The Keenley shoot in Allendale, Northumberland, knows how to see out the shooting season in style. The walk one/stand one shoot is set within 1,300 acres of the North Pennines Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, which presented the 13 Guns with the perfect topography for shooting driven game on the last day of the 2009/10 season.
Over breakfast at Keenley Thorn Farm, shoot captain Keith Fairless reminded the Guns of the rules for the day ahead. Remember that woodcock, snipe and duck are no longer in season, he said, so today we are only shooting pheasants. Converted from cowsheds and a milking parlour into an award-winning bed and breakfast, the farm boasts far-reaching views over nearby Hexham and is the ideal place to gather before setting out for the day.
The first drive of the day, named Hole House, was dissected by the river Allen and an old Roman road that would have once been used to transport lead from local mines. After Keiths pre-shoot pep talk, the first team of Guns lined up with their backs to the river and waited for the birds to arrive from behind a line of tall ash trees. Gun Terry Watson and his elderly Labrador Quinish were standing as a stop at the top of a hill looking down on the other Guns. Intermittently, I have been on this syndicate for 25 years. Keith is a very tactful and diplomatic captain. I was once a captain myself, but I was a little too forthright with the Guns. I enjoy being a Gun far more, he explained.
Gun John Raglan felled the first bird of the day. His No 2 AYA easily brought it down with the first barrel. This gun cost me £100 15 years ago. It always kills birds cleanly, so I have not had any inclination to upgrade to something smarter, John told me. The hen landed on the far bank of the river, which was still swollen from the snow melt. At the end of the drive, the shoots treasurer, Gordon Arkley, sent his liver-and-white springer, Rosie, to retrieve it. Given that she did not see where the bird fell, that was a noteworthy retrieve, said John.
Rare birds in residence
The shoot sits alongside the Whitfield estate, which is a commercial shoot providing 250-bird days. The headkeeper Stuart Maughan and his team are very co-operative neighbours. Sharing their knowledge with us has helped enormously with the successful running of our shoot, John told me.
As well as driven pheasants, the shoot also provides between six and eight days of grouse shooting. We have one drive, which we push twice in one day, once in the morning and once in the afternoon in August, explained John. As well as a healthy population of red grouse, the moor is also home to an increasing number of blackgrouse. It is very special indeed to have such a rare bird living on the moor. They are a good indicator of how the red grouse are holding, he said.
I was standing behind octogenarian Gun Joss Smith, who explained that he always feels sad when a shooting season comes to a close. This season I spent 40 days loading on various shoots in the area. The most notable Gun that I loaded for was Prince Albert of Monaco. A few weeks after meeting him, I received a framed photograph of us together on the day. I feel very proud that I was able to load for him that day.
As well as being an accomplished loader, retired miner Joss also managed
expertly to fell several hens with his Cogswell & Harrison side-by-side. Josss every shot was intently watched by his young black cocker spaniel Nell, which carefully marked each of the fallen birds.
The second drive, known as White Ground, saw the beaters scale a steep hillside. Here, I watched a roebuck bolt from the end of the drive and cleanly jump a drystone wall. It is not uncommon to flush 20 to 30 roe throughout the course of the day, said beater Joanne Moxham.
Gordon explained that the shoot comprises six adjoining estates Oakpool Farm, Low Broadwood Hall, High Keenley Fell, Hindley Hill, Bishops Side and Howden Dene in Corbridge. I was appointed as treasurer three years ago, he told me. I am responsible for collecting money for the shoot. There are several different ways of buying a place on the syndicate. Some offer land to shoot over, others pay a fee and sign up to summer work days, and some pay a £100 levy to buy themselves out of work days.
The third drive, Josss Bank, saw Gun Felicity Fairless and her picker-up mother Kathy work as an effective team. She said that the numbers of birds were low today: Last December, there was a foot of snow on the ground for two weeks, which made access to this drive a real issue. That is why it is not producing many birds today we simply could not get to the feeders.
Back at the car park, we ate our packed lunches sitting on a wall, looking down at a waterfall that feeds the river Allen. The lunch break provided us with the welcome opportunity to take stock of the spectacular Northumberland countryside. A small glass of sloe gin warmed us before setting off, as a pair of buzzards circled overhead.
In the company of friends
The mornings warm southerly wind had changed direction to become a chilly north-westerly, which bit at the Guns cheeks as they waited on the next drive, Bishops Side. Gun Nigel Coates was a guest of Terry Watson. He said that attending the Keenley shoot was the perfect way to round off the season: I have been lucky enough to shoot here a couple of times this season. I think what makes this shoot work so well is the fact that there is such an emphasis on social gatherings. Everyone gets on very well. If I were invited, I would not think twice about joining this shoot.
The beaters passed through the woods in front of us and unruly spaniels yipped at the bolting rabbits and squirrels. A couple of pheasants flew out over the Guns farthest to the left. It was then that Nigel and I witnessed the shot of the day. With astounding accuracy, Gordon Arkley brought down a cock bird with his first barrel as it rocketed high overhead. Hes one hell of a shot, said Nigel.
On the final drive of the day, known as The Cemetery, Keith explained that he was pleased with how this season had panned out. We shot 50 per cent of the birds that we put down, which is a fantastic result. Because of all our hard work last summer, the shoots infrastructure is complete. In fact, we do not need to do anything other than maintenance for the next five years.
We have several years of fantastic shooting ahead of us and have established an excellent group of Guns. In fact, the shoot is running at its best ever, so I will be counting down the days until the next season opens.
For information on staying at Keenley Thorn,visit www.keenleythornfarmhouse.co.uk.