At Brails Hill shoot the pheasants are flying high on a GWCT prize day
A day at Brailes Hill shoot was a better bet than buying a lottery ticket. Every week the National Lottery’s siren song suggests, “It could be you”, but sceptics know that at 13,983,816 to one you’re almost 14 times more likely to be struck by lightning. A better bet is the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust’s (GWCT) annual raffle, especially if you persuade the whole gunline to chip in. This was Major-General Jamie Balfour’s cunning plan in 2009, when he coaxed his shoot guests into entering the prize draw for a day’s sport, 150 to 200 birds at Brailes Hill shoot, near Banbury, Warwickshire. David Fellowes did as suggested, and pulled out the plum.
“I got an early morning call from Jamie, saying, ‘You bastard, you won the raffle’,” recalls Fellowes. “Then I had the joy of inviting my friends.” This, of course, included Balfour as a thank you for twisting his arm into entering.”
Treating your friends is one of the great pleasures of a prize day, so it was a pretty happy gathering of guns and wives that met at the George Hotel in Shipston-on-Stour, where the keepers joined them for drinks. “We had a real house party,” says Fellowes, but it was not a riotous affair. “I realised we’d have to be on form so didn’t want a hangover,” he adds. Suzie Corbett was so determined that her spaniel, Flounder, would greet the day in fine fettle that she smuggled it into the hotel for a good night’s sleep.
DEMAND OUTSTRIPS SUPPLY
This restraint was well advised. Two seasons ago, a high-profile charity day was somewhat marred by the guns’ dismal performance after they’d stayed up most of the night getting totally over-refreshed. It didn’t endear them much to the shoot hosts, keepers or beaters, all of whom had done their very best to provide a superlative day.
Fellowes’s party knew that this shoot warrants clear heads. Though Warwickshire is generally considered to be a hunting rather than shooting county, especially by those without experience of it, Brailes Hill shoot has the topography to produce some extremely testing birds.
The shoot is close to the site of the Battle of Edgehill, which took place in 1642. It surrounds the 760ft high Brailes Hill, topped by Highwall Spinney, and covers 800 acres of the estate. They shoot only about a dozen days per year and the reputation is such that demand usually outstrips supply.
Starting the day with Marshalls drive, Malcolm Bryan, keepering jointly with Will Hogan, confessed, “It’s a very good drive, in fact all the drives on here are good for high birds but if you have the wind in the right direction you can shoot some stunners.” A good wind crossing the drive sent the birds whistling over the guns, fast and high.
There should be no downside to producing good birds but Hogan admitted that, “It was occasionally a bit of a problem getting the quality of the guns – it makes such a difference to the bags.” Three years ago they changed from charging per bird to selling days as a whole. “From a keepering point of view it’s nice not to be number crunching but I will aim to see a bag of 200 to 250 at the end of each day next season.”
For the coming season Malcolm Bryan will be hosting days and Hogan is made sole keeper, adding new drives and partridges to the mix with his “strong group of hard-core beaters”. He puts down more than 5,500 birds and is determined to make his mark and put Brailes Hill on the map.
The beating team often includes Andrew Knight, who owns the shoot. It is separated from the rest of his land by Shipston-on-Stour. He fell in love with Brailes Hill on sight but had not thought of its sporting potential until keeper Bryan Whitehouse came to help him on the estate, having been made redundant following the sale of a neighbouring estate, Foxcote. Whitehouse suggested it would be a lovely shoot and set about making the Brailes Hill shoot in less than three years.
The rapid success of the shoot has inspired Knight’s son Casimir to take up shooting, but Andrew is wedded to the beating line. “It was too late for me to take up shooting but I love beating. You are much nearer the fun, close to the game, and there is no danger of getting cold like the guns standing in the valley,” he told me, adding that it was also nice to be able to comment on others’ shooting without fear of similar treatment. “It is a pleasure to watch really good shooting.”
