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Pheasant shooting at Barrow Hill, Hampshire

Shooting is not getting any cheaper, is it? Even if one belongs to a DIY syndicate the costs keep rising and, with the price of wheat being what it is, the attraction of selling a day has become almost irresistible. But while extra cash will always be welcome, problems can arise: how will it affect the shoot, can the agreed bag be reached and is all the stress really worth it? The Barrow Hill syndicate in Hampshire has been running for just over 20 years and, although an individual gun or two has occasionally been offered to old friends of the shoot, it had not sold a complete day until this last season. At every recent AGM the idea had been mooted but support has varied and the project had never come to fruition. Many felt that running a day might have an adverse affect on the way the syndicate worked and put too much pressure on the ground and the birds. Any shoot can find ways of spending extra money, but wasn’t it all a bit, well, commercial?

A gap in the diary

But last season provided the opportunity to try something new. Richard Dampney, the shoot captain, explained:

“At the moment we are a couple of members short, with no obvious candidates to fill those places. We decided we could organise the rota so one day was empty of syndicate members and therefore available to let.”

Graeme Nunn and Ed Neish clearly enjoying life in the beating line.

He put it to the rest of the guns and when three long-standing members said they would buy the day for some guests, it was agree, albeit, I believe, with a slight nervousness. It wasn’t a huge leap in the dark – they hadn’t sold the day on the open market and weren’t adding another date to the pheasant shooting calendar – but the ‘Bramdean Three’ were spending a not inconsiderable sum and it was beholden on the shoot to come up with a good 75-100 bird day. The decision not to add a day to the calendar was wise. I know of another syndicate that shoots fortnightly and sold a day, adding it between two regular days. Three weekends in a row proved too much and the rest of the season was a little underwhelming. If you have a lot of land and a good selection of drives there isn’t a problem, but a compact shoot needs to give the birds time for some rest and recuperation.

Talking tactics

Barrow Hill shoots every two weeks from the middle of October, and November 15 was selected as the day for the great event.

“It would be only our third day,” Richard explained. “The pheasants would be stronger than in October and still in good number, and some of the leaf would be off the trees.”

Shoot founder Richard Dampney waits with Tui on the South Side drive.

The syndicate held a meeting on the Sunday before the let day to finalise plans. Barrow Hill is a small shoot and has a limited number of drives but one, Scramble Track, is usually saved until the end of November as it holds the birds in the colder weather. It was decided to bring this into action a fortnight earlier to help ensure the bag was reached and reduce stress levels. The rest of the drives picked themselves. Beating tactics were discussed and it was suggested that the banter in the line, usually a signature part of the shoot, should be reduced. They didn’t want to upset the guns.

Graeme Lunn, one of the hosts, told me:

“From the start we knew that the three of us should beat and not shoot – at Barrow Hill, if one is not pheasant shooting on a particular day, one is expected to beat. We didn’t want anyone in the syndicate to think we were ‘showing off’ by buying a day; we just wanted to give our friends a good time.”

Actually, only two members of the team would be Barrow Hill virgins, the other seven were well versed in what to expect. The 10th was Richard, the shoot captain. Originally his son, Jonti, was down to shoot, as a birthday present from his mother, but in the event couldn’t get time off work.

Genuine concern

While the proposed bag was ‘only’ 75-100 birds, when one considers the average bag for an typical day is around 75 it is understandable that there was some real concern. But there was at least one factor in the team’s favour – it was rather a strong team of guns, so provided they could get the birds in the air, straight pheasant shooting should do the rest.

Ron Tomlin brings a wealth of experience to the Barrow Hill shoot.

The day dawned grey but the forecast was for better to come and so it proved, with the sun breaking through by the end of the second drive. They began with Stroud Bridge, the usual first drive and the only flat one on the shoot. I stood with Robert Young at number four, one of the best spots on this drive, and he was soon in the action. This wood usually holds lots of birds and gets the day off to a good start. Most of the line had plenty of pheasant shooting (Richard bagged a particularly fine partridge) and the pickers-up were busy for some time after the whistle had blown. A decent start.

