The next time Roman Abramovich wants to choose the new Chelsea manager he should take advice from the Sloughbrook syndicate members, as they have a knack for picking the right man. After years of being a DIY shoot they decided in the summer of 2010 to employ a full-time keeper; a year later, the man they selected was named Young Gamekeeper of the Year at the CLA Game Fair, so not a bad choice.
Liam Tuck is a local boy from Crawley and went to Sparsholt College back in 1999. At just 26 he already has 10 years keepering experience with stints at shoots in Cornwall, Shropshire and Leicestershire, before starting his job in West Sussex. To secure the position at Sloughbrook he showed a particularly proactive approach, taking advantage of a Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust meeting to broadcast his CV by putting copies on tables, chairs and on the bar. Days later he had the job. And in the 18 months he has been at Sloughbrook the shoot has been quietly revolutionised.
Headkeeper Liam Tuck has helped take this shoot from good DIY level to successful commercial venture.
Situated between Horsham and Crawley in the midst of the Sussex Weald, the Sloughbrook syndicate shoots over approximately 1,000 acres on three adjoining farms. They have 20 days, half of which are let, with bags of between 100 and 200. The ground lacks the hills of the High Weald but uses the belts of woodland and gentle gradients to produce worthy birds. In addition to the pheasants and partridge, they also put down duck, and this adds an extra dimension to two of the 10 drives.
A fresh approach
Colin Trice, the shoot captain, is very positive about Liam’s appointment:
“Employing a keeper has energised the shoot and taken it to another level. Having someone working every day means better feeding, better vermin control – Liam has shot 80 foxes in the time he has been here – and better ways of running the drives. He has brought in fresh concepts and a new level of expertise, not to mention the dedication and commitment of a young man doing what he loves.”
Shoot captain Colin Trice delivers the morning briefing in the new shooting lodge.
For the first two days of last season, Liam worked in the beating line, finding out how the drives had been managed previously and then unrolled his ideas on the third.
“I had to convince the syndicate that my way of doing things was better than their usual way,” he said with a smile. He runs the beating line from the middle, controlling it via radios, and has introduced flagmen to improve bird presentation.
Not just a necessary evil
On the morning of my visit, Colin led the team through the dos and don’ts for the day in the newly built shooting lodge. The guns included four syndicate members and four paying guests, one of whom, Greg Woodrow, had never shot an English game bird before. In addition, Colin and the shoot president, John Haynes, would act as back guns. With the briefing over, the guns were off to the first drive.
Aircraft Wood is a simple strip of mature woodland and a few partridges put in an early appearance before the pheasants started to show, rising to the treetops and then climbing on the westerly wind to produce good, testing birds for a first drive. Everyone had some shooting, with the walking gun being in the hot spot.
Five-year-old Toby Williams with Abbey.
On this area of the shoot the syndicate works particularly closely with the farmer. Hedges are planted and cover crop put in, all helping with conservation and biodiversity. As Colin commented:
“The land owners now take game shooting seriously as a worthwhile part of their diversification and not just a necessary evil.”
Superb spectator sport
Boris’s – named after the original farmer – was the next drive, with a large area of game cover leading down to a tree-shrouded pool, with the land continuing to fall gradually towards another woodland. The first cold weather of the season had obviously persuaded the pheasants to make use of the protection provided by the maize and they began to show quite early. The beating line worked carefully and the birds came out steadily, catching the breeze and flying high out over the guns, especially those below the pond. My attention was caught by Reuben Jacob, a shoot member for four years who was back-gunning on this drive. He shot beautifully, picking out the tallest birds that others had missed and killing them cleanly. I’ve always said game shooting makes a fine spectator sport and this was very pretty to watch. A patent lawyer by profession, his well-cut tweeds and fine Holland & Holland over-under showed he took the sport seriously and his shooting confirmed that.
“I particularly enjoy the keepering aspect of running the shoot,” he said, “and having Liam join as keeper has really added to that.”
