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Stockton Shoot

Smaller driven and walked-up boundary days have grown in popularity in recent years. This could be partly due to the cost of larger days in these straitened times, but also because smaller days can be slower paced with more time to chat and take in the landscape, and where a “big bag” isn’t the only thing that matters. From an early season partridge point of view, it gives a shoot owner and keeper the chance to stir up the birds, get them fit and see where they are gathering.

Shoots offering smaller days are being inundated with enquiries and Barney Stratton’s Stockton Shoot in Wiltshire is no exception. “I have had so many phone calls from interested teams that I have now stopped taking bookings,” he told me. I spent a day with his team to see how the shoot was run.

The heat of the sun quickly dispersed the haze of the early morning and the Guns climbed aboard a rather fetching gun-bus with a wooden upper. Mike Barnard, who was kindly chauffeuring me all day, said there was another bus, complete with stripy awning, barbecue, fridge and a sink.

Mike, who was born and bred in the area, has several roles on the shoot assisting keeper Arronne Bulling, who runs the smaller days. He said: “I am on the rearing field March to September, and then may spend four days a week picking-up and a couple of days on the gamecart.”

Arronne has always been a shooter but was formerly involved in IT recycling on premises close to the shoot. “He offered to start helping on the shoot and, when a position came up, he took it. Particularly at this time of the year, Arronne prefers Guns to leave pigeon alone at the start of a drive and also, unless they are good birds, to let the first partridges through as well,” said Mike.

Gilbert’s drive

Mike brought the vehicle to a halt with the others on a farm track, overlooking a long, shallow stubble valley with a high bank of planted trees, beneath which half the line would be placed. This was Gilbert’s drive. A buzzard skirted the trees and flopped around throughout the drive. Like many others it has learned to associate shooting with the possibility of an easy meal.

The birds on this drive, in keeping with the next four drives, were well feathered and fl ew strongly for the time of year. Lucy Gore-Langton put her 20-bore to good use, along with Denis Nifontov and James Hogan, who were on my section of the line.

Sarah and Christopher Prestwich had brought their two Labradors, Otter and Trumble, along to pick-up. Otter had previously suffered a slipped disk, but soldiered on while Trumble was a big, strong dog. “He’s from show stock but does a good job,” Sarah said. “His party trick is bringing back several birds at once. His record is a pigeon, partridge and pheasant all in one mouthful.”

When it was time to move on, Mike commented, “I love these small days. They are a great way to introduce people to shooting. We have had youngsters here and, even if they don’t pursue it later in life, at least they have had the chance to try it.”

Mike was using an “old-fashioned” wooden game carrier made by one Peter Palmer, who used to run the gamecart. He no longer makes them, but will refurbish them. Mike enthused: “They keep the birds straight and allow them to cool off quickly, which is important at this time of year.” There was a break after the second drive and Sarah handed out some of her home-made fruitcake, which was rich and moist. Her secret was “three hours in the Aga, some jam and loads of booze”. Lunch was a cold buffet, spread out on tartan rugs on the stubble field. This time, Sarah’s Scotch eggs stood out. Worcestershire sauce and tomato sauce in the sausage meat are the not-so-secret ingredients.

A closed-flock shoot

Each shoot has its own way of doing things and Stockton operates a closed-flock system for rearing its partridges. Mike explained: “The eggs from the shoot are incubated locally and return as day-old chicks, which are raised on the shoot. As poults, a portion of the birds is released on the shoot; the rest are retained in partridge ‘verandas’ — long, A-frame pens where they remain until the spring, when they are put in pairing boxes.

“These ex-layers are then released on the shoot the following season and some of the next generation, hatched from their eggs, go back into the verandas, repeating the process. It means there is a selection of young birds and older birds at the start of each season and, as we are rearing our own, we are less likely to bring in disease from elsewhere.

“The fly in the ointment is that luck dictates whether the ratio of cocks to hens is more or less, even when it comes to pairing them up. It can be time-consuming but the results are worth it.

“Our pheasants come in as poults from a local source. The partridges go to the local gamedealer who returns before the end of the day with oven-ready birds for the Guns. We try, if we can, to support our local economy, which I feel is important.”

With regard to gamecover, Mike said: “We use a lot of maize strips on the shoot but also sow wild bird seed on Higher Level Stewardship margins. We have also started sowing a couple of rows of miscanthus next to the maize. Not only will it provide cover if the maize crop is poor, it is also a more-or-less permanent crop that will keep growing and provides shelter from wind and rain. Earlier in the year, like on a lot of shoots, we were worried about the inclement weather, but the maize has come up nicely now.

“The only trouble we have with the miscanthus is that the wild catmint is so thick sometimes that it can smother the miscanthus when it is starting to sprout.

“We have about 8,000 acres here, most of which is well-drained arable land. It is rolling land well-suited to partridge shooting. I suppose the only thing that has changed over the years is that the fields seem to have got bigger and the hedgerows smaller.

“We have had English partridges on the land and we occasionally see a brood but everything is against them. Barney is very lucky here — not only has he got a lot of land and lots of drives to choose from, but also some of the drives are designed to be reversed. With partridges generally being affected a lot more than pheasants by the wind direction we can move the line of Guns around and reverse the drive if need be. There are no pegged drives on the shoot; the Guns are placed where the weather and wind dictate.”

Paws for thought

Mike had a team of three cockers and a “cockador”. He advised that, at this time of year, in stubble and on chalky ground, you should keep an eye on your dogs’ paws. They can get “grass burns” between the toes from the stubble, and clay balls can form between the toes in the winter. He added: “You can wash these balls out during the day by placing their feet in a bowl of water.”

It had been a great day for the beginning of the gameshooting season. Some shoots don’t start on partridges until later in the season and Barney doesn’t start on pheasants until November. But with partridges like these, and a good team of selective and safe Guns, the day had been a great success.

If you are involved in fieldsports, each season means something different to you and as Gun Denis Nifontov said: “Being a shooter makes you look forward to winter.” As lightning flickered in the distance, it was clear that the autumn storms and winter were not far away

 Click here to view more photographs of the shooting action taken on the day