Before the guns set off for Hop Garden, the second drive of the day, they were warned to get to their pegs quickly and keep quiet as a large covey of partridges often make a very early appearance. The trouble was they were all friends and they were all having a good day. Some had got into position, a few had got their guns out of their slips but none had loaded a cartridge. Suddenly an enormous covey of perhaps 40 partridges burst over the inattentive line like a swarm of hornets. Everyone fumbled with their guns but only one unfortunate partridge was brought down. Much hilarity ensued and heads were hung in shame.

The eponymous hill

Next was Barrow Hill itself, a steep-sided, tree-covered hill with a monk’s tonsure. It is split into two drives and produces the most wonderful high, curling birds. By this time the sky was almost cloudless and the view over the rolling Hampshire countryside was superb. The South Side was slightly disappointing with only 28 shots but the quality of the birds was phenomenal. For the North Face (the beaters need crampons) I stood with Murph Morton, who farms locally. Both he and his brother, Bumble, were part of the team and both shoot very well. Usually number nine is a good peg on this drive but at first I thought I had put the mockers on him as birds came out only over the lower numbers. But I needn’t have worried and soon bird after bird tested his marksmanship. I have been to many shoots and can honestly say that I have seen very few birds that are more demanding than those that launched themselves from Barrow Hill. So far, so good – two drives to go and the bag nudging 62.

Two happy Barrow Hill stalwarts – David Hulme (left) & Tom Munday.

At this point we had a break for hot sausages, pork pies and cake washed down with a little something. Everyone was in a good mood; the weather was beautiful, the birds were challenging and there was more to come.

Exceeding the bag

Wool is a beautiful, small, deep valley between two hangers of ash, beech and oak. At one end is an old estate lake and the guns line up from there down a grassy meadow, with the beaters working from either end. The birds are magnificent. I stood next to Michael Matthews, an old friend of the shoot, and even this very experienced (and accurate) gun found the high pheasants testing. I saw one towering bird brought down further up the line that made me applaud spontaneously.

Last drive of the day was the aforementioned Scramble Track. It more than lived up to expectations, offered pheasant shooting to the entire team of guns and swelled the bag by some 33 pheasants and four partridges.

So it was back to the pub for a distribution of birds and a well-earned libation. The final bag was a more-than-respectable 112 including a woodcock plus a couple of pigeons from 362 shots. For the first time in the syndicate’s history the guns didn’t have dinner with the beaters but whizzed off with the Bramdean Boys for posh nosh at host Ed Hawkings’ house. The beaters were left to their own welcome meal at the Izaak Walton – perhaps the most obvious difference from a normal day.

A commercial success

The day was a success. The hosts were happy; they’d been able to give their guests a good day’s pheasant shooting. The syndicate was happy; there was more money in the coffers to pay for that expensive wheat. The guns were more than happy. Tony Harding, the other host, emailed me later to say how effusive the thank-you notes had been. So, the $64,000 question: will they do it again? Mike Handford, an ex-Navy man and member of the syndicate, is in no doubt.

“We produce good, challenging birds and now know we can provide a 100-bird day. The maths is simple.”

Graeme Lunn, with Viking and Indi, stays in contact with the beating line.

Graeme Lunn is less sanguine.

“As it turned out we ended up with a reasonably cheap day but it could have gone horribly wrong. Because the day was sold internally and we chose our guests carefully that wouldn’t really have mattered and we would still have had a wonderfully enjoyable day. But if we had sold it on the open market and things had gone awry we would have had egg on our faces. We have a limited number of drives,” he continued, “and no ‘banker’ drive to guarantee numbers. People buying a day really rather hope their expectations will be realised.”

The Barrow Hill shoot has dipped its toe in the water of commercialism but whether they dive in next year is uncertain. The matter is under discussion and the next annual general meeting should be interesting.

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