DIY shoot - part 2

Excitement and anxiety abound for our DIY debut at Court Shoot

Our first day of the season dawned bright and cold, with an early frost and a brisk wind. A fine day in many respects, although a bit too sunny if truth be told, especially for the first drive, but hopefully the wind would make up for that.

It’s 9am. At the yard people are starting to arrive, grateful for the warmth of the barn, where, in keeping with tradition, Graham has had the wood burner going for a few hours. We chat amongst ourselves with the ease and familiarity that comes with years of friendship, and almost immediately the jokes and leg-pulling begin. Wendy is busy peeling pictures of naked men off her beating flag – placed there last season by the neighbouring keeper after a complaint about the lack of ‘male totty’! It won’t do to keep them there – not with a reporter in our midst!

There’s an air of anticipation and we are all keen to get going – not least the dogs. Chloe, Graham’s springer, is the only dog allowed in the barn, on account of her advancing years. You wouldn’t guess she is nearly 13 from the way she is running eagerly from person to person, as if to say, “Come on, let’s go, I’ve got pheasants to flush!”

By about 9.30am we are pretty much all assembled and it’s time for a quick welcome and safety talk from Graham, including a reminder to leave the birds that haven’t coloured up yet. And on no account must we shoot any grey partridge. Then it’s time to draw pegs. As already mentioned, we do things a bit differently here, and keep our pegs right the way through the season, moving up one each shoot day. Readers may recall the story about Winkle, one of our long-suffering Guns, who always draws pegs one or eight, and who we played a bit of a trick on one year by placing only ones and eights in the pack of cards. Well guess what peg he drew this season… number eight! No word of a lie – Rebecca was there, she can vouch for it!

With the housekeeping out of the way, it was time to split into our two teams and get going – quietly, so as not to disturb the birds in the cover crop on our first drive, Garden. The beating team work as a sort of concertina here, pushing through the cover crop from each side and then bringing it forwards. There were plenty of birds to drive out, which is good, but as feared, we paid the price for our sunny morning – the birds have to fly directly into the sun and most were too low to shoot. Back at the yard we hung a measly five pheasants in the game larder, although a few were still to come in. Not the best of starts, but at least there were plenty of birds about.

Nevertheless, we’d managed to give young Owen a few birds to pick up. Owen is one of the younger members of our team and is a bona-fide picker-up with his trusty black labrador, Chance. Today he is dressed head to toe in new gear ready for the season (let’s hope his new boots don’t give him blisters). Owen regularly competes in working tests with Chance and has had great success. Hopefully we will produce plenty of birds for the two of them to pick.

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It is a joy to see the youngsters on the shoot and it’s something we take great pride in. One of our Guns, Kimberly, started coming here with Gordon, her father, when she was just a little girl – now they are both Guns together, which is really nice. Sammy is another youngster making his way up the ranks with his father John and their little dog Red. Also making a family tradition of the shoot are Jordan and Millie, who accompany their father Richard, another of the Guns; and Sandy and Rory, sons of Nial, the doctor who saved Graham’s father’s life when he was first fell ill.

Returning to the shooting, our second drive is Tower and thankfully this proved more successful than the first. The teams swap over and those who were beating last time are now shooting – lucky them. The birds break from the cover crop in a fairly steady flow and get up nicely to clear the line of trees behind the Guns, providing some good shooting.

The decision to shorten the cover crop to stop them flushing all at once seems to be working, and there are a few cracking birds to be had, one of which is brought down by Derek’s brother-in-law.

However, it wasn’t all plain sailing – a few birds flew back, again, probably because of the sun. Nonetheless, a good drive, with at least 15 birds added to the bag.

We weren’t sure what to expect from our third drive – Pondwood – as we’re doing it differently this season. We’ve moved the Guns further into the woods, with the aim of pushing the birds higher up so they come over the trees instead of through them. It seemed to work; we got 23 off this drive. It will be interesting to see how it works as the season progresses.

By now it had clouded over and in the cold wind, thoughts were starting to turn to the hot soup that awaited us back at the barn, after the next drive – Handerchief. Although chilly, the wind is really helping the birds to fly well and by lunchtime we have 63 pheasant in the bag, four partridge and two pigeon – not bad going!

We were all very grateful for the soup, sandwiches and cake prepared by Carol and Trudy and it is with renewed vigour that we venture back out for our final, and arguably best, two drives of the day.

Top Court is something of a military exercise in blanking in, stopping off, flagging and pushing through covers in order to produce the birds, but when it works it works brilliantly… like today. The Guns line out in the wood and we push the birds off the top of the hill, hopefully to fly up and over to get back into the wood. Today it worked beautifully, with pheasant after pheasant after pheasant getting up and curling round to the wood. Every flag was waved at the perfect moment and, judging by the amount of birds we picked at the end, every trigger pulled at the perfect moment too. A fantastic drive.

We aren’t blessed with Devonshire topography here – just a little undulation here and there – but drives like this just go to show what you can do with a bit of planning and careful consideration. Of course, we’ve been doing these drives for nearly 30 years now, so we’ve had plenty of time to perfect them, but it’s satisfying when it all comes together.

From here it’s just a short stroll across the field to the last drive, Bottom Court, which centres around the top pen. Once again, the beating team works from all directions to drive the birds off the top of the hill – and there were plenty there to work with! There was good shooting all along the line, although quite a few birds turned on the wind at the end and just snuck out the top. Steve had some great shooting, giving his ‘personal picking up team’ of Owen and Chance plenty to do behind him. In fact, so plentiful were the birds that Graham and Derek both pulled their beating teams back earlier than usual, to leave some birds undisturbed – safe for another fortnight at least!

Birds picked, it’s then a bit of a walk back to the barn, except for Derek, who gets to drive the Landy – this season, complete with brakes – and now laden with birds.

As with most syndicate shoots, when the birds are coming in to the larder at the end of the day there are those who are hoping for more late arrivals, and those who are willing the count to stop where it is, depending on what number they’ve picked in the sweepstake. As it turned out this week, Shirley was happiest when the final tally came in, not least because it’s the first time in her 10 years on the shoot that she’s won it.

Our final bag was 114 – 105 pheasant, five partridge and four pigeon. That’s only eight short of last year’s bag from the same day, which we are more than happy with, especially given the frightful summer we’ve had this year. All in all, a very satisfying start to the season.

Oh, and in case you’re wondering, Owen’s new boots did give him blisters... but it’s a small price to pay for such a rewarding day!