What’s the collective noun for a gathering of shooting instructors? A pattern? A scatter? A covey? Choose whatever seems most appropriate for an amazing concentration of shotgun coaches, assembled on a misty winter morning to shoot on the Campden House estate in the Cotswolds.
In a magnificently generous gesture, the estate’s owner, the Hon Philip Smith, had presented a full-scale day of pheasant and partridge shooting to the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust as a prize for its raffle at Gaynes Park in Essex. And this splendid days pheasant and partridge shooting gift was won by Michael Booth, a beanpole of a retired insurance executive, who now works part-time as a BASC-accredited shotgun coach.
He and his friends came from the east. All bar two were from Essex and the exceptions were from Hertfordshire. The party stayed overnight in the neighbourhood but, on the final approach, one carload was undone by its sat nav and became hopelessly lost. More than half an hour ticked slowly away before a rescue team guided them in to the rendezvous at Philip and Mary Smith’s house.
For guns from the flatlands, the first drive – Weston Park – was a stunner. As they lined out in V formation in the deep gully of a 180-acre wood, the host remarked that if a pheasant flew at all over this valley, it couldn’t help flying really high – to which Michael Booth responded, “Just because most of us are professionally involved in shooting, it doesn’t guarantee our performance in the field!”
The 1,500-acre estate already had fine woods when Philip acquired it in 1972 but since then he has greatly enhanced it by planting over a hundred acres of trees in various blocks; and with the help of the headkeeper, Martin Childerley (who once received a CLA 30-year long-service award at the Game Fair), he has built it into a first-class location for pheasant and partridge shooting, averaging 300 head over the season’s early days. Of the 2,000 partridges and 4,000 pheasants reared every year, the shoot puts almost 50% in the bag. In spring it seeks to encourage wild birds by late feeding and vigorous vermin control, and it has one special advantage in that it grows a large acreage of peas, which produce the insects needed by chicks.
Down in the depths of Weston Park, bright-green patches of mown grass made a lovely contrast with the grey of the mature ash trunks; but fog was hovering around the tops of the trees, and the birds – which were stratospheric – were hard to pick out until they were almost overhead. At the apex of the line was Michael Alldis, owner of Essex Shooting School, armed with a 1901 Jeffrey hammer 12-bore. An enthusiast for ancient guns, which have no safety-catches or ejectors, he has been three times British Hammer Gun Champion. “I just love the things,” he declares. He pointed out that King George V would shoot with nothing else “because he could always see when his gun was cocked”.
He has now scaled his personal teaching down but in “the good old days”, he used to coach for 40 hours a week, which he described as “very tiring”. Doesn’t it get boring repeating the same things again and again? “Yes, the lesson does sometimes become a tape-recording – ‘make sure the stock’s on your face’ – but the clients are always interesting. It’s gun-mounting that causes more problems than anything else. People don’t practise it enough.”
Two places to his left in the line was his partner, Sue Hart, also – surprise, surprise – a qualified coach who helps in the shooting school. At 5ft 4in, she was only just tall enough to qualify for the Metropolitan Police but she became a sergeant and, one year, was British Police Ladies’ Champion, shooting with a Browning 425 over-and-under 12-bore. Her diminutive size, she says, was never a problem: “You learn very quickly that you have to talk your way out of trouble; you can’t use force.”
In the past two or three years, she’s become a mustard-keen deerstalker and recently took a couple of days around Stonor Park in the Chilterns, where she got one fallow doe, and her friend Shirley Payne shot three. As for these ghostlike pheasants, flitting through the mist at extreme range, Sue reckoned they were the highest she had ever shot and could only describe her method of trying to deal with them as “working on a hell of a lot of lead”. Her colleagues were also struggling and in spite of a considerable bombardment, the stand produced only eight birds. But the second drive, Westington Hill, was a complete contrast.
Out in open country, with the fog hovering just high enough not to be a nuisance, the guns lined out in a huge crescent, which curved down a field on one flank of a shallow valley and up the other side, so that everyone was in sight of each other. In front of the line the land rose to a cross-hedge some 300yd away, and beyond that, the tops of game crops were just visible. Altogether it was as grand and spacious a setting as anyone could wish for when pheasant and partridge shooting.
