High birds and stunning scenery at Clovelly in north Devon

There has always been debate among shooters as to what is the hardest quarry to hit consistently. Is it a zigzagging walked-up snipe, or perhaps a skyrocketing teal? All species have their moments, but for many novices – and old hands – a high, curling pheasant is still one of the most difficult to shoot predictably. Gauging its speed and direction can have many folk flustered in seconds. I am sure that there is more than one hapless soul reading this who has had to endure the disapproving glares of their fellow Guns as pheasant after pheasant sails high overhead, unscathed by shot.
Look around and you will find reams of tips and advice on the matter, from why you miss to suitable ammunition and appropriate guns, but some of the high-profile high bird shoots can still seem like a daunting prospect and you might be left wondering if the experience, and your shooting, will live up to expectations.
Clovelly, in north Devon, is a noted high bird shoot – relished by some, perhaps dreaded by others, but known for its stunning seascapes, plunging valleys and stratospheric pheasants. Even the steep, winding, clutch-busting ill down to the Red Lion hotel, where the Guns sometimes meet, is enough to generate a sense of foreboding – will those pheasants actually look like pheasants… or seem the size of starlings?

But is the hype to be believed? Charles Goucher, who runs the shoot, explained: “I cater for all tastes. I can put some real screamers over the Guns, but also have drives that simply have good, sporting birds, which are more appropriate for some teams. Guns have to be honest about their abilities. The beauty of the shoot is that a team can ask for some drives with lower birds and maybe end with a really high one – both for the experience and for practice. Just don’t turn up with a .410.”
The team on this muggy, still day, had come together at the kind invitation of Mark Ashbridge, who sits on the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust’s (GWCT) Gloucestershire committee. Charles had offered the day as an auction lot for the GWCT and Mark had bought it. “We are a friendly gang,” said Mark, “and we are all connected to each other via work or friendship in one way or another.” It was a low-pressure day for the Guns and also for Charles, as he generally offers commercial shooting days that have a faster pace.

Ups and downs

The day began in the snug of the Red Lion pub, which has plenty of room for visiting parties and is popular in winter with walkers following coastal routes. The head of a large stuffed porbeagle shark above the bar yawned its toothy grin over the assembled Guns as Charles outlined the day’s proceedings and rules before loading up the vehicles.

The first drive certainly emphasised the lottery that is drawing for pegs. Those with high numbers had a relatively short walk – those on the lower numbers were treated to a “yomp” downhill followed by a calorie-burning ascent.

All pegs, high and low, were confronted with the unexpected company of midges. They are not a common problem on this shoot, and, thankfully, only hung around for the first drive. Midges may punch above their weight in the irritation stakes, but they are feeble flyers and a light wind will generally see them off. Unfortunately, on this particular day there was not even a whiff of wind, so the midges had the chance to feast.

Rain was forecast for later, but for now it was dry. Charles actually prefers foul weather to fair: “The trouble is that if it gets too warm and sunny, the birds tend to stray and, with so much natural food around this year, it can be a job to keep them where you want them.”
The Guns were largely traditionalists with side-by-sides; there were none of the trap-guns, special chokes and heavy cartridges that are sometimes brought into play on the high-bird circuit. In spite of the midges, they shot well and selectively and proved that an “ordinary” shotgun is perfectly capable of bringing down a pheasant cleanly at appropriate ranges.

Silence is golden

A trend I have noticed over the past few seasons – maybe a coincidence – is that beaters seem to have got quieter. I don’t know if other readers have noticed the absence of “Brrrrrpppps” or “Aayayayayayays” and their myriad variations, but the resulting silence is indeed golden – and I think shoots are better for it. I recall a few years ago the various grunts and yells emanating from the woods were such that a Gun turned to me and said, “This place sounds more like a cross between a football match and a porno film than a pheasant shoot.” At Clovelly, the beaters, who must be some of the fittest in the UK, were conspicuous by their silence.

I stood the third drive of the day below some pines with Henry Cecil. Autumn and its shortening days were just starting to suck the life out of the leaves, but there were still splashes of colour – the relics of summer. Two red admiral butterflies alighted on a tree stump, and on the banks of a rushing stream the deep pink flowers of some Himalayan balsam cut a dash amid the greenery. It was irresistible to tap the seed-pods and watch them pop and curl, scattering their seeds in all directions; it is hardly surprising that these plants have colonised so many of our waterways.

The final drive, London Lodge, was in the same valley as the first – and what a great drive it was. Over the tops of beeches standing high on the hillside, the tips of their leafy branches just turning golden-orange, a stream of pheasants cascaded and peeled away over the valley. As Gun Angus Maclean put it at the end of the drive, “That was a hell of a finish.”

If you are a roving Gun, over the years you will probably have seen many shoots, all with their own quirks and attractions. However, there cannot be many that boast a hotel overlooking the sea, where you can walk the harbour wall, watch the fishing boats depart and then go and shoot some pheasants. Clovelly lived up to its high-bird hype and is well worth a visit.

Additional photographs taken on the day at the Clovelly shoot