As big commercial shoots come in for criticism, Patrick Galbraith goes back to the sport’s roots to visit a small country shoot
Say what you will but I don’t always wear a tie in the field, remember to fill out my game book, nor ever really use my side-by-side.
I am not a traditionalist and yet, as I looked down the line at well-dressed Guns, silhouetted against the clear Wiltshire sky with handsome dogs at their feet, I couldn’t help but smile.
It was one of those glorious days when everything feels right in the world. Behind us a flinty field dropped away into a deep gully, and in front stood a quintessentially English wood.
Just in sight, a little boy with a stick was advancing, a diminutive beater leaving no trunk untapped.
The majority of the beating line at the Field Barn shoot are related to members of the syndicate, with Gavin Atterton, whose father was one of the founders, keeping them in check.
Then a pheasant broke. I have never liked firing the first shot of the day, so I fixed it with an unfriendly stare in the hope that it would decide to make its escape elsewhere.
But its mind was made up and it soared in my direction. I pushed my gun up into my shoulder and fired 32g of lead just beyond the bird’s beak. It buckled and tumbled hard on to the dewy plough. Then, Lazarus-like, it stood up, shook itself off and ran towards the trees. It was a regrettable start to an otherwise perfect day gameshooting.
On my right, Matt Fry was making very tidy work of some impressive birds. A number of them crashed down into the valley behind us, where an experienced member of the picking-up team was waiting.
“That was Oxdroves,” remarked Matt as we wandered up the hill. “Once upon a time they drove cattle to market along a track that runs through the woods.”
There was something poignant about the way the trees had grown up and covered it, leaving just a name behind. Field Barn shoot was formed in 1997 on the Fry family farm. Michael Vesey, one of the founding members, told me he believes shooting changed dramatically in the years leading up to the millennium.
“Relatively modest family shoots, like Field Barn was in those days, went one of two ways — they either became syndicates or much bigger commercial ventures.”
Michael feels that very little has changed at Field Barn since then. “We’ve altered drives here and there and we put a few more birds down. Generally, though, it’s the same.”
As I stood on the second drive of the day, Swindley Head, listening to the sound of the beaters blanking in the cover crop in front, I reflected on the timeless feel of Field Barn.
“What do you reckon?” asked Tim Maddams, with whom I was sharing a peg. I turned to see him eyeing up a long cock bird crossing the sun. Before I could answer, he’d fired and a fraction of a second later its head went back and it crashed down into the tree canopy.
“Bit naughty,” he laughed, as he closed his gun. “Should have really left that for the boys in the wood.”
However, Tim didn’t let his conscience get the better of him. He proceeded to add a few more birds to the bag that were flying on the same trajectory.
“The key to a successful syndicate,” said Michael, “is everyone mucking in. Beaters, Guns and pickers-up at Swindley Head are all in it together.”
Elevenses was a fine example of that philosophy, with lots of members of the shoot sharing pies and sausage rolls they had made. As I enjoyed a slice of salami, expertly made by Tim, I watched John Galvin help the young beaters tie up the game and put it on the back of the cart.
It was a joy to witness their sense of responsibility and enthusiasm. At my peg on the third drive, Beachy Belt, I thought about children in cities who get their meat from the chiller aisle in their local supermarket.
Beachy Belt didn’t work out. Opinions ranged from a fox having gone through the drive to the birds going back. Nobody cared much. Blank drives happen.
Lunch at Field Barn is enjoyed in an old milking shed where a newly installed wood burner adds a welcome feeling of luxury. Over hare broth, Tim told me about a shoot in Devon, where some weeks before a regular beater had failed to turn up. It was out of character, a couple of members decided to forgo the first few drives and go round to his house to see if he was all right.
He wasn’t. He was lying on the bathroom floor, unable to move with a broken hip after a fall.
The story was a sombre one but it reinforced the point that syndicates like Field Barn are much more than just shoots. They are communities in our countryside where the likes of the shop, the pub, and the village butcher are closing. I wonder if those who are actively opposed to what we do realise they are seeking to bring about the destruction of one of the last linchpins of rural Britain.
Hopes weren’t high for the penultimate drive. Michael Vesey had driven by that morning and found an errant flock of sheep cheerfully munching the cover crop. It was feared they had displaced the partridges but, as the beaters pushed through, it became clear that all was not lost. Partridges in ones and twos starburst into the sky.
It was a joy to watch one of their number get plucked out the air by a Gun obscured behind a cattle shed, as it was flying towards the final drive.
Tim was muttering to himself. He had been shooting better than ever, but something had changed and two birds in a row flew past unharmed. He later told me my shouts of encouragement weren’t that helpful.
Then, just before the horn, he connected with a long crossing partridge that folded in the air, and was retrieved by Tim’s Labrador, Monty. He is a red-blooded rough shooting dog at heart, who has made much headway in learning the canine etiquette of the field.
The sun started descending as we walked to the final drive of the day, Waterstone Bottom, the showpiece at Field Barn. Over the brow of the hill the beaters appeared, tapping their way through a mixed woodland to a dip in the field where the Guns waited.
Suddenly, a partridge was right on top of me, some 20 yards up. I fired out in front, then fired again. Tim smiled and turned to watch it flutter on over the horizon.
After another miss, the last of my composure left me and I spent the rest of the drive going back to basics in the vain hope of connecting with something. About five quid’s worth of cartridges later, an obliging cock bird fell at my feet.
Up on the hill, a plucky woodpigeon was flying the gauntlet of the Guns. As it soared over the last of the line, a shot connected with its left wing and it spun towards the ground.
“The game gets taken by the Guns, the beaters and the pickers-up,” Michael Vesey told me when I inquired. I mulled this over as we walked back for tea. In a sense it’s typical of shoots such as Field Barn, modest farm syndicates with no need for grand lunches nor a game dealer to cart away the slain.
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I believe the likes of Field Barn exemplify what shooting should be all about. The ability to show some truly exceptional birds in a generally flat landscape tells of decades spent considering the game’s behaviour and how drives can be slowly improved.
Field Barn is a traditional shoot looking to the future. So will the beaters become the Guns one day, I asked Michael? “That’s how it’s happened over the years,” he replied. “Matt Fry’s son shoots on beaters’ day already, and his 14-year-old daughter Lucy is keen to start.”
I recalled a question from an elderly reader last year, as he was renewing his Shooting Times subscription at the Game Fair: “What are we going to do about these antis then?”
At that point I didn’t have much of an answer.
But sitting back in the milking shed eating a scone, I could have responded with certainty: “Take them to Field Barn.” It is a timeless example of our sport at its best.