A cold, windy and wet day in January is not the best for a good day’s shooting – but I was in for a pleasant surprise at the Dinmore estate near Hereford.
It’s a fascinating place.
From the River Lugg and a valley of apple orchards and small farms, the ground rises up to magnificent old parkland and ancient woodland, in the distance the manor house and chapel which, for many years was the headquarters of the military and monastic Order of Hospitalliers and the one time home of the inventor of the Cat’s Eye.
However, this isn’t a history lesson, more a lesson in excellent estate and shoot management. Greeted by Paul Dawes, the owner of Dinmore, he explained the expansion and improvement programme: “My father and I bought the estate in 1999 which then had about 750 acres. We now have 1,800 acres of which 850 acres is farmed in hand with both arable and livestock.”
Paul has a syndicate and lets a handful of 300 bird days but today all the guns are his guests. Huw Clarke took over as headkeeper three years ago and began a programme to improve the shoot and estate land with every kind of modern practice.
The first management issue to address was deer, endemic in the area. At some expense, cleft chestnut fencing was erected making a pleasant addition to the overall look of the estate. Helped by various wildlife and conservation groups such as the RSPB, Huw and his team have worked wonders.
A great deal of work has been done on the improving the woodlands’ health, planting trees, clearing areas. Making the habitat complete is a mixed cover of maize, kale, sorghum and millet, and artichokes are planted round the fields high above the drives, supplying the guns with some challenging shooting.
The results of their hard work and dedication are evident, even on a bleak January day as the ancient woodland is full of wildlife. The mature woodland in the parks harbours very deep valleys which produce strong, powerful, high pheasant and partridge.
The chef at the shoot lodge, I can happily say, does a fine full English breakfast which gave us all an opportunity to make our introductions.
Our shoot captain, Paul Frodsham didn’t let us linger too long and after an all important run through of safety procedures and protocol, we moved off to the first drive of the day, Adders Bank.
This is Paul Dawes’ favourite drive, a steep valley dropping down to a huge grassland meadow with sensuous curves, along the top of the valley trees line the drive where the birds fly high above the guns.
It has a great view of the manor house and chapel providing a fantastic vista of the estate. We are all at our pegs and the beaters are soon rising good flushes of high birds, giving the guns some challenging sport and keeping the loaders busy.
The second drive is called the Blacks. Here the line is split with half the pegs in open countryside and half in a woodland ride. There is some anticipation amongst the guns on this drive, as Paul explains: “Blacks is a difficult drive because of the trees, you don’t know which way to point, apart from up, you don’t know which direction the birds will come from.”
This drive stands up to expectations, with flush after flush of birds curling high amongst the tops of the trees. Observing the pickers-up deftly dispatching all the birds, I ask Paul what he does with the quarry.
He explains: “A local game dealer takes all our birds, he dresses some for the guns and sells the rest locally. In the past we were struggling to sell any, but now we have no problem. Tastes have changed and many people are wanting pheasant and partridge on their tables, it’s good to know that they are all destined for the pot.”
Paul does hospitality rather well, after Blacks we break for flasks of home made hot soup, sausages and fortifying drinks, very welcome as the wind is picking up.
He talks about his plans for the future, explaining: “We took on new ground last year, as we are expanding and looking at accommodation for our guests and maybe have more shoot days – at present we have 30 days shooting and depending on the time of the year we shoot twice a week, but we could do more, as we have 20 drives.”
The shoot has become an important part of the local economy, employing Huw Clarke, Stephen Wood, an underkeeper and 25 beaters from the local area and eight pickers-up as well as loaders.
Paul emphasises the need for loaders: “We always have loaders when we have total novices, that way we know they are in safe hands.”
A pleasant walk past sheep in the park gives the guns time to talk as they move to the next drive, aptly named Concorde. All the guns were all experienced apart from one, Hugo aged eight, who was receiving tuition in the use of a .410 by his dad, Simon Taylor.
Although he seemed to need little help, as he shot a high pheasant on his second shot. These high quality drives at Dinmore attract clients from all over the world, “Even Wales!” says Paul – the border being only a few miles away.
I ask Paul what drives him, after all, this has been a huge undertaking to more or less start from scratch. He has no hesitation in answering: “I enjoy shooting and I think if we strive to be the best then we’ll have something that is possibly the best we can have. It’s great to see people have a good day and want to come back, when they do, they see the improvements we have made to better their experience. This is our third season and our best yet. It’s wonderful to see challenging birds being shot expertly and everyone having a good day.”