Some of Britain’s smartest shoots are being forced to rethink the sport they offer as a trend for 100-bird days sweeps the nation. Not 120 or 150 – the bag is capped at a ton. And we’re not talking boundary, syndicated or walk-one-stand-one days; we are referring to top-drawer estates with kosher driven pheasant- and partridge-shooting.
The unstable economy is forcing a change of attitude, and astute guns, refusing to spend winter indoors, are insisting that our premier estates lay on smaller days. Happy to waive the luxury lunch and vintage claret, these guns are focused on well-presented birds and making every shot count.
So is this a temporary fashion brought on by the recession or will demand keep growing?
This is not the first time the sport has experienced a shift in attitude. Ten years ago, the Daily Telegraph derided the return of big-bag days, “For the first time since the Eighties, the big shoot is back in fashion,” it noted.
Now, it seems, tastes have altered again. “These days, it is not uncommon for guns to state self-righteously that they do not like big-bag days,” explains Robert Cuthbert of Serious Shooting. “More and more guns are turning their backs on Edwardian-style battues. As a sporting agent, it is near impossible for me to fulfil the mounting demand for 100-bird days.”
One of the top shoots in Berwickshire, Lammermuir sells several 100-bird days. Owner Doug Virtue says the 12,000-acre estate has had to move with the times. “These times of austerity mean that budgets are tight,” he observes. “By booking smaller days, guns still have the craic of being with their pals. Everyone acknowledges that shooting is far from a cheap hobby, but this is one way people can still get out in the field without nasty financial ramifications.”
So who is buying these pint-sized days?
According to Richard Scrope of Where Wise Men Shoot, the insatiable appetite for smaller days is manifested by two groups: the young graduate gun with finite disposable income, and the shot-big-bags-eight-days-a-week-for-the-past-40-years gun who now requires something more Lilliputian.
“Neither of these groups are interested in syndicates or shared-gun days, nor are they interested in DIY affairs,” reveals Scrope. “They all want first-class estates boasting legendary drives and skyscraper birds. Of course, this means that some of the trimmings – such as three-course lunch and champagne grog-stop – might be missing. But who cares? The shooting is the main attraction of the day and guns can visit the local pub for some nosh.”
Sussex-based chartered surveyor Ian Standen falls into the second camp. “Throughout my life I have been incredibly lucky – I have shot on some of Britain’s most revered shoots, normally harvesting bags north of 250 birds. These days, if I find myself standing on a phenomenally productive peg, I am very choosy over which birds I raise my gun to. If I had my way, I would buy nothing but 100-bird days, but there are just not enough to go around. They are incredibly difficult to source.”
Roxburghshire-based sporting agent Charles Brownlow has also noted a surge in enquiries for these days. He urges more estates to consider hosting smaller days. “It can be hard to find estates willing to put these days on due to cost but if you know where to look there are a number of top-notch estates offering mini driven days. As a business, we have received many referrals through the 100-bird shooters looking for larger days. In my experience, 100-bird days done well generate loyalty and repeat business.”
Anglia Sporting‘s Nick Elsdon has been running 100-bird days for the past five years. “Since most of the City banks pulled the plug on shooting, many estates have had to rethink how they market themselves. A lot of shooters now have to put their hand in their own pocket. Estates need to adapt. If guns are crying out for 100-bird days and your bookings diary is looking a little empty, consider experimenting with a few smaller days. I guarantee your phone will ring off the hook with enquiries.”
Robert Cuthbert of Serious Shooting concurs. “I’ve always thought it prudent for estates to let at least a couple of 100-bird days if they can afford to,” he says. “These smaller days are not only a great way to fill odd gaps in the shooting calendar as they are let far more quickly than larger days, they also act as a great showcase for the estate. Potentially, you have eight brand-new clients seeing first hand what is on offer; you could not ask for a greater advert at all.”
Lunch is a pivotal part of a good day, but does it matter if it doesn’t run to four courses in the opulent main house?
