A Suffolk shoot boasts record numbers of amber-listed bird species and bucks several national trends, as Richard Negus discovers
The rustle, crack and crackle of beaters’ flags cut sharply through the crystal air. Frost, the first one of the year, clung to the heads of teasels, dusting them with light. The Guns were lined out to my right, on a wide grass headland.
Then, from the block of biscuit-coloured maize sprung a smoke pall of avian mass. First came the blackbirds, ‘chang, chang chang’; their voices were disgruntled rather than fearful at their disturbance. In their wake sprang yellowhammers — bee-like swarms of them, 50 or more. Finches — gold, green and chaff — advanced in waves; innumerable dunnocks too.
Blue tits were less fearful but still in rolling profusion, swinging left to land en masse and bedecked a hawthorn hedge; their chattering ‘mee, mee, mee’ ringing out.
Only once their more diminutive colleagues had completed their manoeuvres did the game birds appear. Climbing upwards into the blue, striving to clear the tops of towering broadleaved trees, burst speeding coveys of Frenchmen, all gaudy red and white bars. Brassy glints of cock pheasants and dun hens. All were met by staccato gunfire. The sheer avian majesty, diversity and splendour left me agape. It was quite an extraordinary sight on quite an extraordinary shoot.
Graham Denny is a paragon. The son and grandson of dyed-in-the-wool farming conservationists, as an agriculturalist he is intentionally untidy. As a keeper he is professional, almost fastidiously so. And as a naturalist, he is lauded — universally.
His home, Brewery Farm, lies in the heart of Suffolk and carries a healthy head of French partridges, wild greys and fine pheasants. The farm is also home to a phenomenal number of other birds. You will hear this last said of many shoots. Graham’s claim, however, is not mere hearsay nor guesswork.
His records of avian numbers are underpinned by science. Along with Natural England and British Trust for Ornithology bird ringer John Walshe, he produces intricate records. Their continuing research on this 200-acre mixed farm has included 33,659 birds being captured, weighed, noted, ringed and re-released.
His records make for fascinating reading. The rise and fall of species, particularly those on the amber list, such as dunnock, bullfinch and greenfinch are sobering. However, Graham’s records also reveal successes against national trends. His yellowhammer numbers break records; his turtle doves are satellite tracked by the RSPB and his grey partridge conservation credentials are of the highest regard.
This profundity is due to numerous factors. Graham ruthlessly controls corvids and squirrels. He sows maize in blocks and, within it, spins grain throughout the year. The blocks of maize are bordered by even larger expanses of wild bird seed mixes. Millets, cereals, sunflowers, quinoa and other seed-bearing plants stand upright in their glory all winter.
Accompanying this smorgasbord of seeds and grains are pollen and nectar mixes. Their flowering now over, they remain as an all-you-can-eat buffet of insect life. Butting up to these natural larders, lines of feeders stand, containing not just game-friendly corn but varieties of seeds that are favoured by birds with daintier beaks than those of game.
Maintenance and quality of life are, of course, not solely about food. Wetland areas, ponds and watercourses run clear. Blocks of native woodland, both ancient and modern, provide holdfast habitat. Hedges are so vast and dense they make a hedge layer weep at the very idea of taming them and confound the Rural Payments Agency’s satellites, so deep and thick do they grow.
Corners are wild, margins are wide and the whole place seems to buzz, shimmer and hum with birdlife. In this compact cornucopia, in perfect harmony, sits a near-perfect shoot.
The shoot dovetails with Graham’s wildlife reserve, largely because he has been schooled in the art of balance by his father Henry, a champion of farming for nature and something of a Suffolk legend. On the day of my visit, a team of nine exemplary Guns had assembled.
I was told by one of the beaters that bad teams don’t get to make a second visit to this Suffolk shoot. I watched them exhibit the maxim of “shoot what gives you pleasure”. Birds that they considered unsporting — which I would have taken — were left unharried. In the meantime, a meteoric partridge or skirling and rolling cock pheasant were addressed and despatched with almost ruthless efficiency.
On the first drive I stood behind one well-known Suffolk game farmer who wielded his rare Beretta .410 with the casual grace that Colonel Donald McBane, the master swordsman, despatched Frenchmen at the Battle of Blenheim. He proved that this diminutive calibre can be an excellent game gun when used by a practitioner who can shoot straight and understands distance and lead.
Wild things on the Suffolk shoot
The beating line also reflected the ethos of Brewery Farm. Their talk between drives was not of historical hits nor mysterious misses. It centred around the wild things that live here — snippets of conversation I overheard were on broods of little owls, feeding habits of turtle doves and wonderment at a dotterel’s appearance in East Anglia.
They treated the shoot with the adoration usually associated with a beloved local football team, with Graham taking the role of long-standing and trusted manager who always makes a canny signing. The comradeship and bonhomie I saw reinforced how important shooting can be to the mental well-being of so many people in the countryside. Guns, beaters, pickers-up all ate together, laughed together, joked together — they cared for their fellows.
Dogs, as always in shoots such as this, took centre stage. The Talbot-like Labrador Ralph, tongue implausibly longer than his head, worked like a cocker in the cover crops. Jack, an English springer spaniel of a sadly all too rare vintage stamp, tirelessly quested for a runner, much to his owner’s pride and my admiration. This band of brothers, and their dogs, made for a formidable team.
On a day as windless and clear as this, in a landscape that is merely creased with undulations, birds are a challenge to get high. However, Graham runs a drive with a naturalist’s eye. He knows what reaction a partridge has to danger. Thus, rather than merely driving birds towards the Guns, he rolls them. His beaters are spread in such a way that a few will push the birds away from or parallel to the Guns. These flushed birds skid low, blissfully unaware that they are about to face another line of beaters with flags.
When they do, the partridges ‘roll up’. Then, back on their tails they fly, coveys spread out and starburst in classic driven partridge style. It is in this state that they appear over the shooting line. Birds are now speeding projectiles in full flight, providing a sporting test for Guns and a satisfying result for the beaters’ efforts.
The pickers-up stand well back, experienced and knowledgeable, dogs are sent on to pricked birds with speed and the dead are left, so as to ensure no unnecessary disturbance in this perfectly choreographed tableau. This sort of precision requires accurate communications. Radios hang on nearly every lapel, whisper microphones are used to minimise disturbance.
Graham conducts his orchestra, with Labradors Denzil and Boysee at heel, without the cursing, shouting and bawling that is a feature of many keepers under pressure. The beating team know their business, needing only a quiet chivvy or a correction. The calm of this landscape seems to permeate into everything.
It would be wrong of me to highlight one Gun in particular for their prowess because all shot well and with circumspection. It would be remiss to spotlight one beater, flanker or picker-up, for every one of them put in their shift and played their part. It is, however, right to praise Graham. He is a naturalist, a somewhat mercurial ornithologist and a unique man. I raise my glass to him and Brewery Farm. It is a gem of a place.