As we enjoyed a delicious meal in the dining room of Underley Grange the night before the shoot, Phil Pease, who runs the whole show at Underley, did a remarkable job of underplaying things:
“I would describe it as an average shoot which can show some good birds,” he said.
Therefore I was a little surprised the following morning on the first drive, Hospital Wood, to observe a succession of stupendous high-flying pheasants speeding out over the left hand side of the drive.
It is, after all, traditional to kick-off proceedings with a gentle warm-up, and these were not the sort of birds Phil had described the previous evening.
Low sunlight adds to the visual splendour of the Hospital Wood drive.
This drive had looked the part from the moment we parked up on the roadside nearby.
A purpose-planted belt of trees looking out over a beautifully undulating grass field was always going to produce good sport because of the obvious flushing points.
The icing on the cake is the superb view out behind the gun line to Barbon Fell and the Dales beyond.
If you had half an hour to introduce a non-shooter to our sport this is exactly the sort of drive you would hope to show them.
The birds fly well, the surroundings are stunning, and the pickers-up are quietly efficient.
It turned out as the day progressed that this was not the exception, merely an example of the superb sport on offer on this wonderful estate, which has been managed for pheasant shooting for generations.
Phil, at 29 years of age, is a considerate host and at a well-built six foot seven he has the physical presence of an imposing headmaster, which is belied by his genial nature.
Beaters make their way down a hill at the end of the Crow Wood drive.
The responsibility for running the family estate, which lies just to the north of Kirkby Lonsdale in a part of England which is enchanting in calm weather and enthralling in the rough stuff, came early to him as a result of the untimely death of his father:
“I have been running the shoot since 2007, having taken over after my father sadly died. But I have been involved with it since I started shooting aged 10, either looking after teams, beating, flanking or picking-up.”
As I had quickly discovered, driven pheasant shooting is no new concept here and Phil explained its recent history and the amount of pheasant shooting they do now.
“The shoot has been run in its current form since 2004, before which we had a Belgian gent who ran it privately for eight years. Before that it was run as a syndicate with a few let days. It has always been a case of letting some days to try and cover the cost of our own days. The shoot is spread over around 4,500 acres, and in total there are approximately 30 drives. We tend to shoot around a dozen days a season, possibly one or two more if we have the birds in January.”
At the start of this mid-December day, Phil had explained we would be doing four drives in the morning, with a break for elevenses.
Then we would stop for lunch and do two more drives after.
Elevenses are taken taken at an old game larder on the estate.
As we weren’t rushing to get started I thought this plan was highly ambitious.
At this time of year, daylight disappears extremely quickly after 3pm, and anyone who has done any amount of pheasant shooting will know that time quickly disappears as soon as any snags crop up.
However, it became clear that the Underley team are as slick as they come.
Without feeling hurried at any point, we sailed serenely through the four morning drives.
And an unrushed elevenses was taken at one of the charming old buildings which dot the estate, a circular old game larder as it turned out.
It was also here that I had the pleasure of meeting Clem Pease, Phil’s mother, who clearly has the same passion for Underley as her son.
The ease with which the day flowed is a clear sign of a team who are all comfortable in their own roles, something which can only be achieved through experience.
To cherry pick, the Stoneriggs drive, which was the third drive of the day, produced the highest birds we saw.
The ground banks very quickly away from a long strip of healthy looking woodland and the guns placed down at the bottom can expect to be severely challenged.
High birds stream over the line on the Stoneriggs drive.
As it happened, Phil was joined on this day by a number of friends from his days at the Royal Agricultural College, Cirencester, and they all shoot well, very well in fact.
At Stoneriggs it was Will Witchell in the hot seat and it was a pleasure to watch him match the quality of the birds with the precision of his pheasant shooting.
And those which some how slipped past him were unfortunate enough to hit the wall presented by his host who was back gunning.
Watching good shots deal with good birds is always a pleasure, as it was here. For the record the guns were; Charlie Armstrong, Abigail Brockbank, Hugh Forsyth, Charlie Hart, Tim Royle, Ed Sandys, Will Witchell and Phil Pease.
Phil Pease is the boss at Underley.
The bag was 311 pheasants, three woodcock and five ‘various’.
These days many old estates are turning to more commercial pheasant shooting for obvious reasons.
And they often have a huge amount to offer.
These will be sizeable pieces of land which have been carefully managed for generations, which means beautiful old woodland, manicured parkland and a good road infrastructure.
Field sports will have been playing a significant part in life on the estate throughout those eras so little things, such as parking areas for vehicles at every drive, will just work.
Add to this the undeniable pleasure of lunch in the big house, and perhaps elevenses at a suitably charming old game larder, folly or viewpoint, and you have to be mad to not want to shoot on a family-run estate which is now opening its doors to the wider shooting public.
There are a few around, but if any of them can put on a better day’s pheasant shooting than Underley then I would be surprised.
The single-handed headkeeper at Underley is Charles Hartley, though he has always been known as ‘Joss’. He has worked at Underley for 26 years, having started on the Youth Training Scheme at the age of 16.
And he worked under the previous headkeeper, Gordon Chapman, who retired at the end of the 2006/07 season, after 28 years. The continuity which the two of these keepers have provided has no doubt helped the shoot become the impressively well run organisation which it is today. The beaters and pickers-up are all regulars. One member of the line has been involved for more than 50 years and three generations of his family have been beating on Underley for more than 100 years. The estate used to rear its own birds, and ran a game farm in the 1980s but now all the birds are bought in.
The top drive
There are many excellent drives on the estate, but one clear signature drive is Long Belt, and this was the final drive on the day of my visit. While it is not as big as it used to be, it still provides pheasant shooting from end to end, with the guns positioned along the pretty banks of the River Lune.
On Long Belt the guns line out right by the banks of the River Lune.
In the past, it was almost three drives in one, with the main woodland blanked through, then the cover crop pushed out, followed by the final flushing points to finish. Apart from the sheer thrill of standing out on the rocky dry part of the river bed, the guns are also presented with a succession of deceptively fast pheasants, and those in the front rank have little time to react as the birds burst over the tree line ahead. Meanwhile, the guns on the other side of the river bank to the rear have plenty of time to see the birds coming, but will find them just as tricky as they curl in flight. There are other drives, such as The Wild Garden (also a river drive), Hospital Wood and Stoneriggs, which would also classify as signature drives on many other shoots.
Costs and accommodation
The shooting this season will be £33 per bird plus VAT for anything from 150-300 bird days. Underley Grange is available fully staffed and catered, and this is clearly the best option for the true shooting party experience with its elegant understated charm and excellent catering.
Underley Grange is a grand place to stage a classic shooting party.
However, there are a number of good pubs in nearby Kirkby Lonsdale who have put up teams of guns in the past. The best of these are The Sun Inn and The Royal Hotel, which has recently been fully refurbished. Both are only a couple of miles from Underley Grange, and offer good accommodation, as well as excellent food.
Contact Underley Estate Office, The Courtyard, Kearstwick, Kirkby Lonsdale, Cumbria, LA6 2DY, tel. 01524 272669 or email firstname.lastname@example.org