Anglia Sporting‘s Nick Elsdon holds around five 100-bird days each season on large, smart estates in Suffolk. “We run the day exactly the same as a 200-300 day, the guns get all the trimmings they are used to. Lunch can be held in the grand estate house, keeper’s house or at a smart local pub, depending on budget. Anything is possible – but expect to pay extra.”
Jonathan Crow, who runs between 10 and 15 mini driven days on Wappenshall shoot in Shropshire, says, “We give our guns a two-course lunch with wine but many estates will ask you to bring a packed lunch. Make sure you are entirely clear about what is and is not included in the price.”
Speaking of money – how do smaller days compare on price?
“Expect to pay slightly more per bird for a 100-bird day,” says Crow. “We charge a couple of extra pounds per bird (around £33 plus VAT) as it is relatively expensive for us to put the day on.”
Guns need to be accommodating. “Some can be quite inflexible,” says Anglia Sporting‘s Nick Elsdon. “They think they can book a 100-bird day for any Saturday throughout the season. It doesn’t work like that. You have to work to our diary.”
Robert Cuthbert of Serious Shooting echoes Anglia Sporting‘s Nick Elsdon sentiments: “With a smaller day, the team may have to fit into gaps proposed by the estate; quite often these can be small, stir-up days at the partridges in early September or in late January when the birds are match-fit and shifting nicely with a bit of a breeze up their trumpets.”
Expect a slower pace as well. “Forget being rushed along between drives,” says Charles Brownlow. “Most 100-day guests do not mind padding the day out with soup and a tot of sloe gin – after all, the point of shooting is the camaraderie and friendly ribbing between drives. Do not be embarrassed to push home the point that you want a whole day. Stress that you do not want to finish at lunch-time. Make sure the whole team of guns has heard instructions by the shoot captain before each drive. He will give you advice on how many birds to shoot and when to hold back, which will make his life and your day a whole lot more enjoyable.”
John Henry’s Castle Caereinion shoot in Powys offers only 100-bird days. “The art to holding a successful 100-bird day is managing guns’ expectations. For many, shooting just 100 birds is an alien concept, so it can be necessary for us to offer friendly advice to some about holding back occasionally,” he says.
The Wasing estate in Berkshire is well known for its diminutive days. Held over 3,000 acres, each day is centred around the renovated bothy. “Wasing‘s small-bag days have become a bit of a unique selling point for us,” explains chief executive John Pattison. “There seems to be a change in mind-set and attitude. I think that because we are just an hour outside of west London, people are happy to travel for smaller days. However, I question whether the same guns would travel to Northumberland to shoot just 100 birds. The exorbitant cost of diesel is so off-putting.”
Frank Boddy, who runs Ripley Castle shoot in North Yorkshire, says, “It is perhaps true that these guns tend to stay relatively local but as the trend gains momentum they are starting to travel farther afield. Demand is definitely outstripping supply at the moment.” He adds, “If I could afford to hold nothing but 100-bird days, I would. Not only are they an affordable way for novice guns to get involved in the sport, but they represent a return to traditional values. I tend to hold these days later in the season when there are fewer birds about. From the outset, we are clear about how the day will run. Shooting is not a competition, every shot is to be savoured.”
If you are concerned that a day of this kind means only the most difficult drives are used, think again. “This is a common misconception,” explains Wilson Young of Thirlestane Castle shoot in Roxburghshire. “We match the drives to ability. If you tell me that you normally shoot lofty Devon crossers, I have a rough idea of your ability and what type of sport to give you. After all, achieving your century needs to be done in the usual four or five drives.”
So, if you had anticipated spending this season feeling left out, cheer up. With more estates offering 100-bird days, even the most cash-strapped guns can enjoy top sport.
Alnwick Castle, 01665 606341
Bowmont Valley, Borders, 01578 750740
Castle Caereinion shoot, Powys, 07815 573952
Combe estate, Devon, 01404 45576
Godwick Hall, Norfolk, 01328 701948
Lammermuir, Berwickshire, 01578 740258
Ripley Castle, N Yorks, 1423 320208
Thirlestane Castle, Roxburghshire, 01578 750740
Wappenshall, Shropshire, 01952 243293
Wasing, Berkshire, 01189 714140.
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