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Sawley Hall Shoot

The Sawley Hall shoot, run by Liam Botham, with his father Sir Ian, sprawls across 2,500 acres. Paul Quagliana visits.

“What’s the matter, lad? This is like springtime for Yorkshire!” said a gent at the Sawley Hall shoot, near Harrogate, as strong wind and drizzle lashed the trees. The weather could not have been more different from the last shoot I covered during the glorious last gasp of summer at the start of October.

The Sawley Hall shoot is run by Liam Botham, with his father Sir Ian, and the family are all involved. The shoot sprawls across 2,500 acres of pasture and heavily wooded ground cut through with valleys ideal for pheasant and partridge.

The Bothams need no introduction, as they have carved the family name into the public consciousness through their sporting achievements. But perhaps less known is that off the cricket pitch and rugby field Sir Ian and Liam are both passionate fishermen and shooters.

On the day Shooting Times visited, the shoot was being held in support of two charities. The day had been bought jointly by the world-famous chef Michel Roux and Waitrose managing director Mark Price in aid of Leukaemia Research and the food industry charity Caravan.

Liam gave the customary opening talk on safety and asked that woodcock be avoided ? there is a resident population and they like to see a few about. Liam also made the welcome and pertinent point that should a Gun prick their first bird, it is better to give it a second barrel rather than try and look for another to make a left-and-right.

There were four drives during a leisurely day, the first being Jennings Game Plot, a new drive, with the birds being driven into a strong crosswind. The Guns were situated on pasture at the bottom of a slope with woodland behind. Though it was a new drive on the first day of the shoot, the birds came over well.

“I’m pleased with that,” said Liam. Headkeeper Charlie Bentall pointed out that the first day, with new birds unused to being driven, can occasionally be like throwing a non-swimmer in at the deep end and hoping they will know what to do.

The Artichokes drive, the third, was a stunner. Some Guns were placed on jetties, which required a good sense of balance, and the birds were driven from a high bank of fir trees and sailed over the lake. It was here that Sir Ian’s terrier, Pinot, proved that terriers can teach gundogs a thing or two by making some faultless water retrieves.

During lunch in the shoot’s bothy, Liam took out a fly rod and landed a couple of rainbow trout from the lake. Interestingly, he turned the fish upside down as he unhooked them, a method said to stop a fish from flapping.

Lady Botham recalled that when Liam was small and on a salmon fishing trip in Scotland, he broke for the second time a fly rod given to him by his father. “Ian was furious,” said Lady Botham. “Only because I caught a salmon and he didn’t!” replied Liam.

The bothy resembles something from The Lord of the Rings: it is set into a bank, with just the front and the chimney visible. Inside the smoky, candlelit interior, Lady Botham and daughter Rebecca were preparing food on gas cookers. While the Guns enjoyed lunch, we tossed bits of pork pie to the trout, which took them eagerly.

After the Artichokes drive, the bag had nearly been reached, so the Guns went for one more drive called Calf Haugh, in a valley with a stream flowing through it. Orders were to go only for the best birds. A on the other drives, the birds performed brilliantly and some of the redlegs were outstanding. The Guns had enjoyed each other’s company immensely and, after a couple of months on the grouse, had shot very well and selectively. The shoot was well run, the beaters and keepers had done a great job of driving the birds in difficult conditions, and Lady Botham and Rebecca had provided great hospitality. As Michel Roux said, “There is so much bonding and friendship in shooting; it’s fantastic.”

Reaching its potential

When Liam took over the shoot in the spring of 2009, he felt that it was not being run to its true potential, but working in partnership with headkeeper Charlie, he has been improving it. Liam very much wants to create a quality shoot, but one that combines good sport with a relaxed atmosphere, with Guns enjoying the day in a less pressurised way.

“Fieldsports should be enjoyed, not rushed,” Liam said. “I don’t like it when people are desperate to get away. Shooting should be about good hospitality and companionship. That is why we use the shooting bothy, which has no electricity it is illuminated by candlelight and my Mum and sister look after the catering. It is very much a family affair. We have put in jetties on the lake and have outdoor seating where Guns can sit and chat.”

On running the shoot, he said: “When you are involved in a shooting estate, you are in a society and you have to get on with everybody. You have to build up relationships with farmers and local people for it to work.”

When asked how the shoot is coping with the recession, Liam replied thoughtfully: “It’s a tough world out there, and I think everyone is suffering to varying degrees, but we are weathering it. I think if you are offering a quality service, whatever it is you do, you will be OK.”

A passion for grouse

Headkeeper Charlie was previously the keeper on a beat of the Drumlanrig estate and on a Cumbrian estate. He was also a grouse keeper on the Glen estate in the Borders, and grouse are still a simmering passion for him.

Together with underkeeper Michael Hawe, the two have known each other for 25 years. Charlie now looks after the 2,500acre Sawley Hall estate, where they are both very busy men. During the season they are up at about 5.30am and spend the day either dogging-in or putting out feed.

Charlie believes that the old-fashioned ways of keepering are the best, and while quad bikes allow for greater mobility, he believes in footwork. Dogging-in not only keeps the birds in the right place, but also allows him to see at close hand where his birds are and what is going on.

When I asked Charlie if he has any trouble with foxes, he replied, “Hasn’t every keeper?” With large plantations nearby, there is a constant presence of foxes, and he is a keen fox controller, using a Remington 700 .223. He also controls rabbits for local farmers and has some mink to deal with as well.

Charlie said, “Dogging-in and fox control are some of my tasks. Keeping game is what a gamekeeper should do.” They have been clearing forestry to open up spaces for the Guns, to provide more drives and to look at where to site covercrops for the best effect. Maize is the favoured crop on the estate; Charlie said it stands well and provides good cover, but it requires a lot of fertilizer and, when fully grown, it is hard for beaters to see one another when pushing through it.

Sawley Hall was already a functioning shoot when Liam took over, and Charlie said that they are trying to take it to the next level, for it to become a prestigious gameshoot. Their goal seems highly achievable.