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When boys become Guns

Ten teenage Young Guns headed to Heveningham Hall, in Suffolk, for their first taste of driven gameshooting. How they performed there leaves Graham Downing assured of the sport's future

father and son shooters

William Reed with his son Harry, 14

The first steps into the shooting world are often some of the most difficult to take. For young people in particular the prospect can seem as daunting as it is exciting, but it is essential that they are welcomed in to the sport if gameshooting is to flourish and thrive.

BASC has long experience of introducing newcomers to the sport through its Young Shots programme. This autumn, I joined one of two days being organised by BASC’s central region in which a team of young Guns was given the opportunity to participate in a day’s gameshooting.

Arranged by sporting agent Nick Elsdon of Anglia Sporting, the day was held
on the prestigious Heveningham Hall estate in Suffolk. It was there, in the beautifully converted shoot room beside the magnificent 18th century mansion, that I met the team of 10 Young Shots, aged between 14 and 19.

Young guns in field

James Morgan and Johnny Stevenson at Long Wood

A walk-and-stand shoot

Simon Reinhold, BASC’s regional director, explained the format of the day, which was to be a walk-and-stand shoot. The participants were divided into two groups of five, with the beating team — under the direction of headkeeper John Leach — helping to drive game towards the standing Guns, each of whom would be accompanied by a mentor.

Heavy rain did not dampen anybody’s spirits as the team climbed into the shoot trailer in the stable yard to head out to the first of two drives at Long Wood. The Young Shots had come from Norfolk, Suffolk and Essex for the day, and among them I spotted James Morgan, 19, a junior member of the Alde & Ore Wildfowlers, and his brother Harry, 17. Not coming from a shooting family, the two have been introduced to the sport through friends. James, who is taking a course in agriculture, hopes to make a career in rural land management, which he will shortly be studying at Harper Adams College.

Both boys are natural Shots, and James started the day with a left-and-right at partridges while Harry had a most enjoyable time on the neighbouring peg. “He did very well,” commented his BASC mentor Chris Brooks.

“These days are fantastic”

As the beating team emerged from the maize that bordered the edge of Long Wood and John’s whistle blew to end the drive, I met William Reed, who had brought his son Harry, 14, along for the day. William was enthusiastic in his praise of the Young Shots day: “These days are fantastic. It’s so good for the youngsters to be able to shoot on a lovely estate like this, in a line of Guns, socialising. At home we shoot four or five times a year on a family-run shoot, but this is a lovely environment. I’m all for it.”

Skill honed on pigeon

Simon Reinhold was impressed by the accuracy of his young team of Guns. “They’re already shooting better than some of the teams I look after,” he said. “These Young Shots vary in ability all over the country, and this team is more accurate than most.” I pointed out to him that these were East Anglian Young Shots, from the heart of shooting country. “Yes,” Simon agreed, “they must have plenty of skill honed on pigeon.

First pheasant

By the time we got to the third drive, Woodman’s Cottage, the rain had all but stopped, and here I met 14-year-old Tristan Fuller from Felsted, Essex, getting ready on his peg. Though he had done plenty of air-rifle shooting, Tristan was one of the least-experienced game Shots present. He had attended a shotgun coaching session, but this was his first live shoot. He was in the capable hands of BASC coach Derrick Bailey, and soon shot his first pheasant.

Young Guns at shoot

There were 10 Guns taking part, accompanied by BASC mentors

“It was a climbing hen bird over the left shoulder,” said Derrick. “He followed it through and down it came, first barrel.” The smiles said it all: there was one very proud shooter and a happy coach.

Cockfield Hall’s large hilltop covert — with a steeply sloping arable apron in front and a warm wood behind to which birds may be driven — instantly suggested high pheasants, and the birds that came over Charles Mabbutt, 15, and Jordan Hendry, 16, were as good as any that you will see in East Anglia. They rocketed out of the covert, then glided and curled on the wind. The two boys did well, though, and each ended up with a memorable cock bird.

Young Shots and high pheasants

Charles Mabbutt fires as the pheasants came over Cockfield Hall, while Simon Reinhold watches the shot

shoot lunch

Lunch break in the Heveningham shoot room

After a lunch break in the shoot room, the boys enjoyed two more drives inside the park. Now, however, the arrangements were different, for instead of half the team having to beat, all 10 Guns were standing. Simon had pressed three fathers into supervising their sons, while Nick Elsdon and one of the estate staff made up the additional members of the mentoring team.

At the Willows, the standing Guns flanked around a rough area of marshland with a boggy wood on the far side of it. At first, those birds that flushed from the wood simply circled around to settle on the marsh or drift back in to the far end of the wood, but as the beating line progressed, the birds started to break out. They presented some interesting opportunities as they flicked over the tops of the willow trees among which the boys stood.

Two young Shots with Labrador

Theo Walker and Simon Reinhold at Little Tank

Then it was on to the final drive, Little Tank, with the evening sun at last bursting out of the grey blanket of cloud that had obscured it all day. For everyone there were magnificent views over the Suffolk countryside; for the Guns there was the chance of a final pheasant to add to the bag. (The final bag comprised 42 pheasants and nine partridges.)

A golden opportunity to learn

The effort and goodwill put into the day by Anglia Sporting, Heveningham estate and BASC showed in the smiles on the faces of 10 very happy Young Shots. Some had achieved sporting milestones, such as a first driven day or a first pheasant, but for all it was a golden opportunity to learn and to experience top-quality gameshooting in safe and knowledgeable company. It was a privilege to spend a day with such an enthusiastic, courteous and responsible group of young people. If they represent the future of gameshooting, then the sport is in good hands.

The day was organised by Nick Elsdon of Anglia Sporting.