Batcombe shoot is the home of a game shooting syndicate some 25 miles from Bath where high birds and old-fashioned values abound.
In the modern framework of driven game shooting there are a number of ways to run a shoot. There are the larger commercial affairs, which cater for teams of paying guns and can lay on anything up to 100 days a season. These shoots will typically put on 250-300 bird days and they live and die by the quality of every single day. The teams will pay somewhere in the region of £10,000 for the day so the pressure is huge, and if you doubt that then just ask anyone who runs one.
Then there are private shoots run by the historically wealthy, or those who have more recently bought into the British dream of estate ownership and everything that comes with it. These beautifully manicured slices of our stunning land offer the lucky guests a chance to slip back in time for a day or a long weekend and enjoy the largesse of the generous host. Either you are in the club or you aren’t.
And then there are the smaller syndicate shoots, of which there are hundreds, if not thousands, dotted all around the UK. These shoots tend to have strong links to their nearest village. And they will often be run by a committee of volunteers who all spend many hours working on the things that have to be done behind the scenes to make a shoot work. Some will have dedicated keepers; others will share these duties among the members. But what almost all have in common is the connection with the village. The pub will often be the focal point where the team meets in the morning and retreats to at the end of a long day. Most of the syndicate members will live in the local area, as will the beaters and pickers-up. So by definition the local syndicate has a communal spirit, and is run by friends for the mutual enjoyment of all involved.
I am lucky enough to have been involved in one or two of these village shoots in my local area, but I also get the chance to travel the country and see how other people do it. Which is how I came to be in deepest Somerset in very early January this season to visit Batcombe shoot, 25 miles south of Bath and 10 miles north of the A303.
The eponymous village is hidden, and I mean hidden, among a network of narrow roads and winding combes that combine to create the sort of place one might expect to find Miss Marple pedalling her bicycle. Visually this is the England of yesteryear, with gorgeous stone cottages and grand houses nestled into nature’s nooks and crannies. The village is sufficiently remote to be off the beaten track for tourists, which no doubt is part of the attraction for its inhabitants.
From an ‘armed walk’ to 12 driven days
But of course we weren’t there as conventional tourists, we wanted to see what the shoot was like. And we were lucky enough to stay with Nigel and his wife Jennie the night before the shoot in their stunning house in neighbouring Westcombe. Over dinner Nigel explained a bit about the shoot: “It started almost exactly 20 years ago with four people from the village; back then it was more of an armed walk, a few birds put down and bags varying from single figures to 20 or 30 and only pheasants. Over the subsequent years much has changed but what has remained is the part-time keeper Chris Dove, who runs the beating line, and the feature of guns, pickers-up, guests and beaters eating together after the day is over at the Three Horseshoes Inn.
Take a peaceful part of the Somerset countryside, add a dedicated team and a generous dollop of showcase drives for…
“Four years ago a young full-time keeper, Dan Brain, was taken on. He is now in charge of all the pheasant drives and Chris looks after the partridges. In all there are now seven partridge drives and eight pheasant drives, which is enough for the 12 driven days. The beaters and pickers-up traditionally remain volunteers, though they perform as well as any other team I’ve seen on my shooting travels. Away from the formal days we also have days when three or four guns walk the boundaries and hedgerows with the keepers and their dogs.”
With 12 main days a season over around 900 acres, split into three different areas, the shoot is run by a triumvirate: Mark Burr, Ed Francis and Nigel Humphreys. Mark is a top shot and excellent dog man who deals with a lot of the technical issues, such as cover crop selection and placement. Ed looks after the administration, and Nigel liaises with the landlords and sources the poults, among other things. Anybody who has ever been involved in running a syndicate will know there is an endless list of other jobs, so this broad division of labour probably does not tell the full story.
