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Little Chesterford Shoot

Twelve thousand years ago, at the end of the most recent ice age, streams of meltwater flowing from the frozen tundra carved a network of valleys into the face of the chalk escarpment that dips down from the East Anglian Heights, only a few miles south of where Cambridge now stands. Today, these slopes command spectacular views over Cambridgeshire, Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire; they also provide an equally spectacular backdrop from which to drive partridges.

Rectory Farm, in Little Chesterford, Cambridgeshire, has at its heart one of these valleys, and this 1,000-acre patch of plunging chalk scenery, crowned with perfectly placed woodlands, is home to the Little Chesterford Shoot Club. Run by Paul Ridgeon, the shoot provides the sort of driven redleg shooting that can match the sport offered by any of the big-name partridge shoots and, later in the winter, it provides some pretty fine pheasants, too. Most days are shot by a regular syndicate, but each season Paul takes a captain?s day, where he invites his own guests. It was for this occasion that I joined the Guns on a grey autumn morning.

Initially, seven guests were expected, and it was when one of the team failed to show up that the numerical conundrum commenced, for the drives had been pegged for nine and the draw had been made for seven, the guests being flanked by Brian Sewell, who was helping to stand the Guns, and Paul himself. Furthermore, with a light north-easterly breeze blowing, some of the drives required the entire line to shift two pegs, so the determination of peg numbers quickly became a fiendishly complex mathematical puzzle. By mid-morning, it would have taken Pythagoras himself to have calculated the proper placement of the Guns. Good-natured confusion reigned, especially as The Nursery, where we stood on a meadow that dropped down towards the village of Littlebury, was pegged with a tight arc of four frontline positions with a series of back Gun placements behind them.

Birds from every angle

But if there was any doubt among the Guns as to where they should be standing, then there was none whatsoever among keeper Bernie Sewell?s team of beaters, for soon a veritable stream of partridges flowed across the tall belt of Scots pines and mixed deciduous trees that flanked the left of the drive, and the shooting was almost continuous. If the back Guns had started the drive with any misgivings,these were quickly dispelled as birds appeared from every angle. As we were close to the shoot boundary, Paul had urged the team to take pheasants off this drive and, as the beaters approached, the partridges were joined by little flushes of pheasants. Good ones they were, too, especially given the fact that we were less than two weeks into the season.

From the start it was evident that this was a seriously accurate and experienced team of Guns. Beside me at The Nursery was David Rand, who runs his own partridge shoot at Hatchpen, near Royston, in Hertfordshire. His shoot borders the former Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust Wild Partridge Project ground and he told me that, thanks to efficient predation control, grey partridge numbers remain buoyant on his property.

Peter Dorran, with whom I stood at the next drive, Caterpillar 1, was no less experienced, having been introduced to shooting by his wife Ginny. An Australian, he had come to Britain on an ocean racing yacht in 1967 and been invited as a spectator to the English Sporting Championships at the West London Shooting School. ?Ginny asked me to come and shoot with this thing called a shotgun,? he said. ?I?d won a couple of crossed spoons with a .303, so I knew it was a cinch because there were a lot more pellets in a shotgun cartridge.? Invited by Percy Stanbury to have a go at one of the stands, he was further reassured that shotgun shooting was a complete doddle when his future wife scored six out of 10. ?Then they put 10 up for me and I missed the lot,? said Peter. That was a long time ago. These days, Peter and Ginny, who was putting in an excellent performance only three pegs up the line, shoot like professionals.

The next drive, The Elms, encapsulated what is so special about this shoot. Again, Guns occupied three front positions and three back Gun placements, with the pegs situated across a narrow front that took advantage of a natural fold in the land towards the top of the valley. A light north-easterly breeze under their tails, the partridges burst across a tall hedge to be funnelled over the Guns standing on a freshly cultivated field that dropped sharply away to the lower ground beyond. The sheer volume of partridges, which appeared in a constant flow of twos and threes, meant that front and back Guns alike had masses of opportunity, while the presentation of the birds in a place where the topography was at its best was first class. At the conclusion of the drive, the late-morning sun bathed the fields in its autumnal glow as picker-up James Bradford combed the ground with his team of spaniels.

Afterwards, I asked Bernie how hemanaged to drive his partridges through so tight a gap. What was his secret? ?Good flag men to left and right, who know when to flag and when not to,? he said. Experience in the beating line is all-important and Bernie relies on the help provided on shoot days by other local keepers such as Gordon Coles, who had joined him from nearby Babraham. He is careful not to take liberties with the wind direction and always chooses the most suitable topography for his drives. ?You want to drive the birds to the place where they?re shown at their best,? he told me.

A delight to watch

He confided, however, that his favourite drive on the shoot was The Balks, and this was where we were headed next. Spaced along the bottom of the valley in a stubble field, the Guns faced a steep bank, topped with a young plantation of trees and rough grass, with maize beyond it and a hilltop woodland. Driven from the top of the bank, itself some 50ft above where the Guns waited, the partridges lifted high over the pegs in continuous small flushes of three or four birds at a time throughout the entire duration of the drive. The beating line did an excellent job and the Guns performed accordingly.

Beside me was Rupert Godfrey, who shot with a smooth precision that was a delight to watch. An extra cartridge between the fingers of his left hand for quick reloading, he swung his Miroku over-and-under 28-bore with consummate skill and I was not surprised to hear that in addition to a full programme of gameshooting, he spends around 50 days a year shooting pigeon over decoys. It certainly showed. Rupert is keenly interested in the history of gameshooting and has been working for many months on a biography of the Marquess of Ripon. But while he may be writing about the history of the sport, he is also involved in making it, for Rupert was one of the nine Guns who shot on the celebrated 1,090-brace day at Wemmergill on 12 August this year.

?I?ve shot at Wemmergill the past three seasons but until this year we haven?t had the weather, so we were able to do the planned eight drives, which makes a huge difference. It was the biggest bag since 1934. We finished at 5.30pm and it was quite a day,? he told me, modestly.

After lunch at Rectory Farm, the day concluded with two drives, the final one being Lady?s Plantation. Until this drive, Paul Ridgeon had placed his guests centre stage and had thus far positioned himself on the fringes of the action. This, however, was the captain?s day. Moreover, it was Paul?s last captain?s day, for next season he will hand over the Little Chesterford Shoot Club to Brian Sewell, who has for many years run the shoot at Kilverstone, near Thetford, in Cambridgeshire. So, it was only fitting that he should occupy the pole position on the last drive.

And so he did, shooting from peg number five, back from the point of convergence of two belts of maize flanking Lady?s Plantation, which the beaters brought around the side of the hill to where the Guns were ranged. It was a beautiful scene as the afternoon sun lit up the landscape and it had been a perfect shooting day. Though he will be retiring at the end of the season, I have no doubt that Paul will continue to feature from time to time on the Little Chesterford guest list as long as he is able to continue shooting.