Come rain and shine

Luke and Aster dry out in the late afternoon sunshine. Photo: Nick Ridley Photography

Luke and Aster dry out in the late afternoon sunshine. Photo: Nick Ridley Photography - Credit: Nick Ridley

Nick Ridley has a gale of a time on a walk-about day with his rough shooting syndicate

Steve took the shot of the day on a high and fast hen pheasant. Photo: Nick Ridley Photography

Steve took the shot of the day on a high and fast hen pheasant. Photo: Nick Ridley Photography - Credit: Nick Ridley

Thank goodness for global warming. That was the foremost thought in my mind as I stood in a field of fodder turnips on a WW2 aerodrome with the rain pouring down and mud sucking at my wellies. Even Harry was looking up at me with a look that said: “I wish I was at home curled up in my bed!” He looked just like a drowned rat, albeit with long ears, and I’m quite sure I didn’t look a whole lot better.

CJ, aka 'The Pig', proved to be a great retriever. Photo: Nick Ridley Photography

CJ, aka 'The Pig', proved to be a great retriever. Photo: Nick Ridley Photography - Credit: Nick Ridley

I was with the other members of the Circle of Trust rough shooting syndicate and we had driven through the disgusting weather to Chedworth Manor Farm in Gloucestershire on another one of our walk-about days. I had visited the shoot earlier in the year and was quite excited about booking a day, but I also realised that if the weather was bad it would be pretty grim – as it was – because the countryside was as flat as roadkill. I had even discussed with James the gamekeeper about re-scheduling in the event of bad weather, but we had all watched the Countryfile forecast and checked on various smartphone apps, all of which pointed to it clearing by 11.00am. But before the sun was due to come out, we would be getting cold and wet.

Chedworth Manor Farm has a syndicate that shoots five days a season, but this year they decided to sell a walked-up day and a small driven day and we were lucky enough to get a 20-bird day for quite a reasonable fee. James had arranged for a couple of beaters to help us out as some of the fields were quite big, and Harry and Lisa had brought along their young German shorthaired pointer and CJ, aka The Pig, a staffie-doberman cross. To be honest, I was a little concerned about having a couple of unknown dogs with us, but I needn’t have worried as they were a credit to their owners. CJ also proved to be a real bonus as he is a great little retriever.

We started off in a field of fodder turnips which, as the farm is organic, also contained plenty of weed, and we hadn’t gone more than 50m before Harry flushed a hare. After our previous experience I was relieved when he stopped straight away and just watched the hare run off through the crop, rather than chasing it!

The rain really was heavy and James decided to head for a block of open woodland where it was hoped the birds would be sheltering. The cover was perfect and it wasn’t long before pheasants started lifting. I could hear plenty of shots coming from the other guys, but although Harry had a couple of good flushes, the birds hadn’t really given me much chance to grab a shot. We had just come into an area of low bramble and bracken when the dog drove into a small bramble patch and out flew a cock pheasant. As the bird jinked through the trees I waited for it to get a bit of distance and just before it disappeared behind a coppiced hazel I took a shot and felled it with my first barrel. Harry was unsighted so I gave him the ‘get out’ command and handled him out to the bird, which he quickly found and brought straight back.

We spent another hour or so in the wood, but despite having a couple more shots I couldn’t manage to connect with any more game. By mid morning we had all had enough and the rain was getting heavier, so we decided to head back for a change of clothing and a hot cup of tea. We had all lost faith in the various forecasts, although there was a slight glimmer of hope as we got back to the farm buildings, as it looked as though the horizon was getting just a little bit lighter.

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After we had dried out a bit we headed to a small belt of trees that had a lovely Cotswold stone wall running alongside it. I took the left-hand-side with Steve while Luke and Andy went on the far side, which we thought would be the ‘hot seat’ as the wind would whip the birds over the trees in their direction. James took the two beaters into the wood and we walked down the outside, Steve slightly in front as I held back. We hadn’t gone very far when a hen pheasant rocketed out over the treetops and I managed two quick shots. I must have been a bit behind the bird as I saw it flinch and drop a leg but it flew on.

I always watch any bird I have shot, especially a pricked bird, and on this occasion it paid dividends. The bird headed for a stand of fir trees and I saw it drop just outside. It was too far to send Harry so I left Steve and went for a long walk. When sending a dog for a runner it helps if you can avoid walking all over the area and spoiling any scent lines, so I sent Harry along a broken-down wall and worked him into the wind towards the firs. He showed signs of ‘touching’ scent so I let him get on with his job and just gave him a back command when he started to drift towards me. As he hit the edge of the trees I could see him trying to work out a scent line then he shot into the trees and very quickly came back out with the bird.

To say I was pleased is an understatement – I was chuffed to blazes! And judging from the amount of furious tail wagging, I think Harry was quite pleased with himself as well! There really is no better feeling than watching your dog pull off a difficult retrieve. By the time I got back to the others I was grinning like a Cheshire cat, and after relaying my story we got back into position and started the last bit of wood. By now the sun had made an appearance and it was hard to believe that only a few hours before we were being battered by driving rain.

I was standing still, enjoying the warmth, when out of the corner of my eye I saw movement. As I turned I realised I was looking at a woodcock flicking along the edge of the wood, so I whipped up my gun and pushed through and pulled the trigger. The little bird rocketed up in the air and then just seemed to hang there until Steve got in another shot and down it came. Harry had a good mark on the bird and he very quickly found it and bought it back.

It was the first woodcock of our season and it came just before Steve pulled off the shot of the day: just as I put the bird in my game bag I heard Andy call a bird from the other side of the wood and as I turned around I could see a pheasant screaming over the tops of the trees. I knew it was too good for me but as I was admiring the height and speed of the bird I heard a shot and saw it fold up stone dead. Steve had taken a superb shot and the bird landed just at the foot of the wall. It was a fantastic way to end a great day and we are already planning a return visit, when hopefully the sun will shine for a little bit longer and the rain will stay away.

by Nick Ridley