The bid system at Batcombe shoot
On a lot of local syndicates, guns will either buy full or half guns for the season, but at Batcombe shoot the system is more flexible. Nigel explained: “We have a slightly unusual way of allocating our days in that we run a bid system. So in early spring, Ed sends out the information about next season’s dates to all of our guns and invites them to bid for what they want. They can buy individual guns or take whole days if they want. This can lead to clashes but that’s where Ed’s diplomacy skills come to the fore and he is able to iron out the creases and arrange a season where everybody more or less gets what they want. And by some extraordinary chance we find this works very well indeed. It means we can accommodate different requirements from different people and we can be very flexible. So if someone does want to buy a whole day then that is absolutely fine.
“But what we do try to avoid is people buying only one peg all season. From experience we have discovered this is not ideal, as it can mean we have people shooting together who don’t know the other guns and this can cause friction. After all, the whole point of our syndicate is to enable people to shoot among friends.”
Rain can’t stop play at Batcombe shoot
Having learnt a lot about the way the shoot is run over dinner, the morning dawned with heavy rain and plenty more forecast; not good for birds, beaters or photographer. However, the show must always go on and the whole team met at the Three Horseshoes for a hearty breakfast before setting off in the gun bus for the first drive, Beeches. Here it soon became apparent that the birds were not to be deterred by the wet weather and the same was true of Moore Lane and Crows Hill, where the village church provides the scenic backdrop and the guns really have to reach for some of the higher birds.
Throughout the morning drives the well-disciplined beating line worked hard in unpleasant conditions to control the flow of birds, and the guns below did their fair share of hitting and missing. But the real stars of the show here are the birds. Yes, they have some encouragement in the form of classic shooting topography, but they fly high and strong to present some excellent shooting. It’s no surprise that three of the guns on this day travel from Norfolk every year to enjoy this type of testing sport.
After the third drive, elevenses were taken and the rain finally started to ease off. Apart from some excellent soup and sausages, the most striking feature of this break was its communal nature. Beaters, pickers-up and guns all share everything and it creates a relaxed and inclusive atmosphere. Nobody is left out in the cold at Batcombe shoot, clearly.
A classic drive
After the break, the team decamped to Reevers, which is the signature drive. You can always tell it’s going to be a good drive when just getting to the pegs is a challenge, and here the guns have to scramble down a long, steep slope before they are even within striking distance of the pegs. And like all top drives, it’s worth the journey.
There are large gaps between the guns but as the beaters steadily work the steep banks to the fore, a stream of high birds appear like phantoms to thrill and challenge the team below. Every bird brought down here is met with shrieks of approval from the rest of the team, and on this occasion Anthony Yateman won the respect of everyone present by folding a bird to remember for the rest of his days.
Having already enjoyed three very good morning drives, Reevers really did put the icing on the cake and showed that Batcombe shoot combines a communal attitude with some truly enjoyable shooting. However we weren’t finished and the final drive, Carrot Hill, enabled the team to reach a bag of 126 head for the day, including 43 partridges. And after a wet and wild day of exhilarating shooting, what could be better than a pint and a hot meal in a friendly pub? Cue the Three Horsheshoes…
Communal atmosphere at Batcombe shoot
So the local syndicate is alive and well and I have rarely seen a better example than here at Batcombe shoot. It doesn’t happen by accident but when it does, all involved should cherish it.
For the final word on Batcombe shoot I will return to Nigel: “We inherited the communal atmosphere and it has always been a village operation so it just has that characteristic. And for all of us involved we simply don’t feel that there needs to be a division between guns, beaters and pickers-up in a 21st century shoot like ours. We believe it is a thoroughly healthy way to progress and without this attitude the whole operation would collapse. The way the shoot is run allows everybody who lives locally to get out and engage with others in the community and it enriches the lives of all involved. But beyond that we do it for entertainment. A huge amount of work goes into making this work but the laughter and the smiling on the shoot days makes it all worthwhile.”
If you would like to know more about Batcombe shoot email Nigel Humphreys: firstname.lastname@example.org