While we waited, it became clear that nobody was more experienced than Roger Hill, yet another professional coach, with bases in Ollerton, Sherwood Forest and Essex. He gives some 600 lessons a year and his wife Chris runs the clubhouse side of the business. Does he never become fed up? “It’s a challenge,” he admitted. “I’ve never found anyone to beat me yet. I get them there in the end. I coach internationally as well – a bit in America, a bit in Ireland. I go over for a week at a time. There are two girls in Greece, training for Olympic skeet. One guy drops in from Sweden once a month: flies into Stansted, hires a car, drives to us, has a two-hour lesson, flies back.”
When the birds started coming, Roger did not hit all of them by any means. However, he quickly improved and started nailing some crackers, evidently practising what he preaches. “If you start missing, you’ve just got to forget it and get stuck into the next one. If you wind yourself up, it only gets worse.”
Down on his left, Michael Lankshear, proprietor of that dangerously attractive emporium, Field Stream and Covert, was definitely impressive. “Wasn’t that beautifully driven!” he exclaimed as the drive finished. “I haven’t shot birds as high as that, even in Devon.” Everyone agreed that the presentation was first class, with abundant pheasants and partridges, and no big flushes. Only Martin the keeper was not surprised by the phenomenal height that some of the birds achieved. “I never know why they go up like that here,” he said afterwards. “There’s nothing particular to make them, but they always do.”
The Lankshear prescription for successful pheasant and partridge shooting was a substantial amount of clear air ahead of the target. “Pheasants need four or five times the lead of partridges,” he reckons. “These birds are coming at 40mph or 50mph; you have to keep consciously changing the picture.”
The third drive was Armstrong’s, named after Louis Armstrong, who had a phrase – “reaching for the high ones”. This nearly did not take place, for as the guns walked steadily uphill on a long grass track towards their pegs, the fog seemed to be closing down. But after several radio consultations squire and keeper decided to go ahead – and another excellent stand it proved, with pheasants rocketing out of a wood high up on a rounded knoll.
John Farley, known as Charlie Farley, is yet another shotgun coach but he’s a one-man band. In spite of the general economic gloom and doom, his business is booming. “Last year was amazing,” he said. “So many new people are coming into the sport.” Occasionally, he finds that beginners are nervous “but you try to encourage them away from that attitude before they ever get near a gun,” he explained.
Nerves clearly do not trouble Paul Payne, a former pilot who devoted most of his career to flying for the Dutch airline KLM and finished with two years for Ryanair. “I spent 30-odd years going to Amsterdam, Paris, Berlin and all those places,” he says, “but I never really saw anything of Europe.” Did he ever give himself a fright? “Heavens, no! It was safe as houses. Otherwise I wouldn’t have been doing it.” He took up gunnery some 15 years ago and now he and his wife, the dashing stalker Shirley, are keen clay-shooters.
The morning was to have concluded with a big partridge drive. But the combination of fog and the late start ruled that out and the team returned to the house for a perfect shooting lunch: cottage pie, a delicious concoction of apples and raspberries, and then cheese. Everyone tucked in gratefully but by the time coffee came around, several of the guns were surreptitiously glancing out of the windows to see what the weather was doing, obviously eager to be on the move again.
Although the fog had lifted, the light was already starting to fade, and there was only time for one more drive but what a drive it was. For Summerhouse Plantation, a big wood crowning the hill opposite the house, the guns lined out on parkland a long way from the flushing point and well below it, so that the pheasants were again really challen-ging. But, by now, the instructors had got their eye in, and there was some spectacular shooting, especially from Messrs Lankshear and Hill in the middle of the line. Many of their birds were so high that they fell more than 100yd behind, even though they had been killed directly overhead.
The bag for the day was 192 pheasants, 41 partridges, four woodcock and a pigeon. Another drive would have lifted the total close to 300 but any disappointment was erased by the excitement of that last stand. Not even the offer of a final short drive could tempt the guns. “You’ll never better that,” said one of them. “You might as well just say, ‘That’s enough, thank you,’ and pack it in.”
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