PUBLISHED: 16:00 05 November 2012
Our new DIY shoot - the Court Shoot in Berkshire - has all the components of a great syndicate shoot: a compact shoot with a fun, friendly team of Guns and beaters from all walks of life, some of whom have been a part of the shoot for decades. It's the sort of shoot where everyone mucks in, costs are kept to a minimum and the aim of the game is enjoyment. To kick the series off, Rebecca Green talks to Graham and Derek who run the shoot to find out how it all began and how it works today.
“The shoot was started by my father in 1982, although it ran before that as a tiny rough shoot,” says Graham, who owns and farms the land. “I took over running it from my father in 1988 and together with Derek, who joined in 1987, have gradually worked at improving the way we do things.
We shoot over about 140 acres and put down 700 pheasants, which we’ve found to be the optimum number – any more and we just can’t hold them. One year we put down 1,200, but only shot 250.
We are fortunate to be bordered by two large shooting estates, with whom we have very good relations. Obviously we benefit from this but it’s all fair – we release birds and feed them and work hard to keep them, the same as any shoot. Our birds are fairly light in colour so it’s quite noticeable when they go wandering – and easy for the keeper next door to know when they’ve shot some, as he will jokingly tell us at the end of the day! Then he’ll go into the game larder and see that we’ve shot some of his! But it’s all very friendly and we help each other out.
We have six drives and shoot six days a year, starting on the first weekend in November, on a stand one, beat one basis. There are 16 Guns, each paying £500 per Gun for the season. That works out at about £15 a bird and includes all your food (including a hot meal) and drink – we think it’s as good as you’ll get, to be honest. The fact is, once people are in they tend to stay in.
Last year we took on two new Guns to take the total up to 16. This was done to keep the cost per Gun down. We decided that Graham could drop his two guest Guns, just keeping one as a back Gun instead, which has worked out well. We also have a core of about six beaters but we don’t pay them – they come for the enjoyment (and probably for the free food and drink!).
Derek stepped down as a Gun in 1993 to get more involved in the running of the shoot, and for the last ten years we’ve worked hard to improve things and make each drive the best it can be. During that time we’ve managed returns on our 700 ranging from 300 to the record – 469. But this is a mediocre height shoot – you’re not going to get your Devon screamers coming over and the Guns know this. They also know they’ll get an ear-bashing from Derek and me if they leave perfectly decent birds after we’ve worked so hard to get them over!
Like all syndicate shoots there’s plenty of leg-pulling – you can’t be on the shoot unless you can laugh at yourself and take a joke. Like the Gun who always seemed to draw pegs one and eight – even on other shoots we went to. One year he said, “If I draw pegs one or eight I’m off!” We draw pegs using playing cards and he picked the first one and got an eight. He was cross, so we let him pick another one and he got a one, then another eight... eventually he realised we were winding him up – the pack of cards was just ones and eights!
The point is, everyone here takes a good joke and we’ve got a really good mixture of people from all backgrounds. Some are on their first or second season, others have been shooting for 40 years. There’s a core of ‘veterans’ – Dixy for instance, one of the beaters, has been coming here for over 30 years. It’s nice to have people like that – you know they are going to be where you want them, which counts for a lot, even on a small shoot like ours.
We’ve also seen generations come and go. One girl started shooting here aged ten, with her dad. She was desperate to shoot her first partridge, which she did, so we made her a little trophy and gave it to her at the end of the season. Now she is a Gun on the shoot in her own right, along with her father, which is great.
We do the drawing of peg numbers a bit differently here. Pegs are drawn at the beginning of the season and are kept right the way through rather than being drawn each shoot day. Each drive you stand, you move up three; then you move up one from your original peg number each shoot day. We’ve found that to be the fairest way, although there’ll always be the odd grumble!
Although the shoot itself covers around 140 acres, the layout of the drives is quite compact – the area the Guns actually stand in on the first four drives is probably only about five acres. On some estates this whole shoot might be just one drive, but it’s nice to have everything within walking distance. We shoot two drives, then break for elevenses, then it’s two more drives before a light lunch back at the hut. After lunch we go out for the remaining two drives, then it’s a bit of a trudge back to the shoot hut for a cooked meal courtesy of Carol (Graham’s wife) and her friend Trudy.
We re-built the barn in 2005 and put in a big log burning stove, a cooker, sofas etc. The fire gets stoked up first thing on a shoot day and there are times when it’s burning long into the night as we all sit around telling stories – most of which are repeated season after season but which we never tire of hearing! The keeper from next door always comes across and we can sit up into the early hours, enjoying a drink and a laugh. It’s good fun... in fact, that first weekend in November can’t come soon enough!”