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Shoot of the week: Scaleby Castle

While the badlands of Cumberland have had their share of outlaws and bandits down the centuries, the Scaleby Castle shoot takes this reputation to the next level. Its bothy is decked out like a Wild West saloon, complete with carbines and stagecoach scenes on the wall. All it lacks is games of poker.

This quirky clubhouse (decorated by a local re-enactment society, apparently) buzzed with a hubbub of excitement and expectation before the first drive. In every corner, old friends greeted each other with a mixture of endearment and well-aimed barbs. Populations of local geese and grouse were shared and compared, with corresponding theories and predictions, while the latest jokes
and stories quickly circulated.

Scaleby Castle works on a walk-one-stand-one basis, meeting six times in the season. The 20 Guns are split into two teams, which stay the same throughout, though peg numbers are drawn at the start of the day. A decade ago, however, this was all just a pipe dream. Back then, the shoot founders spent their Saturday mornings yomping through local woods in search of pot luck. A typical bag might number three errant pheasants, two startled pigeon and a partridge above a fir tree.

As an excuse to work the dogs and generally unwind after a working week, those rough days were a great success. But when the shooting rights became available on the nearby Scaleby Castle shoot, the friends recognised a golden opportunity to extend their carefree outings into something more substantial.
“In any moment of decision,” said US President Theodore Roosevelt, himself an avid hunter and naturalist, “the best thing you can do is the right thing, the next best thing is the wrong thing, and the worst thing you can do is nothing.”

They shared his optimism and, nine full years of hard work and imagination later, the results are clear to see. With well-established release pens and covercrops in the fields and woods around the 14th-century castle, the
shoot is going from strength to strength. Though they’ve upped the ante, the relaxed atmosphere from those early knockabout years has evidently survived.

Leading by example

A shoot takes its lead from the shoot captain. In this case, Scaleby Castle benefits from a countryman who lives, breathes and sleeps shooting. Mike Grant brings boundless energy and commitment, combined with a sense of equality, which ensures that each member gets a square deal.

“Being shoot captain can be a thankless task,” said Dave McClusky, another of the regulars, as we walked to the first drive. The peaty ground squelched underfoot, its boggy mud hungry for loose-fitting wellies. “He’s under pressure to bring everyone together and create the right vibe. He needs to be whiter than white. You do hear stories about favouritism and captains who abuse their position. Mike certainly leads by example here.”

The teams took turns to beat, carrying their sleeved guns on their backs, and following the golden rule, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”.

Youngsters are welcome on the shoot. Dan Gregg had brought his son Edward and nephew Ryan El-Essaad, who helped to spot incoming birds, and added their enthusiasm to the beating line. “The walk-one-shoot-one is a good balance for the boys,” he said, as they splashed about in the mud. “If they were beating all day, they’d be done in by lunch. But they get to burn off some energy too. It does help having the extra pairs of eyes when you’re shooting. But they want you to shoot everything. ‘There’s one! Shoot it! Why
didn’t you shoot it?’ when it’s at the other end of the field.”

Nowadays, Scaleby Castle puts down 1,800 pheasants and 800 duck, with returns of nearly 50 per cent. “It’s hugely satisfying and makes us proud to think how far we’ve come,” said Mike, as we watched pheasants rise high above the treeline. “This is our limit, though. Bags of 150 are just right for the ground we have.”

All the members of the shoot muck in throughout the year, although Mike takes on the lion’s share. Whether it’s inspecting the rearing pens at 5am or lugging 40 tons of grain (1,600 x 25kg bags), he’s happy to take on the responsibility.

Wild food

The birds were not appreciating his efforts at that moment, however. “They’re all sticking to the berries and nuts along the hedgerows,” said Simon Liddell, who comes to pick-up throughout the season. “We need a cold snap to bring them into the feeders. They’ve forecast wintry weather and snow for next week, but I bet it’s no more than minor frost. I think they like to exaggerate nowadays to cover themselves.”

The full moon was getting Simon twitchy for the geese that were gathering on Rockliffe Marsh. He planned to leave after lunch to get into position for an evening flight. “I don’t get the same excitement from pheasants as I do from the wildfowling. Well, that and fishing. Salmon and geese are my thing. I enjoy the migratory pigeon, though — there’s a surprising number that come over from Scandinavia. If you fi nd the right spot, down by a nearby river, they fly by looking for beech mast. That can be great sport. But you only get one shot before they’re miles away!”

At least the covercrops were faring well in the mild weather. “I favour artichokes and that crop called utopia,” Mike explained. “It’s like a hardy type of mustard, which grows to 6ft and gives plenty of feed and cover. We can sow it as late as August too. We had reed canary for seven years, but that’s now dying back. It gave good cover, but without the feed value.” Mike had seen an old dog fox patrolling his covercrops the night before, which he had delayed to the Guns. “I could probably go and get him, but one fox isn’t great cause for concern. He’ll probably do more good than harm at this time of year. When you have three or four, then the problems start.”

The farmland and woods around the castle are owned by Ian Lancaster, a member of the shoot. Occasionally, he stepped aside on the day for his son William, who repaid the gesture with his first pheasant. Ian has planted hundreds of willows, which will eventually be sold as woodchip. “They need to be thinned out, but they do make the woods warmer,” he said.

Last year, Ian won the inaugural shot of the year award, when he brought down a high, curling pheasant. But just as important as the shot is the effect it has on Mike, who is the sole judge for the award. “If I don’t see it, it didn’t happen,” the shoot captain said at lunchtime. “I donated the cup last year in memory of my father, who, sadly, died from asbestosis. He used to love coming down here.”

Snipe galore

The final drive of the day was the duck pond, at the end of a sodden marsh, which proved less treacherous to cross than it first appeared. I picked my way across with Dr Andy Hollands, a local GP and guest for the day, led by his handsome Münsterländer, called Magnus. Every five yards, another snipe would flash up from under our feet, close enough to see the yellow and brown stripes on its back. It was hard to guess their number — 20, 40, 60, maybe more — as they dotted back and forwards across the wetland. “They’re rising like butterflies,” said Andy. “I’ve never seen so many.

When we reached the solid ground at the other end of the marsh, where the pegs were drawn around the duck pond, the grey blanket finally lifted to reveal a warm, dipping sun. Ahead of us, the beating team began moving the duck off the water, and soon the light blue sky was filled with high, testing shots.

“Quite a few of my patients are shooting men,” said Andy, in between shots. “And I get a few invitations as a result, though they all warn me that, if I don’t keep them alive for another year, I’ll not get asked back.”

On the way back through the marsh, I chatted to Steve Boileau, another of the dedicated pickers-up on the shoot. A keen artist, Steve paints wildfowling scenes from the Solway Firth in acrylic, watercolour and oil. He also gets commissioned to paint retrievers.

“The most difficult challenge is getting their character just right,” said Steve, who is gathering a loyal following on Facebook. “I work from a photo — I tend to take the picture with the owner behind my back waving a biscuit. Often, the dog has since passed on and it’s so rewarding when they see their old friend again. There are often tears.”

Back in the bothy, the final tally of hanging birds was calculated at 192 head, a record bag for the shoot. The gunslingers stretched back on easy chairs, their faces reflecting the warm glow of the wood burner.

“Do what you can, with what you have, where you are,” was another of Theodore Roosevelt’s famous observations. “Far and away the best prize that life offers is the chance to work hard at work worth doing.” The old cowboy would have felt quite at home at Scaleby Castle.