It is said that the locks and knots securing farmers’ gates are all different. This kind of rural peculiarity can also be found in the world of shoot vehicles, and, in particular, Guns’ trailers. Over the years I have seen everything from Portakabins on wheels, to breezy open-top trailers with straw bales and rather cute French ex-army vehicles. Some take the occupants around in relative comfort, others in a foul dark fug of wet spaniels and mud, in which it is lurching, arm-wrenching standing room only. But I think it would be fair to say that the Ford Farm shoot has a vehicle that can genuinely be described as a “Gun bus”.
The vehicle in question was salvaged from a breaker’s yard. The “Skipper”, as it’s affectionately known, now lives on — minus its front tyres and engine — as a comfortable chariot in which to take a team round a shoot. While rust is doing a quiet job eating away at the metal, and various plants and algae are vying for position between the stubby remains of windscreen wipers, it remains solid enough to do its job — at least for now.
This particular shooting foray took place on two shoots: the Ford Farm shoot, run by Jerry Bailey, Steve Bartlett and Howard Feltham; and the New Farm shoot, run by Tim Weston and Joe Harvey. Joe was tasked with towing the Skipper behind a tractor — a job he had clearly done before and at which he excelled. There were to be four drives on the Ford Farm shoot and two on New Farm. The sport was to involve a mix of gamebirds, but the emphasis was on redlegged partridges and good pheasants.
The day unfolded in a humid atmosphere under an overcast sky, with some notable shots coming from Bill Kitcher, described by some as “a bloody good Shot”. Also present was the National Gamekeepers’ Organisation’s (NGO) Sarah Read, who had travelled from northern climes to see how the southerners do it.
The keeper Tom Paul was singled out for much leg-pulling after he missed a magpie on the second drive. His friend Tim Weston lost no time in bellowing down the line: “For a keeper to miss a magpie is a disgrace!” Tom took the teasing comments in his stride, then redeemed himself moments later with a few good birds, including a Kansas cock bird that he paused to admire at the end of the drive.
The various dog breeds present included a couple of Jack Russells, one of which was owned by Roger Crane, who bought the dog in County Galway, Ireland. “It cost me £80 and the flight there £17,” he told me.
At lunchtime we paused for a pasty, which was complemented by small glasses of blood orange liqueur, purchased from the Wiltshire Liqueur Company.
Shared keepering at Ford Farm
I asked Jerry about the Ford Farm shoot. He has farmed all his life and, along with Steve and Howard, chips in to look after the keepering. “We have known each other since we were boys and we have kept the shoot going and keep trying to improve it,” he said. “There is no profit involved, as we don’t sell any days. It is purely for friends and we wouldn’t consider running it commercially.”
The ground is about 600 acres but isn’t ideal for driven shooting because there are no large woodlands. It is mostly hedges, spinneys, scrub and about 10 acres of covercrop.
“Though the farming here comes first we sow some spring barley, so there are normally a few good fields of stubble left down which are useful for the redlegs and greys,” said Jerry. “We also have greys on our ground and they are holding their own here. We normally have a couple of biggish coveys and I think there are more about now than there were 10 to 15 years ago. This is also the case with hares. While some poaching occurs, Wiltshire Police have been good at mounting patrols and dealing with it when it arises.”
The shoot helps grey partridges by employing simple conservation measures, such as leaving borders around hedges and wooded areas that are unsprayed.
Moving on to New Farm
In the afternoon proceedings moved on to the 400 acres of shooting ground at New Farm, about five miles away. Here, there were some equally good birds. Tim runs this shoot with Joe. He is a familiar face on the shooting and country fair circuit as he works tirelessly for the NGO. He was formerly a riverkeeper before working for a sporting agency abroad.
“The ground is looked after between Joe and me but we don’t class ourselves as keepers — it is very much a DIY effort,” explained Tim. “We release a handful of birds to supplement the wild stock, but as we only shoot two days a year we have never gone down the route of releasing large numbers of birds. We just do it for a day out and to give the Guns a different landscape and fresh drives.”
Tim said the shoot usually does well with wild pheasants and grey partridges, “but this year has been lousy”. Five pairs of greys failed to raise any broods, and it was a similar story with the pheasants. “I don’t know why,” he admitted. “The weather was awful earlier in the year and I have noticed more badgers than ever before, which will have an impact on any ground-nesting birds they encounter. Having said that, I have had two pairs of redlegs raising wild broods this year.”
He added: “All we can do is concentrate on vermin control to try to protect both gamebirds and other species. The key to successful vermin control is being thorough and persistent in the use of all legal methods at the right time of year — particularly in the spring.”
For covercrops, Tim and Joe use David Bright pheasant and finch mix as well as some maize that is sown mixed with other types of covercrops. “We have noticed an increase in songbirds and the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust has conducted research on our land looking at these,” said Tim.
Two great farms, two great shoots — and one great outing. It had all the ingredients for an enjoyable shooting day — friends, sport and a few unruly dogs!