Shoot captain Richard Gray?s team of Guns gives the lie to the idea that only multimillionaires can afford driven shooting, with a lorry driver, carpet salesman and fish and chip shop owner in its ranks. When I joined them for an unusual day?s shooting on the boundaries of the Leadenham estate, in Lincolnshire, we gathered in the village car park at 9am, where we met Peter Lancaster, the headkeeper, and our three beaters for the day. We were expected to help with the picking-up and to provide our own lunch.
At £600 in total for the day, this was to be a no-frills shooting experience ? the easyJet version of gameshooting. One of the big attractions of boundary shoots is that they allow those who might not be able to afford the larger days to experience shooting on historic estates, and Leadenham is a special place. Its honey-coloured limestone houses perch on the Lincoln Edge, a limestone escarpment that runs all the way from Gloucestershire to North Yorkshire, making the landscape more reminiscent of the Cotswolds than the flatlands of Lincolnshire. William Reeve bought it in the 18th century and built the Georgian stone mansion that is still lived in by the family who owns the shoot.
It being his first season keepering at Leadenham and not having tested out boundary days on the estate before, Peter was initially concerned that the drives he had in mind wouldn?t yield enough birds. He always tries to get the bag up to 30 birds, with a maximum of 60, but it was near the end of the season and the shoot had been plagued by bad weather. ?We had to cancel two days due to fog and heavy snow,? he said, ?and the woods didn?t have enough cover to hold the birds in the December cold snap, when temperatures dropped down to -17°C.? Peter moved from Sussex to Lincolnshire last year to a shoot where little had been done in terms of infrastructure. ?There are a lot of woods that are drafty, with virtually no low cover,? he told me. ?After the season, we will start a programme of planting laurel, blackthorn and nitida in the coverts to help to shield the birds from the worst of the weather.?
Richard, who had booked the day, was less concerned about hitting the bag exactly. He and his fellow Guns were excited by the prospect that the strong breeze would provide some challenging shooting. Richard is an expert when it comes to finding good-quality shooting on a budget. ?Being a self-employed lorry driver means that my time is more flexible and I can fit my shooting around it,? he explained. ?This season, I have had 20 driven days, made up of three syndicate days on which I am a half-gun, three 100-bird bought days and five boundary days, including one I bought for friends at a cost of £620. I also had nine invitations to driven days. The total for the year, including keepers tips, will be £2,460, averaging £123 per day. It may sound like a lot, but it?s covered by the £50 I put into a special shooting fund every week throughout the year, so my sport doesn?t impinge on the family budget.?
Under the big Lincolnshire sky
No pegs were drawn, but Peter told the six Guns that they were welcome to shoot ground game and foxes. The first drive was up on to Lincoln Heath, where windswept arable fields of beet, oilseed rape and winter wheat stretch out under the big Lincolnshire sky. We spread out round the end of a hedge, rich, loamy soil clinging to our boots as we unsleeved our guns. The three beaters
worked their way down the hedge towards us, rattling sticks and flags, their voices flushing fieldfares and blackbirds. Then, several season hardened redlegs and two cock pheasants whizzed up and along the hedge line, providing some cracking shots.
Our retrievers for the day were Ruby, a cocker in the beater?s team, Meg, a Labrador belonging to retired businessman Neil Stanley, and Tia, a German wirehaired pointer that stood at Dean Milner?s peg. ?She?s one of only a few hundred German wirehaired pointers in the country,? said Dean. ?I do a lot of stalking and they are excellent trackers and strong dogs that are capable of pulling a roe out of cover quite easily.?
After helping to pick-up, the beaters walked through a small copse to push out several more cock pheasants that lifted and curled back on the wind. Next, we crossed the road for Cherry Trees drive, which consisted of a strip of maize cover along a hedge line of bird cherries. The best bird of the drive was a high partridge that came out over Neil, next to me in the line. We thought he?d missed it until Meg set off at a pace far out into the stubble field behind us. Neil was thrilled when she returned with the bird, a splendid bit of marking and the retrieve of the day.
Peter was disappointed by the fourth drive, where the beaters walked-up a long, thin strip of maize. It yielded a few good birds, but not as many as he had hoped for. ?This shoot has so much potential,? he said. ?One of the changes we will make next year is to halve the length of the maize strips, but widen them. At the moment they are so long and thin that they don?t hold the birds. By the time the beaters have walked them up, most of the birds have leaked out the sides. There are also too many too close together, which means that they are all emptied after one drive.? Some of the tenant farmers on the estate are keener to get involved with the shoot than others. Co-ordinating work with different land managers can be challenging and I was reminded that one of the secrets of success for this year?s Purdey Award-winning grey partridge project at Arundel, in West Sussex, was bringing tenant farms in hand (Turning grey into gold, 24 November 2010).
We sheltered from the wind behind some round bales as the sun began to push through the grey sky and we enjoyed a special concoction of whisky milk and golden syrup prepared by Richard?s wife Barbara, who is a fantastic game cook. I also had one of George Constanti?s sandwiches filled with his mother?s delicious halloumi, home-made with goat?s milk from the herd of three that she keeps at home in Cyprus. George was born in Cyprus, but has lived in the UK since he was 11 years old. He belongs to a Wild West re-enactment society, which travels the country entertaining tourists. ?Most weekends you can find me holding up a steam train with a blackpowder Colt .45,? he said. ?We take it in turns to be the lawmen and the outlaws.?
Old friends George and Richard shot clays together for many years, reaching national standard. By their own admission, they were fanatics. ?We were using up to 50,000 cartridges a year on clayshooting,? said Richard, ?and would think nothing of driving 600 miles in a weekend. We did everything, from national competitions to small village fetes. In those days, insurance wasn?t an issue and every village fair had a small shoot. We were such familiar faces, we became known as the terrible twins.?
After refreshments, we drove to an old railway embankment in a part of the estate that had never been shot before. Richard and I were placed on the edge of the new Leadenham polo ground, an impressive expanse of manicured turf with the steepled church and village behind. Several good cock birds were flushed from the old train line. By this stage, everyone had had some good sport, but Peter was still looking to up the bag, so we set off again for the sewage works near the village. We turned off the main road and parked up next to a group following the Blankney Hunt, who had stopped to watch the draghunt in the distance. They reassured us that the hounds hadn?t been through that way, so we set off for the next drive. Sewerage Cover didn?t sound like a promising drive, but the square block of trees produced several partridges and a couple of rabbits.
The last three drives of the day were on more traditional shooting land overlooked by Leadenham Hall. We lined out round an ancient piece of cover as Peter explained his plan for this part of the estate: ?We?ll enhance the existing cover with belts of artichokes and underplanting. There?s about 1,000 acres adjacent to these old drives that is not currently shot over and which I want to develop in collaboration with the farmer, who is a keen shooter. At the moment, the resident syndicate is shooting the same drives as the let days. The Guns know the ground well, are happy to take early season days and are often better shots than those on some of our let days. This means managing their expectations and those of the commercial side is sometimes difficult. With new land, we can separate the two and run them side-by-side.?
These are exciting times for Leadenham shoot, with work starting in earnest at the end of the season, but Peter is keen to continue with the small-scale boundary days and is planning eight for next year. Richard is eager to book. ?I will defi nitely be coming back next year,? he said. ?Paying £100 each for a day?s driven shooting on an historic estate is what I call a real bargain.?