Resurrecting an old shoot can be far harder than establishing one from scratch,” commented Farnell Farm’s shoot captain, Nigel Roberts. “But now this shoot is enjoying a renaissance. It has enormous potential, it just needs a dedicated team to build it up and maintain it at a high level.”

The 175-acre farm, in Rolvenden, Kent, was bought by Barry and Karin Craddock in 1997. For the first season it was run as a commercial shoot, but it was hard to make it viable. “It’s a very difficult way to earn a living,” said Karin. Since then, Barry and Karin’s son Harry and his friends have just used the land for informal walked-up and small driven days, utilising the farm’s abundant stock of wild pheasants and woodcock.

Before the Craddocks took on the farm, the land was part of the Great Maytham Hall estate, which dates back to the 18th century. “Some parts of our release pens are from the 1930s,” said Karin, “when the estate put on big shoot days. The farm is a patchwork of different shooting eras.”

Today marked the long-awaited opening of the newly formed shoot. The walk-and-stand arrangement sees eight possible drives woven into 75 acres of ancient oak and chestnut woodlands, which are carpeted with bluebells and wild garlic in the spring.

The landscape demonstrates perfectly why Kent is known as the Garden of England. The shoot’s impressive views see undulating fields stocked with cattle and sheep roll away to the pretty neighbouring village of Benenden.

The season kicked off with the shoot’s signature drive, Banky, which sees birds beaten through woodland to a millet covercrop before the land slopes 50ft down towards the pegs. “This drive is famous throughout the Weald,” said Nigel. He whistled for his Labrador, Todd, and ushered him to sit while the Guns waited expectantly in the rain. Sadly, however, the birds failed to show.

Vice-captain Simon Barr pointed out that the beating needed to be adjusted to force the birds up. “They have to be pushed to the middle to stop them from running down the edge of the wood,” he said. “With a new shoot like this, it is trial and error. This drive can produce outstanding birds, but we need to learn how to beat it. It’s worth having another stab at it this afternoon.”

Nigel Chantler is head beater on one of the neighbouring shoots and was asked along to assess the land and to gauge the need for proper beaters. “Guns do not necessarily always make good beaters, which is a weakness of walk-and-stand shoots,” he said. “Beating a wood so that the waiting Guns are presented with steady waves of high birds is a real skill. The terrain and topography is different to my regular shoot, but I would definitely recommend organising a dedicated team of beaters for this shoot.”

The second drive, known as Horse Jump Field, saw the Guns lining up in a valley. One of the Guns, Andrew Ralph, had high hopes for this drive. “This field lies adjacent to one of the release pens, so I am anticipating a good number of birds,” he said. On cue, half a dozen hens emerged from the conifers and tore over the waiting Guns. The high-numbered pegs had the best sport, as the majority of the birds flew through a narrow gap in the trees, escaping into the next field.

The constant drizzle combined with autumn mugginess made beating sweaty work. “I never know what to wear at this time of year,” said Gun Elaine Roberts, as she loaded her lively springer spaniel into the back of her Land Rover. “It is the classic shooting quandary. I am far too hot in my technical tweed, but I’d get soaked without it.”

Over a light lunch of soup, sausages and sloegasms (sloe gin mixed with champagne), the Guns analysed why Banky had failed to produce any birds. A new strategy for the drive was devised and it was agreed that it should be repeated that afternoon.

As the weather started to clear, guest Gun Jonathan Douglas hoped the birds would be more amenable to flying this time around. “It rained heavily last night, which always affects the birds’ willingness to get off the ground,” he said. As we walked through heavy clay furrows to his peg for the re-run of Banky, he stuffed a few extra cartridges into his belt, adding, “It will be interesting to see how this drive unfolds this time. It is remarkable how slightly repositioning the beaters and Guns can make such a difference to the flight trajectories.” Sure enough, the drive produced dozens of gamebirds, the first of which was shot by Simon Barr and swiftly retrieved by his cocker spaniel, Archie.

Overcoming obstacles

Between drives I found welcome shelter under one of the farm’s many old oaks and seized the opportunity to quiz the Guns on the shoot’s infrastructure. Shoot owner Barry, a retired advertising illustrator who designed the £10 postage stamp and his own 16th-century style map of Farnell Farm (pictured right), explained that the shoot had to overcome several obstacles in the run up to the season. “Inclement weather killed at least 50 of our poults in August,” he said, “so we were forced to put up debris netting along the exposed sides of the pen. Next year, we will put up netting on every side of the pens to give the birds protection from the elements.”

A burgeoning population of grey squirrels also plagues the farm. “They are a real nuisance,” said Harry Craddock. “Last year we shot 140. They gnaw through our plastic feeders, which means that a large portion of our time has been devoted to patching them up. I have learned that buying plastic feeders is a waste of money, so we now use plastic 35L mango chutney containers from our local curry house, which are free.”

Harry told me that another problem was that the summer work parties were poorly attended. He explained that next season, work
days will be arranged differently. “We are thinking of introducing a system whereby all the Guns pay more up front and are then reimbursed in relation to the number of work days they attend. That seems to be the fairest way,” said Harry, who is studying viticulture at Plumpton College. “My dream is to shoot over vines that I have planted on the farm,” he said.

A good ending to the day

The afternoon produced some fantastic sport. I witnessed Andrew Ralph and David West each pull a high bird out of the sky in quick succession as they stood in a small field surrounded by tall birches on the Long Wood drive. The pep talk on beating seemed to have been fully embraced, especially by an extremely vocal Stuart Mitchell, whose efforts could probably be heard in the next county.

The last drive saw the Guns positioned on the other side of Long Wood so that
t could be pushed back the other way. Gun Joe Briggs, who had yet to fire a shot, told me that each drive seemed to be producing more birds. “I guess I have just been unlucky today. That happens sometimes,” he said, with a shrug. Our conversation ended abruptly as a low cock bird flew out of the coppice in front of us, turning our attention to the drive in progress. A steady trickle of birds flew over the Guns, sadly all avoiding Joe’s peg in the middle of the line.

As the Guns peeled off their sodden tweed to settle down for the shoot dinner, Nigel explained that though the bag of 25 was smaller than he had anticipated, the day had ticked the most important box. “The ethos of Farnell Farm shoot is fun. Of course, we want decentsized bags to reflect all the work that has gone into building up the shoot, but the foremost principle is that the day is a social event. I am not in the business of scolding naughty spaniels or Guns that do not make up their portion of the bag. It was Harry, Simon and myself who brought all the Guns together and we agreed at the outset that the shoot should have a relaxed tone to it. “All the Guns are keen to see Farnell Farm restored to a proper driven shoot. The beating needs fine-tuning, but our target bag of 50 is not far off.”

Barry and Karin Craddock sell wildflower seeds and Kentish cobnuts online at www.farnellfarm.co.uk.