HIGH BIRDS DOWN UNDER
Knight is hugely supportive of sporting interests despite not hunting or shooting himself. He donated the day in order to benefit the GWCT’s “wonderful scientific work”, valuable to all political colours and important in presenting clear evidence from the countryside. Knight also welcomes the beagles and the Warwickshire Hunt, though he thinks Brailes Hill itself is a bit too steep for them. Max Kendry of the GWCT was as impressed by the birds shown as with the thousands of pounds raised across Hampshire and Warwickshire by the raffle. The land is a hub for game, supporting a healthy deer population which, with the stalking in-hand, often finds its way into the shoot lunch, as well as the shoot and farm.
This was Hogan’s first season back in the UK after working near Auckland in New Zealand. “The standard was very high out there and some birds were up to high Devon standard. There are some English blokes out there who really know what they are doing,” Hogan assures me. “And I can say I’ve shot driven pheasants in the Southern hemisphere.” He started beating as a boy and also worked at Campden House and Lydney Park but Knight hopes he is settled here for the foreseeable future.
The poults for Brailes Hill come from Martin Sly at Long Compton, so they do not have far to travel. “They are well-grown, strong birds. It’s not a short-tailed bird scene. We have Michigan blue/black crosses, Scandinavians and melanistic,” says Hogan. The birds may be strong but Brailes Hill is an oasis with no neighbouring shoots, so Hogan is diligent with his dogging in. In addition to the family syndicate, he is attracting regular teams for the let days. “It is good having guns that appreciate the work you put in,” he adds.
The gamecart, made by Shaun Rigler, proved a great talking-point. It is a specially shortened Land Rover chassis with a 2.5-litre engine that Hogan has christened “Swamp Dog” because it will go anywhere and leaves their Mule standing. Swamp Dog is often the only vehicle on the shoot as guns walk from drive to drive. It is a linear shoot with each drive leading neatly to the next, walking right round Brailes Hill in the first three drives. Everyone seemed delighted to be able to get though a whole day’s shooting under their own steam, and thought it a treat not to be piling in and out of 4x4s.
The third drive was The Bowl (known locally as Primrose Hill), a real showcase of high and testing birds, a “show-stopper”, as described by Hogan, proudly. “These are our highest birds.” They were steepling and really forced the guns to keep swinging and get their eyes in, to the extent that on the next drive, called Jenny Swift, Fellowes hardly let a bird past him. “I should stop shooting after that,” he joked. “I don’t think I’ll ever top it.”
SINGING BRAILES’S PRAISES
Flounder’s night in comfort at The George had paid off and with friendly pickers-up it could enjoy getting stuck into the brambles much to Suzie’s delight. There was plenty to pick on the last drive, Field Barn. With all the guns well into their stride there were 50 birds down. Floyd was beaming. “It’s nice when you connect with a fast one.”
By the end of the drive the light was failing and, having shot through and managed to come in just under the 200-bag wire, it time was to repair for a late lunch. The stone barn is a short walk up Brailes Hill from the pegs of the last drive and has 360-degree views of the shoot and its stone floors meant that the guns could march in with boots.
There is no electricity so the barn is filled with large candles standing in clay pigeons, which makes a wonderfully welcoming sight, especially as the nights draw in. Inside, lunch and the guns are heated by wood-burners. A candlelit feast of piping-hot stew made a perfect finale to what Suzie Corbett described as, “a private and special weekend, which was different and new for everybody”. Fellows was so delighted with the barn that he plans to take it for a private dinner. “We’ve been looked after like royalty,” he says.
Under the care of Will Hogan and estate manager Caroline Warren, and with its obvious geological advantages, Brailes Hill may live up to Knight’s boast that it is the best shoot in the Midlands. Visiting guns leave superlatives ringing in his ears, like David Fellowes’s parting comment: “The whole thing was bliss.” A year later I hear they are still singing its praises.