“Don’t worry about the bag,” said Richard Larthe as he briefed the guns. “Don’t
hold back. You’re not on a ration. We’ll manage the day for you, so just enjoy yourselves. We’ll stop for elevenses, and then shoot through
until lunch at about two.” “Manage” is a key word in Larthe’s vocabulary. Having run his shoot at Brimpsfield Park for more than 25
seasons, he has got the management of it down to a fine art, and by
dropping or inserting drives as the day goes on he can manipulate the
bag close to whatever total he wants. He concedes that the operation is
“very commercial”, but says that he runs it “on a very private basis. That’s the joy of it: people come here because it’s as unlike a commercial operation as you can make it.”
Brimpsfield Park is on the roof of the Cotswolds, nearly 1,000ft above sea level.
It is a lovely, 2,000-acre estate near Birdlip, consisting mainly of
arable farmland but with numerous steep grass valleys running away into
the hills and plenty of woods and spinneys – a combination ideal for
showing high pheasants and partridges. Before Larthe took over from his
father, he was working for princes in the Middle East – “the racecourse, equestrian club, national stud, irrigation – that sort of thing”. When he came home in 1980, the estate was “on its knees”,
so he and his wife Catriona (known to all and sundry as “Prune”)
decided to give shooting a five-year trial. After a cautious start,
they have built it up to a level at which they can now lay on 40 days a
year, and the shoot has revived the estate “beyond comprehension”. Days range from 250 birds upwards and at £34 plus VAT for a pheasant or partridge, that means big business.
The day described here was taken by Julian Newiss, a larger-than-life property man who once startled a friend by announcing “I’ve just bought Gloucester City Centre,” and, according to another acquaintance, “is very good at pretending not to work”.
When not travelling on business in India, America or other parts, he
lives nearby and in his spare time runs two other shoots. Some of his
eight-man team were business colleagues, the rest friends.
After a sharp frost, the day dawned brilliantly fine, and proceedings got off
to the best possible start in the Larthes’ dining-room, with coffee and
sizzling hot bacon butties freshly turned out in the kitchen by the two
chefs, Mike Mowles and his partner Sue Naismith, who were retained for
the whole season. Thus fortified, the company set off in a column of
TEAMWORK AND LONG SERVICE
As we drove past a chain of lakes at the foot of a high, wooded bank, our host
extolled the virtues of this, one of his best stands, which alone can
yield a bag of 300 birds – provided the guns can hit them. “The Lake Drive holds the estate record,” he said, and he told how a team “from another country” (unspecified) once turned up announcing it was made up of some of the best shots on its home terrain. “They fired 480 cartridges and got 12 birds,” he recalled.
No such boasting or gargantuan missing marred the day taken by Newiss, on
which the target was 250. One gun or two? Each shot could chose what he
wanted. In the event, only two people opted for doubles, but loaders
were provided for all; the estate has assembled a team that stays right
through the season and, with its knowledge of the ground, is invaluable
in keeping days on schedule.
Most members of the team have been coming to Brimpsfield for years. When the boss fell ill and was
fighting a long battle against cancer, Prune nobly took over the
running of the shoot; but in the field the loaders were there to act as
her lieutenants, shepherding the guns to their pegs and generally
maintaining momentum. The pickers-up have similar records of long
service. One night, when Larthe was lying in hospital, he woke up at
three in the morning and thought he had died because there, looking
down at him, was Lynne, one of the picking-up team. Unknown to him, she
was working as a night nurse.
The first drive, Siberia, opened with a spectacular burst of pheasants coming off the top of a
hill – maybe a hundred in the air at once – followed by a steady flow
of pheasants and partridges. With the low sun straight behind them,
they were not easy, but accurate shooting put about 80 in the bag. The
second drive, The Cottage, over a grass valley, was slightly spoiled by
a dog fox which, having put half the birds back, came charging through
the line, accelerated by ribald cries. In spite of its efforts, there
was no shortage and the total for the drive was around 40.
In pole position was Adrian Speir, all the way from Northumberland, who
was turning sideways to take high birds neatly as crossing shots. “I shoot with my left eye closed,” he explained, “so if I try to take a bird coming straight over, the barrels blot it out.”
