Game shoot at Rainford Hall, Lancashire. Ask any member of the Rainford Hall game shooting syndicate which peg they dread and unless they’re on form they’ll say The Box.
Specially built for one of the estate’s previous owners, this small square of ground, complete with sign and a small fence, looks more like Ground Under Repair on a golf course.
When birds fly over this peg which is on the shoot’s signature drive, Lion House, they are at their highest and fastest. And it symbolises the commitment to good sport and good humour that is the hallmark of this shoot.
Lying just north of St. Helen’s in East Lancashire, the syndicate is overseen by shoot captain David Bate, who has been in this role for the past seven years.
On shoot day the members and guests gather in the old stables, a building that has become the epicentre of Rainford’s activities.
“We tend to run our days slightly differently from the norm,” said David.
“After a drink and safety briefing guns are presented with a copy of the newsletter I produce. It informs them of the drives we’ve chosen, along with the order in which they’ll be shot. A small table at the bottom explains how they’ll move and guns never have the same neighbour.”
Concentrated around the centre of the estate the Doctors Dam drive was, as forecast, a mixed bag. High pheasant were mixed with fast partridge and duck, the early overcast conditions, light rain and cool temperatures doing little to warm up the horseshoe-shaped line. But those to the rear were able to enjoy some towering birds as they rose over the descending fields.
Back inside after one drive
Strangely, after the drive a sudden enthusiasm to return to the stable block rose to the surface.
“By the time we’ve shot the first drive the local pork pies will have been delivered,” explained David.
“One of the members collects them en route to the shoot, while picker-up Joyce Smithies breaks open her homemade cakes.
“Combine this with the appetite that’s been building up during the first drive and you can understand why our breakfasts have become so significant.”
With pastries and fruitcakes consumed, guns headed out to Top and Bottom Roughs.
The birds here are driven from the woods high above one of the larger release pens.
It highlighted Rainford’s practice of positioning back guns and stops when numbers allowed.
This ensured that everyone enjoyed their sport, the forward guns leaving a decent number of birds to pass over them.
While guns progressed onto the two-in-one drive of Cherry Tree Spinney and Winstanley Wood and Game Crop, the earlier birds were given enough time to settle within a huge sunflower crop, surrounding trees and deep cover, before the start of the Nursery drive.
Instigated by the fact part of the estate continues to undergo extensive work, keeper Brian Atherton’s friendship with the farmer has allowed the shoot to take over a little used piece of land and turn it into a useful shooting commodity, both for holding birds and producing an impressive fan-like drive.
Guns lined out along the edge and within the now wilted sunflowers, their heads only just visible above the cover.
The birds flew high into the strong autumn sun, the fast set wings testing, and at times besting, the line of concealed guns.
With breakfast seemingly having settled, the guns returned to the stables to enjoy lunch, served upstairs, by the girls from the Tartan Tea Rooms.
The three-course affair (the shoot doesn’t believe in stinting) presented the chance to debate their sport and build up the strength for the sport on Lion House drive.
With light rain replacing sunshine the guns were going to have their work cut out. The birds took full advantage of blending in with their surroundings.
The beating line’s inch-perfect pushing technique generating the kind of controlled flush for which Brian Atherton and his team have become adept.
On the last drive, Rainford Hall, guns lined out around the lower reaches of the red brick formal gardens.
A short drive by necessity due to the pending gloom, and the need to allow the pheasants to make their way to roost, this 10 minute affair added a few birds to the bag.
“Another excellent day’s sport over drives of a quality that many people don’t think exists in this part of the world,” said David.
“It is always interesting to see guests being deceived by birds being considerably taller than they are.
“Our friends are always keen to return when the invitation is extended.”
“The shooting starts in October and we work inwards towards the central 900 acres, which allows us to concentrate our efforts in presenting the birds at their very best, with as many variations as possible”
Signature drive: Lion House
This drive takes its name from the original house that Rainford Hall replaced.
Every gun enjoys some of the shoot’s best sport, especially the gun who occupies The Box peg. Starting off high above the right-hand wood, the beaters push the birds down into the heart of the woods, keeper Brian Atherton having already placed stops within the trees that allow certain birds past. The birds are then pushed round to the right and finally they fly in a west to south-westerly direction as they break out over the tall trees facing the waiting guns in controlled flushes along the entire length of the woods.
The history of Rainford Hall estate
Colonel Richard Pilkington began developing the Rainford Hall estate in 1875. The hall and 90 acres were purchased from Dr Alexander McKibbin. Various farms and large houses were added either side of the First World War, giving Rainford its 1,600 acres. Records indicate that a formal driven shoot has existed here since 1905, the rights becoming syndicated in 1967. The Pilkington family home was requisitioned by the War Department in 1943 and since then Rainford Hall has been a childrens’ home and student’s hostel before becoming an office building. Various members of the Pilkington family continue to shoot at Rainford Hall to this day.
The poacher turned gamekeeper
The phrase “poacher turned gamekeeper” could have been coined to describe Rainford Hall’s Brian Atherton. Brian, who originally joined the shoot as a beater seven years ago, will tell you tales of dark nights, long dogs and a variety of other devices employed by those who take game without an official invite. Assisted by three part-time keepers, Brian’s ability to arrange the beating line and present good birds has become legendary. Numerous shoots nearby even arrange to visit him to see how he operates. Brian organises each day following pre-shoot discussions with David, weather also playing its own part. “On this day we shot six drives although there were six alternatives if the conditions had been against us. Similarly, we have an additional six drives through the various game crops.