Shooting 11 different species in one day is a feat, but one managed with aplomb by the team on an armed mauraud
The impending arrival of the “St Jude’s Day” storm, with a satellite forecast over west Wales looking like a spouting porpoise, may have rung alarm bells for those travelling from all over England to take part in a day-long armed maraud on the Slebech estate (pronounced Slebitch) near Tenby. But the predicted high winds failed to deter the five guns who gathered at Sir Edward Dashwood’s fishing lodge, Abercothi Farm, on the banks of the River Towy near Nantgaredig in Carmarthenshire, where 18lb sea-trout have been taken this season.
Taking no chances, I travelled the day before, staying the night in the lea of legendary South Pembrokeshire Hunt Master Hugh Harrison-Allen’s Cresselly estate, which borders Slebech. He rustled up 10 friends and neighbours, who battled through the rains, for a convivial dinner party of some splendour – chicken with Pernod was a first for me – as his fiancée, Ros, is a noted cook and the house has just been accepted as a Wolsey Lodge.
Despite an all-night downpour, the day dawned bright and I ventured out to reconnoitre Slebech, imagining that by the following day it would be shrouded in gales and that the wild-bird challenge itself might have to be abandoned. What I encountered was magical estuary woodland of beech, chestnut, silver birch, hazel and Scots pine, grass fields where snipe and woodcock might lie, reed beds, and orderly blocks of maize and miscanthus.
Fortified by lunch at the Plantagenet House in Tenby, the sort of brasserie common in provincial France until 20 years ago, with an enormous 10th-century Flemish chimney, I then had a 40-minute drive to Abercothi Farm, a mile off the A40. Every comfort has been considered in the renovation of this nine-bedroom lodge complete with log-burner, dining-room, rod room, whitewashed outbuildings and steaming hot water. This is the beacon of hospitality and privacy for those who wish to take a day or two’s rough-shooting at Slebech.
“Just make yourself at home,” my host, Rob Fenwick, managing director of gunmaker and sporting agent EJ Churchill, owned by Sir Edward Dashwood and based at West Wycombe Park in Buckinghamshire, had told me. I took him at his word, bathed, lit the fire, poured a small Isle of Skye whisky and waited in the immaculate lodge for the others to arrive, with only the rain for company.
Who were this intrepid band of sportsmen determined to rove and range the Slebech estate in search of corvids, carrion and culin-ary delights?
First to arrive was former BBC MasterChef finalist James Burton, clutching his pots and pans like a Cairo street trader. He had driven from Edinburgh, where he’d been cooking for a 21st birthday party graced by scantily clad students.
Not only would Burton be one of the guns but, as befits his status as a forager and artisan of estuary and hedgerow food, he would also be cooking the bag the following night. “I am consumed by British cooking and believe that all people who call themselves chefs should learn to kill what they cook,” he told me. His infectious passion for his subject made it immediately apparent why he is much in demand in sporting lodges.
Then came Rob Fenwick, who, as well as organising the maraud, was overseeing eight teams of guns that EJ Churchill had going out the following day. He was joined by Tom Mason, who looks after farms and estates in his native Yorkshire, and with whom I have in the past enjoyed some excellent rough-shooting and hunting with the Middleton.
Fourth up was Mark Wilesmith, now farming 350 acres of his own at Upton upon Severn in Worcestershire and, finally, their friend from Harper Adams days, Richard Binning, rural director at Savills in Oxford. Tucked up in the dining-room with one of James Burton’s fabled stews and a glass of good claret, their conversation was that of old and good sporting friends and anticipation of the day ahead.”Bring extra waterproofs,” Fenwick had cautioned in his final email but, amazingly, the satellite porpoise did not materialise into thunder next morning, instead producing grey skies, sunshine, rainbows, only the oc-casional shower and a little wind.
The journey from Abercothi Farm to Nash Farm, home to John Webb, who runs all the shooting at Slebech, was a simple 40 minutes on the A40. Three beaters and five eager spaniels, rather small to tackle the abundant undergrowth, completed the party. “It will be patchy and we will all be hunters today, ” said Webb. “We have never done the first drive before. Be familiar with your surroundings and your neighbours.”
