This wasn’t just any shoot, this was a partridge day at Sutton Scotney, famed for its birds, driven hard and fast over hedges and shelter belts.
The estate was once owned by J. Arthur Rank who, having made his fortune in the family milling business (Rank Hovis) before moving into the film industry, ploughed his profits into his passion for shooting.
To say Arthur was into his shooting would be a huge understatement; so keen was he that he had three estates for shooting. One for partridge, one for pheasant and one for grouse.
How many of the anti-shooting brigade must have bitten into their daily bread without the faintest idea that their pennies were being spent on feeders, keepers and incubators?
It didn’t stop at just buying the acreage to shoot over; he even had concrete ponds made to train his labradors in. Many of us may have the enthusiasm and ideas, but few of us could ever have the huge wealth to put them into practice.
As the gun bus bounced along to the first drive I gave up calculating how many shoot reports I would need to do to buy my own sporting estate, and instead turned my attention to the weather.
It was starting to get warm; November was struggling to shake off autumn and get its icy teeth into winter. Along with this there was a distinct lack of another key ingredient for successful partridge on flat ground like this – a stiff breeze.
The guns spread themselves out along the first drive, aptly named Arthur’s, and solemnly faced the high hedge, their long shadows stretching across the young crop.
A few early birds came over the hedge and were competently dealt with. It was clear that on a windy day these birds would have whipped over this tall hedge and, given how close the guns were to it, the shooting would have really got the pulse racing.
Sutton Track is at 90 degrees to Arthur’s and the breeze picked up a little into the guns’ faces. As we waited, 72-year-old Mark Blackden talked me through his wonderful 1923 Joseph Lang 12-bore, but our conversation was cut short by a covey that spurted over the hedge, taking everyone by surprise.
The bus next took us to Webleys, and from here one can see how the estate (now owned by a Greek shipping family) was, and still is, laid out for shooting; 160 acres of set-aside and the remaining 1,400 crisscrossed with high hedges and conservation strips.
This was clearly having a knock-on effect on the local wildlife, as there was a prolific deer population and an abundance of songbirds and hares, a barn owl and a little owl.
The fourth drive, named after Arthur’s daughter Sheila, provided excellent shooting.
The line was now nearly 180 degrees round from the last drive and the partridges had the wind (which was steadily picking up) in their tails.
This high hedge produced some real quality shooting, and was starting to test the guns; the birds were getting a bit higher and were being catapulted over the hedge at quite a lick.
The guns returned to the bus in a chirpy mood with the conversation picking up a level as we crossed sun-drenched
fields to 50 Guinea, the last drive before lunch.
On a day that could have been early October, I stood under the high beech trees and watched the red and gold leaves start to tumble down with the breeze, and couldn’t help but wonder if J. Arthur Rank had stood in this spot, watching a line of guns testing their skills against coveys of fast-flying partridge; seeing the pickers up waiting patiently with their dogs in the middle-distance, and the flat Hampshire countryside stretching out into the hazy sunshine.
It must have warmed his heart as much as it did mine.
The drive was short, but the birds flew well off the top of the beech belt with the breeze behind them, and the tally crept over 170 before lunch was upon us.
The birds came thick and fast in the drive following lunch, but the wind was dropping, and I was left with the feeling that in the right conditions partridge shooting does not come much better than Sutton Scotney – but the conditions had not been in our favour on this day.