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The Harting Down shoot

In distant days the Sussex downland was one of my favourite haunts. There, on those great whalebacked hills with their rabbitnibbled grasses, wild flowers and windtwisted woods, I snared rabbits, hunted for butterflies and shot pigeon coming into roost. The South Downs were also once the haunt of early man and on the hill overlooking the village of Findon, at Cissbury Ring, one can still see the scars of trenches and mine shafts where flints were dug for tools thousands of years ago. Those empty, rounded hills are haunted by the shades of the past and are engulfed in a special atmosphere.

So with a sense of déjà vu I returned one day in the New Year of 2009 to visit a downland shoot which, if not unique, is certainly in a category of its own. Set high above the little village of South Harting, itself barely visible on this day of bitter cold, hard ground and lowland mists, the shoot of around 800 acres (nobody is quite sure of its precise size) straddles the Downs in a series of deep valleys, the sides clad in ancient woodland, the haunt primarily of woodcock, pheasant, fallow and roe. This is indeed a roughshoot par excellence, with a unique flavour and sense of occasion. The shooting is sharp and fast, the birds fly from the steep woodland sides with verve and speed and, on the day of the shoot, woodcock were present in very large numbers — driven south, no doubt, by the bitter weather further north.

Nowadays, one of the senior members of the shoot, Garry Williams, bears the burden of captaincy and is responsible for helping to provide sport for the 18 syndicate members. The shoot itself was started in the 1930s, and Garry has been a member for 25 years and shoot captain for the past 15 years. It is, he told me, “one of the prettiest walked-up shoots to be found anywhere. There’s a tremendous amount of woodland to which the public have access but we never have any problems and they are very understanding. The views are absolutely stunning and from the highest hill one can see as far as Guildford to the north.”

Four release pens are strategically sited in the woodland, each holding 200 or o birds, though 850 10 week-old poults, obtained from a local gamefarm, were put down in 2008. About a dozen to 15 shoot members gather each Wednesday morning during the season and shoot straight through, concluding their day’s sport with lunch at The Three Horseshoes, an ancient downland inn.

Garry acts as the keeper and not only ensures that the dustbin feeders are topped up twice a week, but also has to bring in water as there is no natural supply for the birds.

There are plenty of fallow and roe on the shoot, though muntjac have yet to appear. Raptors are numerous, especially buzzards, but Gary accepts the fact that some of his birds will be predated.

At the end of the season, a substantial dinner is held for all the syndicate members in an atmosphere of good humour. Fines are imposed for a variety of offences on the shoot, such as being late, having a dog out of control or getting lost. In fact, anything to raise a small fund, with the money collected going to the pub staff as a tip.

On this particularly freezing cold day, some 15 Guns assembled in the car park set high on the Downs and, after some cheerful chatter, they and their troop of multifarious gundogs, including golden retrievers, cockers, springers, Labradors, a flatcoat and a German shorthaired pointer, set out to walk half-a-mile across a hill to the first valley and walked-up drive. One of the English springers, incidentally, had bright blue eyes. The GSP was being worked by Richard Kuban, well-known in the world of HPRs, and there was also a four-year-old wirehaired pointer, owned by Henry Warner, whose father, Bill Warner, together with George Wilkinson, was responsible for bringing German wirehaired pointers into Britain in 1972. Henry’s pointer wore a bell round its neck, a necessary tool to help its owner determine if the dog was on point in the thick woodland.

Picture then, a long and quite narrow valley, covered with ancient woodland in a mixture of muted grey, brown and faded green beech, blackthorn, ash, yew and oak, through which, on one side, 10 Guns and their dogs tapped and picked through the dense cover, slowly working their way forward, while the remainder of the Guns kept pace, but slightly ahead, down the valley path.

The first bird to break cover, high and fast, was not a pheasant but a woodcock, a bird which made the fatal mistake of crossing over Bill Bishop. Bill, by the way, while desperately keen on his shooting, is an internationally renowned marine artist and a collector of vintage and classic cars.

Then, for 20 minutes or so, as we walked forward down the valley, pheasants and ever more woodcock broke cover, most going forward or sideways, but a few turning back to give the walking Guns a chance. Half-a-dozen fallow deer, grey of coat, cantered across a ride and a buzzard swung high on a thermal over the downland.

This, then, was to be the pattern for the remainder of the morning. Deep valleys, high banks, thick woodland and, to my amazement, more woodcock, so it seemed, than pheasants. There must have been a sudden fall of them, driven south by the bitter winds, snows and ice in the north and east to take
shelter and hope for some soft ground in the warmer woodland.

This shoot has always been known for its woodcock, but seldom have such high numbers been seen in one morning’s shooting. I began to count the number I saw, but gave up after 25. Considerably more than 50 showed that morning, and on at least three occasions there were possible chances for a right-and-left but, as is so often the way, when the3 birds were there a Gun was not. However, one Gun killed a brace, though not as a consecutive right-and-left. His name? David Woodcock.

A high bank of dense thorn, yew and ash, set high above the valley floor, yielded well over a dozen woodcock and several storming pheasants, including a nice hen shot by Jimmy Eade and smartly retrieved by his eight-year -old Labrador, Alf. Peter Jackson also killed a neat highflying woodcock as we slowly worked up another valley on our way back to our starting point.

Pheasants and woodcock were still breaking cover even as the team of Guns began the long walk back to vehicles, buoyed up by the excellent sport and the prospect of a warming lunch and a pint.

The bag of 29 pheasants, eight woodcock and a French partridge was laid out by the cars to be admired and then distributed to the team. This, to my way of thinking, had been a thoroughly enjoyable morning’s shooting, combining exercise with good sport. What more could you wish for?