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Pheasant shooting at Calwich Abbey, Derbyshire

Game shooters across the country sweltered throughout most of October, which was said to be the hottest on record, and at the end of the month one team of guns on the Derbyshire/ Staffordshire border was looking particularly rosy. Friday October 28 was the official Wear it Pink day, the Breast Cancer Campaign’s biggest nationwide fundraising event where supporters are invited to wear something pink and donate money to the charity. In aid of the occasion Louise Bailey arranged a ladies’ day at Calwich Abbey.

“I had the idea of organising the charity shoot when I was picking-up one day,” said Louise. “The ladies have come from all over the country – Kent, Devon, Dorset, East Anglia, Northamptonshire – and we are having an all-female picking-up and beating team as well as all-female guns.”

Claire Haywood waits for the pheasant shooting to begin.

Louise stipulated that everyone had to wear something pink – anybody flouting the rule would receive a fine. When we met at the shoot room there was an astonishing collection of pink wigs, jumpers, trousers and boots adorning the participants to mark the day. Everyone had clearly raided the fancy dress box and entered into the spirit of the occasion. Even the dogs were on pink leads. Not only that, the table in the shoot room was groaning with goodies for the raffle. Spa days, Clarins treats, wine, a painting of an Irish Water Spaniel, pink Hunter wellies and a cake in the shape of two large pink bosoms had all, among many other things, been donated by generous friends and local businesses – everyone was buying fistfuls of tickets while enjoying a bacon roll and cup of coffee.

Calwich Abbey has a long and fascinating history. The abbey ruins are close to the village of Ellastone, near Ashbourne in Derbyshire. The Augustinian abbey dates from the 1100s but became a private residence in around 1550. The Duncombe family bought the estate in the early part of the 1800s and built a new house, which was demolished in 1935. All that remains today are the servants’ quarters and part of the stable block. The house must once have been magnificent.

Julia Bott lines up a pheasant.

All quiet on the peg

A thick mist added to the slightly eerie setting of the ruins on the site of the old abbey where we parked. Headkeeper Bill had asked for everyone to be quiet when walking to the first duck drive and told the guns to expect mallard and teal, and most importantly not to shoot the swans. As the guns lined out beside the lake with the autumnal colours beginning to show through the mist, it wouldn’t be long before the haze burned off to reveal the overgrown gardens of rhododendrons and the once immaculate ornamental shrubbery set above the lake.

I stood with Clare Rogers for the Abbey Lake duck drive.

“I don’t usually shoot with this gun,” Clare said, as she removed her Beretta Ultra Light 12 bore from the gunslip, “so I apologise in advance if I am absolutely hopeless.” There was no need for her to worry as she shot several nice ducks in the mist – the unfamiliar gun clearly wasn’t presenting any problems.

“The ducks are mostly wild,” explained Bill. “We get a tremendous number of teal when the weather gets harder, as well as a lot of Mandarins. There is also a pair of otters here, which I have seen for the past four years, though I have never seen any youngsters with them.”

Bill’s reminder about the swans was useful, as the early-morning mist distorted our surroundings somewhat.

“I always mention the swans before this drive just in case the guns don’t have much experience and accidentally think they’re geese,” he said.

From left: Louise Bailey, Lisa Coates, Judy Hempstead, Rachel & Sue Hutton, Lynne Robertshaw, Jennie Menage, Diane Peake & Lara Walker-Altass.

A drink at the temple

The estate borders the famous River Dove and one of the few remaining buildings belonging to the abbey, aside from the stables and servants’ quarters, is the temple, which is said to be where Handel, a regular visitor to the abbey, found the inspiration to compose his Water Music. It dates to 1797 and stands over the millrace between the Dove and the abbey lake. Though somebody has stolen the copper off the roof recently, it is an idyllic spot and provided the perfect place for guns, beaters and pickers-up to gather for a drink after the second drive, Temple Maize.

The Wathall family are the current owners of Calwich Abbey and bought it originally for the fishing on the Dove.

“The place hadn’t been shot for 35 years until we took on the shoot five years ago,” said Bill. “It’s a syndicate shoot of sorts on 400 acres and we have between 10 and 12 days a season. They’re usually 100-150 bird days of mostly pheasants – ordinary ringnecks – and a few ducks. We also put down some English partridges purely for conservation.

