Never before, in an extended sporting lifetime, have I attended a driven pheasant shoot on the opening day of the season. I was not shooting, but I confess to having arboured some reservations: would the birds be presentable, and would they do justice to the sport? I hould have known better. What a day!
Shellard’s Shoot is owned and run by Frank Shellard, who also runs a highly successful pony-trekking centre in Wellow, an old-fashioned village of grey stone, just south of Bath in Somerset. The shoot itself is just over 400 acres, largely centred on a deep, hill-flanked valley of about 250 acres, of which some 80 or so acres are woodland. The ground might have been designed specifically for driven shooting with steep-sided banks enclosed by high hedges and woodland strips, reinforced by covercrops of maize and quinoa.
The shoot was established some 35 years ago with the release of a mere 120 birds, but grew ever larger until it was offering 300- to 350-bird days. However, Frank decided the bags were too large and were interfering with his love and understanding of conservation. His aim, he told me, was to ensure that any team of Guns understood what he was doing to make the land and shooting work together for the benefit of both. He decided to reduce the size of the shoot, and now rents the ground on the nearby Manor Farm, owned by Charles Hignett, who is also keen on conservation.
Frank’s keeper, Dean Taylor, has been with him since he left school eight years ago, and is, I understand, an extremely hard worker and excellent keeper. Dean used to incubate and hatch all the shoot’s own birds, but the workload became excessive and now day-olds are bought in and 6,000 birds are released. About 17 to 20 days a season are shot, with the emphasis on small days of 50 to 150 birds – it says a great deal for Shellard’s Shoot that all the days are sold out every year.
The shoot works closely with conservation demands and to this end sheep have been brought in to graze the land, part of the farm is organic, covercrops are rotated and most of the centre of the ground is in Higher Level Stewardship. In addition, because most of the land is grass, wildflower meadows are being established for butterflies and insect life, while Frank has also imported Exmoor ponies to graze the banks and keep the grass at the right level. Hedges are allowed to grow unimpeded, not only to ensure high birds but also to assist feeding horseshoe bats. The shoot is a perfect example of shooting and conservation working for mutual benefit.
Frank’s shooting philosophy is succinct: “What I aim for is to provide an experience of the whole day for the Guns. It’s not just about pulling a trigger, but we try to ensure the sport is full and meaningful from the first coffee on meeting to the end of the day, when guests go away with a brace of birds and a souvenir group photograph of the day.”
Early season fun
Now to the day in question – 1 October. The team of lady Guns was formed from a handful of shooters who met on a BASC South-West ladies’ day in 2010 and decided to form their own group, the Somerset Lady Guns, which now comprises 25 members. The women meet once a month at the Mendip Shooting Ground for coaching and, among other events, have two days’ live shooting and two simulated gameshoots each year. The group is affiliated to BASC and has entered into an annual competition with other south-west ladies’ teams, which they have won each year.
So, on a dry but overcast day, with little wind, the 10 Guns with two shooting half Guns, set off for the first drive, Rowley Top, under the leadership of Frank. Frank was mounted on a fine piebald called Bob the Cob and, in true Wellington fashion, directed operations from the saddle throughout the day.
There were to be four drives with an anticipated bag of between 50 to 80 birds. On the opening drive, the Guns stood in a semi-circle way below the summit of a steep grass bank surmounted by a thick hedge, behind which, but out of sight, was atwo-acre covercrop. Several Guns double-banked and all, I noticed, were using 20-bore over-and-unders, among which Beretta Silver Pigeons featured strongly, while 25g of No. 6 seemed to be the order of the day. In some cases, the birds were very high and fast. Mel Wright and Gill Holloway both shot some excellent birds and by the time the horn was blown to end the drive 18 pheasants had been shot.
The pickers-up team, organised by Sarah Shellard, one of Frank’s three daughters, was quickly in action. Not only did Sarah work three Labradors, but her team comprising Sharon Chambers, Graham Morris, Kenny Swift and Kevin Jones were all working Labradors as well.
Warming the cockles
There was a pause for a sloe gin before the next drive, East Bank, another steep grassy slope which produced a steady stream of birds. Again, Mel showed how it should be done by killing a 40-yard bird, while Fiona Hixon, after several missed birds, dropped a hen in front to be collected by her 13-year-old black Labrador.
A pause for some light refreshments and then on to the Allotments drive, a large sloping field of maize stubble, fringed by a far hedge behind which was a covercrop. This drive brought the team to their toes. At least two of the Guns had never been on a driven pheasant shoot before but suddenly they were dropping good birds well in front. Katrina Lintott, who, with her husband Robert, runs Southfield Sporting clothing and gun shop near Frome, was bouncing with delight at the end of the drive, while Emma Coates and Mel more than kept up their end. The bag for this drive was 33 birds.
The final drive of the day was Mumbridge, another grassy bank with woodland below and a high hedge above. The standard of shooting, supported by growing confidence, had steadily improved drive by drive throughout the day. With a total bag of 85 pheasants, the Somerset Lady Guns had shot with style, safety and confidence. A jovial lunch was enjoyed back at Frank’s home, prepared by his wife Judy, and to much applause, Mel was awarded a box of chocolates as High Gun of the day.
For information about Shellard’s Shoot, contact Frank Shellard, Little Horse Croft Farm, Ford Rd, Wellow, Bath BA2 8QF, tel 01225 834376.
For information about the Somerset Lady Guns, contact Sarah-Jane Longbottom, tel 07814 462422 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.
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