A wild and beautiful estate in Cumbria with grouse shooting run, and enjoyed by the family.
The Helbeck estate near Brough in Cumbria is a family-owned and -managed shoot, tucked away on the edge of the north Pennines with stunning views over the Upper Eden Valley. Covering some 3,500 acres, it rises steeply from open grassland and ancient mixed woodland clinging to steep limestone escarpments and deep valleys to rough pasture and, finally, productive heather moorland for grouse shooting.
A central feature is Helbeck Hall, an elegant mansion built in 1776 and surrounded by natural woodland of ash, wych elm, birch, sessile oak, hazel, rowan and bird cherry, considered to be the best woodland of this type in the UK.
The house was built by John Metcalfe Carleton, a substantial landowner in the Eden Valley and a colourful character. Described as a “spirited, but unfortunate gentleman”, he was soon to go spectacularly bankrupt. Carleton also built the Fox Tower, an imposing folly on a crag in Helbeck Wood above the hall. Resembling the engine house and chimney of a Cornish tin mine, it is clearly visible to traffic travelling on the A66 from Penrith to Scotch Corner and was allegedly built to enable him to watch hounds hunting over his land.
The estate passed through several generations before being inherited in 1952 by the late Judge AJ Blackett-Ord, a second son of Major JR Blackett-Ord of Whitfield Hall, the ancestral home in that gloriously wild and beautiful countryside between Alston and Hexham known as “Little Switzerland”.
Helbeck is the perfect shooting estate and has been managed by Ben Blackett-Ord since 2010. The limestone topography, woodland and carefully preserved varied habitat is ideal-ly suited to a wide range of sporting opportun-ities for discerning shots. The steeply wooded lower ground provides superb high pheasants; the rough pasture “white ground” below the heather moorland is perfect partridge habitat and Helbeck has an enviable reputation for showing fast birds that anyone would be proud to shoot.
There are 14 duck ponds offering spectacular, high-driven duck to add spice to a pheasant or partridge day, while, depending on the season, the 2,000 acres of productive heather moorland provides around 10 challenging driven grouse shooting days, plus three or four walked-up grouse shooting days. During the 2012 season, even after that appallingly wet spring, the grouse bag was 1,021 brace with 55 brace the result of grouse shooting on 5 December.
The estate is extremely flexible in accommodating the size and type of day required by clients and, each season, some days are allocated as “Host” days, designed around three groups of three guns for clients who would like to shoot at Helbeck but wish to invite only a couple of guests.
All let days begin at the hall with coffee and a briefing from headkeeper Stuart Pape, who is now in his 30th season on the estate. Unless guns wish to shoot through, lunch is in a converted Cumberland stone field house out on the hill during the summer and autumn; in the winter months the shooting party returns to the hall, where lunch is served in the old billiard room.
I went down to Helbeck for a family and friends walked-up grouse shooting day on the moorland fringes on 27 August last year, staying overnight at the Fox and Hounds in nearby Cotherstone. This is a proper, old-fashioned sporting pub and one of the hotels recommended to shooting clients by the estate.
I joined Blackett-Ord and his wife, Nicolete, there for dinner, with their guests, Angus and Louise Malcolmson and Christopher Miles. Guns met at the limestone quarry half a mile from the hall the following morning, where Pape and his underkeepers, Ian Clarke and Gary Davidson, were waiting for us at 9.15.
The eight guns on the day were Blackett-Ord, his brothers Mark and Charles, their brother-in-law Nigel Rawlence, Bennet Hoskyns-Abrahall, Christopher Miles, Angus Malcolmson and Tim May. Once all the guests had arrived, we got into 4x4s and drove up through the lower part of the estate, past the steeply wooded sides of Swindale Beck on our right and the limestone scars, outcrops and pavements of Mount Ida’s Face above the hall at Helbeck Intake, to the stone barn and ruined cottage at Thornthwaite, the foot of Helbeck Low Fell.
At just after 10 o’clock, we lined out in the Black Allotments, a hill park enclosed by stone walls on the moorland edge, and started walking on the damp, mossy, springy turf in a northerly direction, with Musgrave Fell on our left and Mickle Fell towering in the distance. The majority of the North Pennines moors is fringed by these large, enclosed allotments or “intakes” (land taken in from moorland and, at one time, allotted to different farmers in the area).
