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The Fenn Valley Shoot

Stephen Howkins, aka “Farmer Boof”, runs a small, informal shoot on his farm, which sits on the border between Buckinghamshire and Northamptonshire. Apparently, he gets his nickname from his rugby playing days — the word “boof” was essentially the noise that emanated from his opponents’ bodies when he tackled them. The team of Guns and beaters are all family or long-term friends and that makes for a relaxed and fun-filled shoot. In fact, there were more man-hugs than handshakes going on as everyone met in the farmyard for the first
shoot of the season.

Unique fenland

The shoot is run on a fourth-generation tenanted farm of about 1,000 acres and consists of open farmland with some scrub hedges and small pockets of woodland, but the most important pheasant-holding grounds are known locally as the “Ouzy Beds” and run down the middle of the main part of the shoot. This area is made up of peat beds, with reeds and willow, and it is believed to be the only registered block of fenland in Buckinghamshire. It is perfect habitat for gamebirds and also attracts plenty of wild birds, such as snipe and woodcock. Boof is keen to encourage the regeneration of the grey partridge, so the farm maintains grass headlands round the arable fields and only uses wild bird mixes in the five acres of covercrops. During a walk-around shoot on Boxing Day 2012, he counted some 50 wild English partridges and is proud of the progress being made.

The shoot released around 350 pheasants and 60 duck on the various ponds around the farm. The duck are not driven but are allowed to “go wild” and are then flighted during the evenings later in the season. Over the years, the poults have suffered predation from buzzards, kites and owls. Mink also cause major problems, so in the past couple of seasons only the weaker eight-week-old poults are put into roofed pens and the rest are released straight into heavy cover. This unorthodox system has been quite successful and the young birds are checked three or four times a day to ensure they are safe. Boof believes that because they aren’t penned it is harder for predators to corner them and cause the high levels of losses that can occur.

There are a couple of other shoots surrounding the farm and, over the past few years, they have managed an average of a 60 per cent return over four driven and a few walk-about days. A good day would be around the 30-bird mark, but the Guns can expect anything from 20 to 40. Boof is keen to emphasise that numbers are not the be-all and end-all of a day’s shooting: good company and plenty of laughter are essential elements.

An affordable option

This season it was decided to try a walkone, stand-one system of shooting. The Guns are all friends and by increasing the number of syndicate members, the yearly subscription could be reduced from £500 per season to £250, which has made it more affordable for everyone. The beaters are nearly all wives and girlfriends of the Guns, there is always a good turnout of the younger generation and most of the dogs on the shoot are related to Boof’s blue roan cocker spaniel, Fred. The shoot’s headquarters is a Portakabin in the cattle yard, and before setting off we enjoyed a breakfast of prize-winning home-made sausages. As it was the first shoot of the season there was a real buzz of excitement. The teams were drawn at random from an old beer box and there was plenty of leg-pulling as names were pulled.

On the first drive the Guns lined out in front of a block of woodland. Almost immediately, a hen pheasant flicked through the trees. One of the Guns managed to get a snap shot, resulting in one for the bag. Things went quiet for a while, then, in the distance, the honking of geese could be heard and suddenly three skeins of Canadas came cruising over the treetops.

All the Guns knew that there was the chance of some duck or geese, so they all carried steel shot cartridges. After a quick change of shells, the Guns on the outside of the woods waited until they had a clear view of the geese. Triggers were pulled and barrels warmed but despite plenty of steel filling the air, only one goose headed earthward, thanks to a superb shot by Rob Huckle. The bird landed in the middle of a field and Nat Cannon quickly sent her Labrador, Polly, who made a nice job of bringing the large goose to hand. Incidentally, Polly had been a rejected gundog and Nat has done a fantastic job of bringing her on to make a good working dog — it’s amazing what can be done with a bit of time and effort.

A couple of more drives and it was time for the beaters and walking team to push out the upper section of the “Ouzy Beds”. It was obvious that the conditions suited the birds because the reed beds and willow scrub were full of pheasants.

A family affair

The Fenn Valley shoot may be low key and informal, but the way the beaters and their dogs flushed the birds for the standing Guns was still impressive. It would have been easy for an errant dog or over- enthusiastic beater to cause an explosion of birds to take to the wing and the drive would have been over in an instant. However, as it was, the birds came over in ones and twos. Just to make sure that the boss was happy, Boof was in the hot seat and both he and Fred the cocker were kept busy.

The highlight of the day had to be on the next drive, when a pheasant came screaming over one of the Guns and I could hear little voices shouting out from the beating line “Grandad, Grandad!”

I hadn’t realised but Boof’s father, David, was shooting and his grandchildren were beating for him. There was a cheer as the bird hit the ground and then one of Fred the cocker’s offspring came and retrieved the bird — truly a family affair.

With a bag of 25 pheasants, one pigeon and a goose, it had been a good day. As everyone headed to the local pub for a few well-earned pints and some warm food, spirits were high and I rather suspected it would turn out to be a long evening.