Setting off a tweed bomb
After the pheasants came the duck, rising and circling, giving everyone a chance or two. Greg, unlucky on the first drive, this time managed to shoot his first ever bird in England, much to everyone’s delight. Greg is an Australian who has lived in Britain for 10 years and teaches at Wellington College. Having shot wildfowl back in Oz and being familiar with clays using his over-under, he thought he would give driven game shooting a try and picked Sloughbrook as it was nearby and offered variety. I thought it was brave for him to jump into the arcane world of game shooting with no experienced friend to help.
Richard Black takes on a fast-moving crosser on the Sloughbrook East drive.
“My initial trepidations were quickly dispelled as I was introduced to some of the beaters, the pickers-up and John Holt, who was assigned to be my mentor for the day,” he told me. “It looked like someone had set off a tweed bomb, but I was glad my internet research had prepared me with the correct attire which enabled me to fit in quite comfortably with my fellow guns.”
After a sloegasm and piece of game pie, it was off to drive number three.
A life-changing spaniel
Sloughbrook East is a strip of woodland running roughly east to west. The breeze had strengthened and it was distinctly chilly but it helped to produce some stunning birds over the guns around the wood. I was standing next to Richard Black, another syndicate member, who was clearly up for the challenge.
“This is going to be tricky,” he muttered as we watched the early pheasants get up out of the trees, catch the wind and rocket over and past the guns.
The pickers-up, from left: Jeff Millier, Roger Brooker, Sue Renaut, Phill Price & Dean Smith.
More pheasants spilled out and soon Richard was in the action. Plenty of lead was required but Richard got into the swing, literally, and two of the birds he brought down will stay in my memory for a long time. The team of five pickers-up had a busy time. Dean Smith’s little black and white springer caught my eye as a real character and a hard worker. He found her languishing in a kennel, being used as a breeding bitch, persuaded the owner to sell her and got her back into work. He has owned labs and retrievers before but Annie was his first spaniel.
“She changed my life,” he confided to me between drives. “I used to work 60-hour weeks but she made me step back a little and reorder my life so that I can work her properly. I like game shooting but I’d rather pick-up with Annie.”
Special Forces in the line
The penultimate drive of the day was the self-explanatory Number One Pen. The pen is a diamond-shaped wood of two acres situated at the top of an incline and the birds are driven over the guns standing in the fields and wood below. I stood with Tim Coles, CEO of an insurance-broking group and ex-SAS officer. He shoots rather well. The pheasants were not as numerous as on previous days this season but those that came out sailed over the team. At the next peg Chris Carter, enjoying an early Christmas present from his father, syndicate member Peter, took out a particularly high and fast-moving cock bird. All too soon the drive was over with all the guns knowing they had enjoyed good game shooting.
Headkeeper Liam Tuck with the beating team and their trusty spaniels, who all worked well together to help put on an excellent 200-bird day.
The team, from left: John Haynes (president), Chris Carter, Steve Holmes, Zack Feather, Peter Carter, Colin Trice (shoot captain), Malcolm Bull, Richard Black, Michael Boyd, Tony Fulk, Reuben Jacob, Tim Coles & Gregory Woodrow.
A short stroll across the fields took us to Duck Pond Wood and the last drive of the day. As the pheasants petered out, the resident ducks lifted off and circled above the guns, providing a challenging end to the day. With a bag of nearly 200 game birds and a ratio of three shots to one bird killed, everyone was pleased and headed back to the lodge ready for a celebratory casserole.
Game all round
After the shoot, Liam showed me the large chiller they have installed, together with a plucker and freezers. The shoot supplies many local restaurants and pubs with fresh and frozen game, another new Sloughbrook development. Not only does this produce revenue that can be ploughed back, but also helps to embed the shoot in the community. First-timer Greg was clearly pleased with his day in the field:
“It was a very enjoyable day made better by good company and plentiful game”.
That just about sums up game shooting and is testament to a young man’s abilities and vision. Hats off to Liam and his team, and the syndicate that gave him his chance.