“We’re still playing with the shoot and trying to make it better, and are hoping to take on another piece of land that used to belong to the estate. It’s a tiny bit early in the season but Louise wanted to shoot today on the official Wear it Pink day.”

Jennie Menage with Folly & Moo.

Rare breeds on display

The break provided a good opportunity to talk to some of the beaters and pickers-up, many of whom were handling some of the gundog breeds less frequently seen on the pheasant shooting field. Louise is secretary of the Sporting Irish Water Spaniel Club and had gathered a few of the ladies together for the day through her contacts at the club. She was picking-up with her American-bred bitch Darcy, and Judy Hempstead was picking-up with a labrador and Irish Water Spaniel, while other members of the club either picked-up or shot.

Also picking-up was Lara Walker-Altass with her fine-looking spaniel and an English pointer belonging to a client. Lara is an accredited gundog trainer under the affix Ironpitts Gundogs, and is based in the Peak District National Park between Ashbourne and Leek. She had bought the pointer along merely to gain experience of a shoot day, but her spaniel was a lovely example of the breed and worked beautifully. Lara also provides a professional dog grooming service and is responsible for Louise’s bitch Darcy’s rather smart haircut.

There were three Clumbers in the beating line, too, a couple from Kent and one from Devon. While they make up a tiny percentage of the registered spaniel breeds in this country, their old-fashioned appearance is a reminder they have been part of the pheasant shooting scene for hundreds of years and gives them a distinct charm – they look like such characters.

Picker-up Lara Walker-Altass.

Pink patrol

Though ladies’ days are not the rarity they once were, it was nonetheless unusual to see an all-female beating and picking-up team, with the exception of one or two regulars to “nip in the corners so everyone knows where they’re going,” as Bill the keeper put it. When we moved off to the third drive, Hare Park, there was quite a troupe of us adorned in pink. The beaters set forth into the distance and the guns moved to their pegs, this time with their backs to the lake and abbey ruins.

The sun had burned off the mist and everyone was shedding layers in the warmth. Cobwebs drifted across the pasture while we waited in the line for the advancing beaters and the first few Hare Park pheasants. With the sun shining brightly in our eyes as we stood lazing in the sun it definitely wasn’t typical pheasant shooting weather. Julia Bott was in a good spot beside a hedge for this drive, though, and brought down some lovely birds, giving Lara Walker-Altass some work to do with her spaniel along the edge of the lake.

T-shirt weather

Pointer Lottie & springer spaniel Ironpits Gip.

Lunch was taken back at the Abbey ruins in almost t-shirts and shorts weather, and Louise handed round specially made pink cupcakes for pudding. The Quarry drive came next with Fish House Gulley to finish. Together with the first duck drive, Fish House Gulley was the highlight of the day, with some good birds coming off the slope to give everyone in the line some sport.

Karen Braithwaite, who was only a few fields away from home, put on an excellent demonstration, picking only the highest, most mature pheasants, and Julia Bott, Clare Rogers and Ann Kohr also shot well. They shoot quite a few days together all over the country and, as such, they were well equipped for the high ducks on the first drive and the good pheasants on the last.

Not everyone in the line was an experienced shot though, and having never attended a ladies’ day before – particularly one where all the beaters and pickers-up are women too – I was intrigued to discover what it would be like.

“The atmosphere is often more relaxed on ladies’ days,” said Julia Bott. “I don’t think we’re as competitive as some of the men and the emphasis is on enjoying ourselves.”

The almost all female team of beaters and assorted spaniels.

While it is probably true to say many of the guns on the day spend more time picking-up during the season than pheasant shooting, some of them could certainly shoot and the bag at the end of the day was 19 mallard, 1 teal and 67 pheasants.

Louise held the raffle back at the shoot hut before a roast beef meal at the local pub.

“I couldn’t have wished for a better group of girls and the day has been lovely. Everyone has entered into the spirit of Wear it Pink, and we’ve raised £1,712.62 for the charity, which is brilliant. I’m really proud to have been a part of it,” she said.

Statistics show that one in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer in their lifetime, so the money raised on the day at Calwich Abbey is certainly going to a good cause. And the fact that it brought a huge gang of girls together from all over the country in the name of pheasant shooting is a great reflection on our sport.

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