Pheasant and partridge shooting in Cambridgeshire
On reaching Higham, a few miles west of Bury St. Edmunds, the sky was blue and the sun was melting the overnight frost.
I have so many special memories of great drives at Higham.
In my younger days David’s father, Theodore, ran the shoot. He was always so kind and welcoming to me, but there were times when he was not all sweetness and light.
Poor David once got an earful of less than diplomatic words from the chairman of a bank when, during a blizzard, he drove a Land Rover over a heap of dead pheasants that were buried under the snow and still awaiting collection by the game cart.
Higham is a large East Anglian estate. The light land is gently undulating and was originally a fine wild partridge shoot, laid out with woodland belts strategically placed for showing driven partridges at their best. Now reared partridges and pheasants are the mainstay of the shoot.
However, the setting is still reminiscent of those days in the past and one feels a sense of shooting history when waiting behind a belt of pines and beeches for birds to burst over the trees – as our grandfathers might have done in the days of the wild greys.
What has not changed over the generations is the welcome and hospitality of the Barclays’ at Desnage Lodge, their home in the centre of the estate. There are some days let to parties who return regularly each season, while other days are for family and friends.
Every day is run by David and his wife Cherry as one to enjoy with chums.
On this December day the guns included Cherry’s cousin Andrew Cairns and Mark Lake, who had just returned from snipe shooting in Morocco. Mark is an efficient farmer who not only farms a large acreage of his own but also contract farms the Higham estate.
Also shooting was Bill Leach, who has been involved in the Newmarket horse racing world all his life, along with Anthony Oppenheimer, a friend of Bill’s from Newbury.
David’s cousin, Joe Barclay, was also present with his son Roddie, who thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity of a day’s shooting. A very good friend of David and Cherry’s, Alastair Robinson, has also been a regular gun at Higham over the years.
Alastair has a great sense of humour with sarcastic wit and is always accompanied by a family group of remarkably well-behaved cocker spaniels.
We were a full load in the old French ambulance by the time eight guns, two accompanying wives and dogs were on board. With David driving, we set off for the first drive, Big Down. This is always a very good drive in which a warm conifer wood with a maize strip besides it is driven down hill over a lane hidden between tall hedges.
Every gun gets good shooting – but the ‘pound seats’ are either side of a pine belt leading away from the road. On these pegs were Joe and Anthony and it was Joe who shot the first high redlegged partridge of the drive.
Other birds came forward steadily, as keeper Bill Hudson slowly brought in his practiced team of beaters. Whilst guns on pegs six, seven and eight had a lot of the shooting, some of the best birds went out to the low numbered guns and Mark, nicknamed ‘Sparky’, was certainly in electrifying form on No.1 peg.
Not only did the tallest partridge drop out of the sky, but later in the drive there were some good pheasants that mistakenly thought the flank was the best escape route.
The sun was at a blinding angle and most of us, even if wearing dark glasses, squinted into the light. It turned out to be the saviour of some birds who slipped over the line unscathed.
The second drive, Parsley Hill, can be one of the best if the wind is right. On this occasion there was a gentle south easterly breeze.
There are no set pegs at Higham as David Barclay skilfully places the guns depending on the wind and conditions each day to optimise the sport for all the guns.
On this occasion numbers one to seven were placed across the front of the drive, and being eighth on the end of the line, I was told to go 100 yards beyond and forward of the line to cut off any birds breaking out on that flank. Rather more partridge tried to do so than were intended, in spite of urgent flagging by the flankers.
Being out on my own there was the opportunity to stretch for wide crossers on either side, as well as taking birds overhead. Though all the guns had good shooting, my position covered the equivalent of three pegs and the result was an extremely exciting drive and more than my share of the sport!
Tessa Paul with her spaniel did well picking-up behind me.
At this point of the day, Cherry served soup and refreshment and it was a good opportunity too for Richard Faulks, the Shooting Gazette photographer, to arrange a photocall for Bill and his loyal team of beaters and flankers.
No sooner was this complete than they were loaded up in the beaters’ trailer and Graham Farrow, who helps with many things on the estate, started the tractor and off they went to the next drive.
And so, it was on to The Warren, another of the great Higham drives. Surrounding fields are blanked into a long pine belt with young woodland beside it and a maize strip on the outside.
This is driven towards a cross-belt, making a T-shape at the end. The guns stand back behind the trees and birds whistle over. The drive is sensational with a strong westerly wind which produces very challenging shooting. On this occasion, many birds topped the belt ahead of the guns and banked left over the lower numbers, which is where I was placed.
“As the golfer, Arnold Palmer, once said: The more I practice, the luckier I get.”
The last drive before lunch was The Private Drive, a long maize strip driven over tall woodland that lines the main drive to the house. The partridges spread well over all the guns and young Roddie had some good birds at No.8 along the treetops. At the other end, Andrew and Alastair not only had partridges over them, but some pheasants were caught out away from home.
The lunchroom at Desnage Lodge has a splendid mural painted in soft tones and colours of a panoramic depiction of the Higham landscape, the house and features of interest. A fine setting for guns to enjoy a good lunch at a large table in the middle of the room. A delicious casserole was followed by mince pies – tasty harbingers of Christmas.
As it was but two days before the winter equinox and the shortest day, there would be only time for one good drive in the afternoon before the sun dipped. Slipping Belly must win a prize for the most unusual name for a drive and the imagination works overtime whilst trying to tighten ones belt unsuccessfully after lunch.
There is an area of long rectangular mixed woodland with a cross belt of pines out from the centre. The northern end of the wood is blanked into the southern section before the guns arrive. The guns are placed across the clearing in between the two ends of the wood and out either side behind the cross belt. This is mainly a pheasant drive though a number of partridges came over the guns early making interesting shots.
There are usually a number of woodcock that silently slip across the glade, but as they breed at Higham they are not shot. Pheasants fly surprisingly high for the comparatively flat land, making great sport, particularly for the middle of the line. Alastair shot a particularly good hen that came from the back of the wood, with others taken by Andrew and Bill on either side.
As guns discussed the day over a cup of tea, Bill arrived and announced a bag of 73 pheasants, 226 partridges, and four various, making a total of 303.
All agreed it had been a great day, and after thanks to David and Cherry, and not forgetting Bill and his good team, it was time to depart. I always travel home from Higham with a warm glow of a perfect shooting day with great company, sport and many happy memories.