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Shoot of the Week: Vale Farm Shoot

What were you doing aged 19 (assuming you are older)? Rewind to December 1990, and around this time of year I was probably hauling myself resentfully, and hung over, out of my freezing bedsit to wend my weary way to a lecture at Preston University on romantic poetry or Kafka — I can’t remember much, so don’t ask for any quotes if we ever meet. Being a student seemed tough enough — but running a shoot as well as studying? I couldn’t have managed that — not then, not now.

One fellow who is managing to combine his studies with his passion for shooting is William Horner. When I met him for his second day of the season on the Vale Farms shoot in Dorset, he was celebrating his 20th birthday. To add a little pressure to William’s day, his Labrador, Meg, had ripped her ear in half on barbed wire while dogging-in that morning and had to be rushed to the vet’s by his mum, Liz, and his girlfriend, Hannah Wilson. By the end of the day, when we returned, Meg had been stitched up and was happy — it’s remarkable how animals can seem unperturbed by their own injuries.

William is a student at the Royal Agricultural University, Cirencester, where he is studying rural estate and land management. He has been shooting since he was a boy, and his early attempts at rearing game began when he was 13 years old. He went to Gillingham School in Dorset, which was also the school attended by PC Yvonne Fletcher, who was shot and killed in 1984 during a protest at the Libyan embassy in London. In memory of Yvonne, her parents set up the Fletcher Enterprise Award for youngsters at the school, which gives funding for projects submitted by the students. William put forward a proposal to rear grey partridges, which was accepted. He reared the birds under bantams in the garden, released them and had a second brood the following year. He enjoyed watching them dusting under the apple tree and, to his delight, the partridges that were calling in his garden attracted the covey that he had released the year before.

New syndicate

From those early days, William developed a strong interest in game rearing and, as part of the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service’s points scheme towards his course at Cirencester, he began setting up the shoot on two nearby farms with the co-operation of the farmers. His efforts grew, and this is the first year he has had a syndicate comprising five friends and family members, who also bring guests. On this particular day there were nine Guns. William puts down about 400 pheasants and a “handful” of redlegs. His first day with the syndicate, on 2 November, went well — with a bag of 58 birds — but what would today bring?

William began his briefing in the kitchen in front of the assembled Guns, friends and family. With the exceptions of snipe and woodcock, pretty much everything was on the menu, or as William put it: “Crows, squirrels and pigeon — have a go if you see them. It boosts the shot-counter rate and makes me look good.”

One of the Guns, Damian Patterson, came in for some ribbing, having been in the hot seat several times on the first day — and was temporarily presented with a bow and arrow. Damian told me, “I could see that William was obsessed with shooting from an early age. The shoot has gone from strength to strength and he runs it with great leadership and organisation. The syndicate was formed largely to provide Will with some funding for the future of the shoot, which he wouldn’t be able to support financially on his own.”

Damian was again in the pound seat, and shot a particularly memorable hen bird on the first drive on Robert Cobb’s farm. During a break for coffee after the first drive, William was looking through the birds and noticed a tough old warrior with sturdy spurs: “I recognise that bird,” he said. “He was always hanging around the same pen. That is what I like about my small shoot — which overall is about 200 acres — I get to know different birds that I have released.”

After coffee and snacks, it was off again for two more drives and then lunch, which was also at the Cobbs’, where some of the seating included 40-year-old benches from the Oval cricket ground. Jenny Cobb presented William with a birthday cake and then we set out for the two afternoon drives at the second farm. The weather had been of the Indian summer variety all day, and the final drive was a stunner. With a backdrop of golden, rolling Dorset countryside William’s partridges put on a great show as they were driven off a hilltop.

Will’s work on the shoot has not all been plain sailing, however. He has had a lot of problems with owls, buzzards, foxes and, in particular, dog walkers. “Unruly dogs are a constant nuisance,” he said. “I have been on shoots without footpaths and I am sure the birds are calmer. I just wish that people could keep their dogs under control and not let them run wild.”

Stressful but worth it

“Trying to juggle my course at Cirencester with running the shoot is difficult, and I rely on my dad, Simon, to help when I am away. I do get stressed by the shoot, but that is because I love it. We invested in some large Quill hoppers, which can be filled and then left for days, taking the strain out of constant feeding. As long as the hoppers contain feed, the squirrels tend to avoid chewing through them. It is when they are empty that they try to get in to get the last grains. I also scatter feed and kibbled maize over straw to keep the birds interested. I continue to feed my birds throughout March and April and I have birds that are two to three years old that have stayed.

“I get my birds from Paul Yates of Broadoak Gamefarm, and any surplus birds go to the Dorset Game Larder, though I distribute birds to anybody who wants some locally. One of the Guns, Howard Feltham, has a company called Woodford Forest and Landscape and they have been of tremendous help in constructing my release pens.

“I want to keep the shoot here small and for friends and family, but one day I might consider being a keeper on a small shoot. I suppose some of my pet hates are Guns who don’t take a brace of birds home, and I like people to be dressed properly — I think it shows respect for the quarry. I am a big fan of some of the continental traditions of honouring the game. But what I love to see the most is the birds I have reared going over the Guns and then seeing smiling faces and knowing that I have been behind it all. I also like to go out on 2 February to feed the birds that have survived the season — good luck to them!”

William needn’t have worried about his “click rate” — 325 shots later the day had broken all records with a total bag of 90, which included pheasants, partridges and pigeon. “Never in my wildest dreams would I have thought we would have days like these,” said William. His other wildest dream is to go grouse shooting with his father one day — I hope he achieves it.

What shooting should be

Most shoots are generally social affairs, but family ones such as this are a focal point in rural areas, bringing people from all walks of life together. They are an amalgam of what shooting should be — friendship, conversation, fresh air and good birds.

William has a gem of a shoot that functions well, thanks to his dedication and hard work. It would be a good small shoot by anybody’s standards — but the fact that he juggles the running of it with travelling to and from Cirencester makes it all the more remarkable. He may well be a youngster in the world of shooting, but he has traditional values and cares passionately about his sport and his birds. If he is representative of the next fieldsports generation, then shooting surely has a long and bright future.