So started a day of wild bird-shooting at its stealthiest best. The first drive, a flighting pond, with guns placed craftily in rides in a miscanthus field, saw no teal at home. But Mason opened the account by claiming a rat and Burton soon had me eating hogweed, its orange scent an olfactory reminder that Christmas is ap-proaching. “I like to cook in the colours of the seasons,” he said. “This is the time for dark colours.”
A cock pheasant to the gun of Rob Fenwick took the edible in-gredients in a more agreeable direction and the next drive, at Begelly on the outer reaches of the Slebech demesne, with the sea light of nearby Tenby in the sky, produced a haul of seven teal. Binning took a right-and-left and birds also fell to Mason, Burton and Wilesmith, the latter three assuming authentic crouching positions, reminiscent of Henry Alken’s etching of Squire Mytton wild duck-shooting on the lake at Halston in his silk nightshirt.
There followed a brief stop for consommé and an attempt on Binning’s 2012 home-made sloe gin with honey and raisins. My verdict was that it tasted like liquid underwear and our palates were only restored by Burton’s noyau, which he makes with gin and beech leaves.
A snipe got up at this point, which encouraged Webb to silence the guns and try a wet field of perhaps four acres, where he thought the bird had landed. With the guns’ backs to the hedges on two sides, the beaters brought a steady line over the foot-long grass from the top. Not one but eight snipe got up at intervals, and three were taken. Two produced excellent retrieves, the first, shot by Binning, involved him and beater Phil Murray with his 18-month-old spaniel, Meg, fording a river. “That was Meg’s first-ever retrieve and this is her first day out,” Murray, a former deep-sea diver who now pilots oil tankers into Pembroke harbour, told me with obvious delight.
The second bird fell well behind Fenwick’s position. “That will be a difficult pick as they can get stuck in the branches of the small pine plantation,” Webb said. It was the turn of former mounted police officer Mal Jones to work his two spaniels with success.
When two men who love horses meet it is almost impossible not to strike up a warm conversation. Jones had served 30 years in the Metropolitan Police. When in the mounted division he marshalled such protests as the Vietnam demonstration in Grosvenor Square in 1968 (he judged that to be the worst) and riots in Southall, Brixton and Tottenham. But in 1969 he formed part of the mounted guard for HRH The Prince of Wales when he was invested at Caernarfon Castle, on his grey horse, Quail. “That was my best memory,” he told me. “Riding beside His Royal Highness into the town and a crowd of 9,000 singing Men of Harlech, and it echoing off Snowdonia.”
The third beater, Tony Pullen, has had a barely less interesting life, being one of three generations to beat simultaneously as Slebech. “My dad is now 90 but beat here for years,” Pullen told me. “Last Sunday I took him clay-shooting and, although he has only just moved to a 20-bore, he still shot 20 clays out of 40.”
With rainbows and a shower outside, lunch was taken in an old railway goods wagon with a small coal stove – just soup and a sausage and all the better for it, for marauders like to keep about their business.
On the following drive, Rob Fenwick took the highest bird of the day – a wigeon 50yd vertically above him. Burton foraged some sorrel in the grass until it was pointed out to him that the cattle had only just left and, later, got me to munch some sea purslane on the Cleddau estuary. I found it rather bitter.
On each drive we were moving closer to Nash Farm, so the day would finish near our starting point, a good psychological tactic.
On the penultimate drive, a small pond produced a good showing of teal and mallard and Mason managed three teal with only two shots. “Does that beat a right-and-left?” he asked. He must be something of a sportsman as he also shot an impossibly high crow and on his first-ever ride in a point-to-point he won the race.
With darkness falling, a woodcock, which had been sitting tight, was nearly taken by Binning’s labrador. Frustratingly, its escape denied a 12th species to the marauders’ bag. It was mark of the kindness of the man that he handed me his gun for the final drive, where my solitary teal brought the bag up to 31 for the day.
Palates at the ready, all eyes were now on Burton. Every gun plucked birds under his watchful eye. “Everyone who shoots should do this from time to time,” said Fenwick. And so the guns sat down to dinner, traditional sporting fare of game caught by all their hands that day. We were tired, indeed weary, but gratefuland exhilarated.
We had walked several miles but, as Binning said to me, it was a journey that had begun when we were boys, with a ferret and a catapult. And there is nothing wrong with revisiting the simple sporting pleasures of our youth.
To stay at Abercothi Farm and shoot at Slebech call the EJ Churchill Sporting Agency on 01494 883227.
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