought, “there’s something I haven’t done”. With the bird in his mouth, and to everyone’s amusement, he came back to me, carried on behind the line, dropped the bird where he’d first found it and came back to my peg!”
Later, during elevenses, Martin served an interesting drop called “slurry” from a battle-worn hipflask given to him 25 years ago by a sporting relative. The slurry comprised the dregs of last year’s sloe gin mixed in with sherry and it was dry enough to force my lips back over my gums after I swallowed a mouthful. “That’s been soaking for four months,” smiled Martin. I nodded, wondering what damage it could do if attached to a fuse as I readjusted my Adam’s apple.
Endless possibilities at the Sutton shoot and Fosseway Game?
There are some 1,000 acres of rolling farmland at Joe’s disposal at Sutton. Although the majority of it hasn’t been shot over before there are 14 drives available, with Joe choosing to use a core of eight at any one time with a view to shooting upwards of 18 days with bags of 200-400 head. He is helped in his endeavours by gamekeeper Russell Maine, a former hillkeeper from Scotland who came aboard in March to get experience of lowland pheasant and partridge. Joe is also fortunate to enjoy a good relationship with landowner Jeffrey Warhurst who hosted the odd 60-80 bird day for around six seasons before Joe took the lease. Martin suggested to me that in Jeffrey, Joe had the benefit of a “nice and reasonable landowner who won’t mess him around” and it sounds like they’re off to a good start.
“I work quite well with Jeffrey,” explained Joe. “We’re not restricted in what we do but he has expected us to treat the land with respect. For example, we’ve planted stubble turnips down the side of game covers to stop partridges wandering over and damaging the rape. We try to let the rape come up enough before putting any birds down because if we don’t they’ll strip it. The game covers also need enlarging to give a better spread of shooting across the line. I want this to become a “known” partridge shoot and to do that we’ve got to change the make up of the ground here.”
Given that partridge is a relatively new quarry on the shoot, the desire to become “known” might be daunting were it not for the rolling landscape and the fact the shoot captain just happens to know where he can lay his hands on quality poults. Owning your own game farm means that the husbandry is controlled from the egg to the pen and beyond, and the timetable is a familiar one: hens come in during February, the first eggs are laid in March and the chicks hatch in April. The first birds leave Fosseway Game at six weeks of age at the end of May and Joe will be out delivering to shoots nationwide until September. It’s a busy time but Joe is not the sort of person to cut corners. Bird welfare is top of his list and he is clearly not a fan of raised laying cages: “I feel that we rear a wild bird and when you see pictures of birds in cages you just can’t justify it. To try to justify shooting a bird that’s been in a cage just doesn’t look good. We have all our own laying pens, dusting shelters and grass surfaces. It’s more work and it’s more time consuming but I think it’s the right thing to do. I know some people say raised laying cages are better because it’s cleaner, but it just doesn’t look right and doesn’t do our sport any favours. I think the traditional, grass reared way that we do it is the best. We don’t want to go back to brooding hens but we have got to keep our house in order. We’re also quite flexible at Fosseway Game which means that barring last-minute orders we can dictate which birds we have for the shoot here.”
The quality of the birds and their familiarity with the landscape was not lost on one gun who was keen to tell me just what he thought of Sutton well before the day was over. It’s difficult to accurately report on a shoot when you are only there for a short time, but this first-time visitor was adamant he would return. That comment would make Joe smile. For my own part, I have nothing but boundless respect and sincere best wishes for someone who is using his passion as both a rehabilitative tool and a focus for releasing his ambitions. Joe, so close to not being a part of Melissa and the children’s lives after the accident at Fosseway Game, will I am sure make a name for himself in this pocket of the Cotswolds.
The Sutton Shoot will be offering around 30 days next season with bags ranging from 150 – 400 head, though the shoot is flexible on bag sizes. For more information on Fosseway Game, visit fossewaygame.co.uk
The area guide
How to get there, where to stay and what to eat
The Sutton Shoot is located near Sutton Under Brailes. Although it feels like you’re in the middle of nowhere when you arrive – which isn’t a bad thing – you are not too far from the A429 which leads to Woldsian gems including Moreton-in-Marsh, Stow-on-the- Wold and Shipston-on-Stour. The drive from our base in the East Midlands took 90 minutes via the M1 and M40. If you’re planning on coming here next season then don’t be afraid to ask for directions to the shoot well in advance.
The shoot’s proximity to Stow-on-the-Wold makes the Porch House ideal for an overnight stop before or after a day in the field. We stayed here in late summer 2014 and we couldn’t help but single out the small hotel’s ancient Wolds character as a reason for shooting parties to stay over. Tweed-clad guests can regularly be found here, and if it’s full up then nip over the road to the equally splendid White Hart. We have also heard good things about The Lords of the Manor Hotel in nearby Upper Slaughter and The King’s Head Inn over in Bledington.
Melissa offers a fine spread before and during the shoot day, but if you fancy something substantial in the evening then any one of the aforementioned hotels would be happy to accommodate you with their ample facilities for large shooting parties. There isn’t enough space to fill you in on all of the pubs in the North Cotswolds that will welcome shooting parties, but as personal recommendation is best, don’t forget to ask Joe or Melissa about what could be best for you when enquiring about shooting there next season.