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A day with the Halesend shoot

Clothed in the intense reds, yellows and golds of the season, the landscape of the Herefordshire/Worcestershire border, in which the Halesend estate sits, presented a picture of autumnal beauty two weeks ago for the second day in the shoot’s calendar.

Driving up to the imposing 19th century manor house, built in a spectacular elevated spot with longreaching views of the steep valleys and limestone ridges to the north of the Malvern hills, the sporting purpose of this estate quickly becomes apparent.

First you pass through a small, fenced deer park in which fallow graze quietly. This is followed shortly by a number of smartly presented kennels just below the main house, but what impresses most as you park up, is the quality of the woodlands dotted around. Forethought several generations ago, no doubt with shooting in mind, has led to an estate incorporating mixed broadleaf woods of ash, lime, elm, maple, birch and yew, the like of which most shoot captains would envy.

Shooting is part of the fabric of this estate and the driving force behind it is the current custodian, Ron Cottam. Having bought the estate seven years ago, Ron set about establishing a firstclass shoot on which he sells a number of let days with the help of his keeper Matt Griffiths, realising the potential within the terrain around Halesend for drives showing soaring pheasants. This season will, in all likelihood, be the last under the current owners since the estate is now up for sale. Ron and his wife Nicci hope to utilise their experience developing Halesend to revitalise a similar shoot elsewhere in the country.

As the day’s eight invited Guns chose their peg numbers, the softly spoken but resolutely enthusiastic host explained that the shoot is run on nearly 400 acres and this season around 10,000 pheasants were released. The shoot incorporates a significant amount of land designated as an SSSI thanks to the variety of its woodland — assessed only last month by Natural England as being in 100 per cent favourable condition.

Ron takes the conservation aspect of his role seriously. As the Guns lined out along a steep valley between two woods for the first drive at Bearswood Common, reputedly the last place in England where wild bears were seen, I noted covercrops sited along the edge of the wood. Though they have the advantage of shielding the birds from the line of Guns until they are airborne, the millet mix was, in fact, planted as a conservation crop under the improved Countryside Stewardship scheme to boost numbers of butterflies, including rare fritillaries — a great example of shooting and conservation working hand in hand.

In scattered cloud and increasingly mild temperatures, the beaters flushed pheasants in steady waves over the Guns. Earlier they had been urged to be selective — this was an early-season day, after all. While the Guns naturally stuck to the rules, by no means every bird driven from the wood high above them was a young cheeper. There were plenty of long tails up in the air, and a number of shots from Ron’s brother-in-law Nick Simons and Will Matthews on pegs two and three drew the admiration of the line. Will, an associate for Knight Frank’s country department, which is handling the sale of the estate, professed modestly that he’d had a rocky start. “The birds were certainly coming down dead,” responded the impressed Paul Jeavons, former chairman of the Game Farmers’ Association and owner of the nearby Worcestershire Game Farm.

As the Guns and beaters moved on to the next drive, Kite’s Nest, Pete Griffin, who had driven up from Cirencester with his son Steve — and subsequently drawn the peg next to him — rightly remarked that the autumn landscape made the day special in its own right. “When you’re going along the M5 you can’t imagine that there’s country like this over the hill, can you?” he said, as he took to his peg beneath the russet-coloured woods.

A long line of artichokes at the right-hand edge of the line provided substantial cover for the pheasants from the attentions of the numerous buzzards mewing overhead. It also served to encourage the game to feed from the pen, sited behind the Guns, to the woods from which they were now being driven. Again, the birds varied between the young and inexperienced and the seriously challenging, with the majority gaining height quickly to soar over the line. With several more weeks on the ground, by late November these birds would test the very best Guns, but today Steve Griffin, abiding by the selectivity mantra, was soon into the action, picking only the high ones and producing a nice right-and-left of the best birds right in front of his father. “I was pleased with that,” he said, with a smile, at the drive’s conclusion. “But they were your father’s birds,” Ron threw in. “Not after I’d shot them,” came the quick reply.

The Halesend shoot doesn’t stop for a formal lunch — they save it for later — so the beaters and Guns returned to the comfort of an open timber-framed barn for a half-time break. It was here that, despite the commercial nature of the estate, its importance to the community shone through. Nearly 40 people thronged around the tea urn, chatting animatedly. Shirt sleeves were rolled up as the sun temporarily won over the clouds. Jenny Horne, who, with her springer Zara, was in charge of the gamecart, voiced the universal view on the unseasonable weather: “It’s pretty mild today, but we were here last week and it was absolutely sweltering. We were sitting out in our T-shirts.”

As a plate of Ron’s home-cured beef bresaola did the rounds, Paul Jeavons shared his own recipe for raw grouse carpaccio: “Put a bird in the feather in the deep freeze, to set the breasts for about 20 minutes, then take it out, cut off the breasts and slice thinly. Then put some lemon juice on them and place them in he fridge for half an hour.” “Was it better than cooked grouse?” asked Will Matthews. “No,” said Paul, firmly.

The resident Reeves’s pheasant made its appearance during the third drive. Keeper Matt Griffiths enjoys a tortured relationship with the bird. It is aggressively territorial and frequently stands its ground, but on this occasion it sailed serenely down the line with its impressive tail flowing along behind. Its appearance prompted Ron to tell a story of one of his guests two years ago: “This chap was here on only his second day’s gameshooting — he was desperate to do everything correctly. So when he shot one of the Reeves’s birds, his fellow Guns spun him a line about how rare they are, how it was such an enormous faux pas and so on. At the end of the day, he even tried to present me with a cheque for several thousands to cover his shame.

“Of course, to prove it was just a part of the final bag, I took him to the
gamelarder and pulled the bird off the hook to give to him. It had been braced up with a poorly retrieved cock and you know how sometimes the head of such a bird can come away from the body, well, as I took them both off the hook, the other pheasant’s head stayed tied alongside the Reeves’ bird. The novice went pale: ‘I didn’t realise they had two heads as well,’ he spluttered!”

Forging local contacts

Halesend has built up strong links in the community and this was true also at the close of the day, once the beaters left for home. For their late lunch after shooting, the Guns retired to The Old Rectory in Cradley, a Wolsey Lodge B&B, which is run by Clare Dawkins and John Miller. In stylish surroundings, the shooters enjoyed the sort of warm hospitality you would hope for in a homefrom-home. When visiting shooters come from any distance, Clare and John are similarly able to provide a comfortable base for overnight stays.

The willingness to keep things in the local area is a mark of the consideration Halesend’s owners have for their surroundings. That the shoot is now up for sale and the future apparently unwritten should not be of huge concern, since whoever takes over can be sure that Halesend is in its prime.

information on shooting at Halesend, contact Ian Coley Sporting, tel 01242 514478.

For details of The Old Rectory at Cradley, visit Will Matthews at Knight Frank can be contacted on 020 7861 1440.