Being on the fell foot, abundant springs and flushes have resulted in a wonderful mix of species-rich plant life, many of which are palatable to grouse: ling and bell heather, bilberry, cloudberry, crowberry, hare’s tail and common cotton grass, as well as cross-leaved heath, deer grass, spring gentian, marsh saxifrage, hair and false sedge, mat grass, sheep’s fescue, common bent, wavy hair-grass and heath rush.
Dedicated keepering, coupled with the mix of tall and short plant growth, and both wetland and remnant moorland vegetation, has provided ideal habitat and safe nesting sites for a wide range of bird life. In the spring, these allotments throb with birdsong. In particular, these rough pastures are critically important for the conservation of black grouse in northern England; 80% of the remaining population is to be found here.
Black grouse thrive on moorland managed for red grouse but are dependent on a range of different habitat types at different times of year. In the winter, they feed on the shoots of heather and bilberry on well-burnt and keepered moorland similar to Helbeck. In hard frost, or when snow covers the ground, they rely on the berries and buds of trees such as juniper, rowan, hawthorn and birch. In the early spring, they are attracted to the buds of cotton grass in wet, peaty areas and in the summer move to species-rich pastures and meadows where they feed on the flowers, shoots and seeds of herbs, rushes and grasses.
The taller vegetation rich in insects and other invertebrates in the allotments is ideal habitat for breeding, providing both cover and food for chicks. Pape told me that, despite numbers dropping back recently due to hard winters, wet summers and ever-increasing predation from peregrines, he had counted 17 cocks and 12 hens on Helbeck.
There was a brisk southerly wind on our backs as we crossed the Black Allotments and the first covey of six got up at 10.15 on the left of the line, giving the first bird of the day to Mark Blackett-Ord with a long shot as they curved away.
There was a brief halt while the line waited for Musto, Clarke’s liver-and-white springer, to pick the bird and almost as soon as we moved off, Davidson’s little mottled grey springer bitch, Nell, quartering the ground close at hand, put up another covey of four, giving those in the middle of the line a chance of a shot and a retrieve for Pape’s spaniel, Bess.
This allotment proved to be very productive, with several decent-sized coveys giving the line exciting sport and several others getting up out of range. This was a consequence, Pape told me, of the high proportion of old birds left over from the previous year, a problem corrected by the end of the 2012 season, when the bag was a ratio of 1:1 old to young grouse.
From the Black Allotments we moved on to the Army ranges, part of the Warcop Training Area, over which the Blackett-Ords have some of the shooting rights. There is a rocky, heathery ridge in this allotment and grouse coming off here swung back over the line to give some spectacular shooting and a couple more brace, before we turned east into Proctor’s Allot-ment with breathtaking views across the Eden Valley to the Howgill hills and Wildboar Fell.
Several coveys were put up to swell the bag in this allotment and a flock of Swaledale ewes with their lambs huddled against a wall as we went through. I asked Pape if their primary purpose was as tick mops. “Mercifully, we are not bothered by tick,” he told me. “About 10 years ago we took the sheep off as an experiment, but found that the hill grasses grew waist height and the vole population exploded.
There was a massive increase in stoats and weasels, with an obvious decline in all ground-nesting birds, which has risen again since we put the sheep back on.” At the march wall between Proctor’s and Pattison’s Allotments, Ben Blackett-Ord produced a bottle of sloe gin from his game bag and we had a welcome breather before lining out again.
We had now completed two-thirds of a rough circle and, as we worked our way across Pattison’s, three more coveys were put up adding a brace and a half to the bag. Approaching Thornthwaite, a wily old bird turned and flew high over the line giving Rawlence the last shot of the day and bringing the bag to 16-and-a-half brace.
From here, we drove back through the estate across the Swindale Beck and down a steep track to the converted stone barn at Seavy Rigg, where Tim Johnson and his assistant, Anne Morley, of the caterers Game Cart, were busily cooking lunch on a barbecue. Johnson provides lunches for about 50 of the Helbeck shoot days and around 30 at Bowes and Barningham. Eighteen of us sat down to a very jolly lunch: the eight guns; Nicolete Blackett-Ord and children Caspar and Clemmie; Ben’s sister, Nicky Rawlence, and daughter Ella; Mark’s daughter Elinor; Louise Malcolmson with daughter Laura and her boyfriend, Tom Caufield. A perfect end to a perfect day.
More grouse shooting in The Field