He was using a 1910 Dickson round-action 12-bore (of which he owns a
pair), but he confessed that he is longing to commission a new pair
from David McKay Brown who has his workshop at Bothwell, south of
On the way to the third drive Larthe described how
somebody buying a house in the village came across a bundle of old
documents relating to the estate. From these papers he discovered the
ancient names of many of his woods and fields, and he brought them back
into use. Some names, however, have no apparent root in topography; the
third drive was Signal Box and the one next to it The Fat Controller,
but there has never been any railway in the area.
Signal Box made a fine drive, with the guns standing down a steep grass bank and
the birds coming high over a stand of trees from maize on top of the
hill. Newiss shot beautifully with a pair of hammer 20-bores. Hammers?
Certainly, but these were no heirlooms. On the contrary, they were
nearly new, made for him in Italy by Sandro Lucchini of Brescia and
beautifully engraved with a little sketch of his house in summer on one
and in winter on the other. They are just as fast as ordinary guns, he
insisted, and he proved his point time and again. Nor, being
self-cocking, were the weapons any bother to his loader, John Ford, who
stuffed and exchanged guns with exemplary speed.
The break for elevenses was held in the Overbury Valley, a lovely shallow trench
of grassland lifting gently away to the west, with spinneys and rough
hedges on either side, and large arable fields out of sight on the tops
– perfect terrain for driving birds from one side to the other.
Mulligatawny soup, sausages, little pastries stuffed with spiced meat and various
beverages stepped up the level of banter to new levels. Sir Christopher
Evans, a tousle-haired Welsh entrepreneur in biosciences, enthused
about the ar-senal of customised air rifles – “Venomed Weihrauchs,”
he called them – with which he annihilates the grey squirrels on his
property at Bibury. When he arrived there four years ago, the garden
was infested with them, but after a sustained cull an “incredible diversity” of songbirds appeared.
The last two drives took place across the valley, one from either side. At
the fourth, with the sun in their eyes, the birds tended to veer to
their left, but some flew magnificently all the same. Then at Parson’s
Nose it was the guns who were dazzled; but even those who had forgotten
their sunglasses maintained rapid fire at the starbursts of redlegs
that exploded over the hedge in front.
So, at 2pm, with 293 birds in the bag, shooting came to an end. The expected bag had been
exceeded, but because the guns were old friends, the boss was happy to
give them a few extra at no charge. Back in the house, the guns sat
down to a sumptuous lunch of fillet of beef, steamed lemon pudding with
lemon cream sauce, and cheese, helped down by unlimited quantities of
Chateau Paveil de Luz 2000, a margaux now at its peak. “I can’t understand people who give you rubbish wine on an otherwise nice day,” said Larthe. He buys all his wine en primeur and brings it to maturity in his cellar.
Much of the day’s success had been due to the unobtrusive skill of the headkeeper, Matt Oram (pictured centre, with Alex Davies, left, and Scott Andrews, right), then only 25 and in his first season at Brimpsfield but endowed with natural authority beyond his years. His grandfather was a keeper at Tredegar, in Monmouthshire and Matt went out pigeon-shooting with an uncle before he “tagged on” to another keeper. His energy in dogging-in increased the number of birds they have been able to hold on the ground and on shooting days he achieves his objectives by remaining calm.
One of his innovations has been to bring all the beaters together for lunch – now know as “Matt’s Munchies” – in a shed in the farmyard. Everyone gets soup, a bap and a big sausage roll, and the fact that they eat together at tables does wonders for community spirit.
One of the beaters’ most enjoyable moments comes when their pay-packets are laid out on a table. All except one contain £25, and the “joker” in the pack holds £50, the bonus handed out after every shoot.
Everyone departed in high spirits, voting the day an outstanding success. No taint of any commercial arrangement had spoiled the fun. But for shoot owners and managers the future is by no means rosy. Increases in the price of wheat put the Brimpsfield feed bill up by £30,000 last season, and all the indications are that costs will go up again this year. Larthe had sold most of his 2007/8 days by the end of February 2007 for £31 a bird– he felt bound to stick by that price agreed then. The result, he says, is that he “just had to take it on the chin”.
Brimpsfield Park shoot now charges £34+VAT per bird. Call Richard Larthe on 01452 863163.
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