Shooting pheasant and partridge at New Barn Farm shoot involves hopping on a boat to get there. A different start to proceedings at this Purdey Award winning bronze medallist
The precursor to a day in the field at New Barn Farm can take varying forms. There’s the “I live minutes from the shoot and breeze in without a thought” approach; the “slipping lazily from a four-poster into tweeds the butler has laid out for you” route; the “eye-squeezing, clanging, mother of all hangovers” version – only marginally less painful than the “overslept, clogged motorway, A road, B road, a real F of a road, then track accessible only to anything built by Claas or JCB”.
So the novelty of a short ferry journey from Lymington to Yarmouth on the Isle of Wight was a refreshing and relaxing change before I joined the assembled team on a cool December day. Years of gun-bus banter has seen me turn almost deaf to county-by-county character assassinations on account of the denizens’ habits and practices (Lincolnshire was always a regular target along with my beloved Norfolk), but as soon as I mentioned a trip to the island, the comments didn’t stop. I’d like to think I’m above all that, but I must confess my surprise when I saw at least two islanders wearing “I shot JR” T-shirts.
Of the 12 days shot at New Barn Farm, this was the one thank-you day for Chris Spence, the landowner and inspiration behind the sterling work that saw the shoot receive the Purdey Game and Conservation Bronze Award last year. This day was for his guests and, although he hung up his guns a few years ago, he has overseen the shoot on the chalky downland on the north face of the island for 20 or so years now. The shooting and its support elements provide the impulsion for the whole farm, with solid conservation and a happy syndicate the joint beneficiaries.
Around 70 of the 500 acres are actively farmed, with 30 or so left as winter stubble, topped by sheep. The rest is in stewardship or Woodland Grant schemes, with miles of hedging and a myriad of trees planted. Almost 50 acres are down to wild grasses, sprinkled with an abundance of seasonal wild flowers.
Chris Spence’s tireless efforts in improving the shoot and his farm’s biodiversity were recognised and cheered by Jonathan Young, The Field’s Editor and a senior Purdey judge. He described it as “a very, very good shoot that delivers major conservation benefits, because the owner is passionate about his sport and prepared to fund major conservation work on the shoot out of his own pocket”.
When you consider the Duke of Norfolk took Gold for his colossal project that re-acquainted grey partridges with the South Downs around Arundel, to have secured any Purdey honour is an extraordinary achievement. By happy coincidence, at the top of New Barn Farm’s to-do list “grey partridges” has been written in and underlined.
The award citation read “well managed and community spirited”, and it was the last part of the statement that intrigued me. However, as Jake the photographer and I made our way to our respective vantage points, having been introduced to all protagonists, I suddenly realised that for a 100-bird day, give or take, there was an incredible turn-out for the beating line – 25 at least. I queried this with Chris Spence and his response was a breath of fresh air: “If this was a commercial venture, then yes we may be top-heavy with beaters, but it doesn’t matter a jot here. They’re all friends, all local people. Some live alone and don’t really get out much. We’ve known each other for years. It’s great to see so many out.”
I discovered that the farm has been a hub within the Calborne community for over two decades, with the farmhouse and gardens hosting everything from ploughing matches to Brownies’ revels, fêtes and charity clay-shoots.
Although I hate to admit it, I’d made the classic mistake of writing this off as a humble farm shoot. After the first wave of partridges – the advance party on the first drive – I have to say that, as the pheasants started to glide over in twos and threes, my mind couldn’t help but compute these quality birds in commercial terms. Yet all birds shot are distributed between the beaters, pickers-up and guns, and are never sold. Chris Spence doesn’t run this shoot for profit, but the challenge each of these birds posed was easily worth £40 of anyone’s hard-earned.
The second phase of the first drive, which saw the cream of the birds coming over the thigh part of a dog leg, gave the guns absolutely nothing to gauge the birds against. Once clear of the headland, they simply climbed up and up or set their wings, juddering slightly as the wind buffeted them along their course – not easy at all. Despite the contours at their disposal, the birds’ flight reminded very much of crafty fen pheasants spiralling skywards.
Having watched the first phase of the combined drives one and two, I left the touch-line and the pickers-up to join David Langford, one of the guns who was lucky enough to have been right under the tap for the best birds. I picked out a Royal Artillery strap on his rather senior cartridge bag, with a wonderful patina to the hide. And before you even think it, the only things that dropped short with this chap were birds at his feet.
I commented on the very English-looking boxlock, he was using only to be told: ‘It’s German, actually, would you believe?” Whip-ping out his cartridges, one eye on the horizon, he handed me the gun, built between the wars by the world-renowned Krupp of Essen. “My uncle found it – pretty isn’t it, considering?
He was an officer with the Highland Light Infantry and found it alongside a destroyed German tank. He’d probably used it for sandgrouse and the like.” The bird stream thinned, with Langford taking a really tricky quartering hen and the shoot captain Mick Hayden taking a couple of really cracking birds Langford had slowed, to start him on a path on which he would continue all day. He missed very little at all.
For a change, it was very pleasant for me to take a step back, watch some decent shooting without any having to have thoughts of bag numbers, lunch timings, diminishing light or any other agent’s concerns, and listen as the team convened to help pick well-marked birds, to congratulate each other and to tease.
As the team gathered, Charlie Spence, Chris’s son, returned with a handful. He was out of my sight-line, but clearly shooting very straight with an Army & Navy. He was accompanied by local farmer Paddy Hodgson – a real character and certainly the joker of the pack. “I ran out of cartridges,” Paddy announced with faux brazenness, followed by a pained shrug and massive grin, all to gentle shoves, rolled eyes and howls of mirth.
Each drive harvested around 18 to 20 birds, and there were enough in the air at any given moment for the guns really to pick and choose. I don’t think it was for my benefit, but they were exceedingly choosy and picked out only the stretchy ones.
Over something warming during elevenses, several of the team delighted in explaining that, for them, with their combined experience of shooting on the island for many years, New Barn ranked only just below the mighty Bowcombe, the island’s jewel. Shot-to-kill ratios hover around the four- or five-to-one mark, but a stiff breeze can make a monkey of those figures.
With no great fanfare, each drive segued into the next and after the fifth drive, Upper Valley, I was congratulating Chris Bland on the corking hen he’d folded above Peter Kingston‘s head, when Chris Spence, having had a quick conflab with Mick Hayden, announced that they were going to squeeze in just one more drive. Smiles all round.
I took up a position on the gorse-studded bank which, on the very first drive, the birds had sailed over. Next to me was Tim Pressey, an amiable picker-up and syndicate member, with a very impressive black labrador. Within moments of the drive starting, a woodcock ran the gauntlet of the line, sweeping wide, high and inviting – the sixth I’d seen during the day. At least three of the team could have had a dart, but all were happy to allow him dip and shimmy away unhindered. The island had been clear of hard weather for some time, but nonetheless, most of the team were content to see woodcock left alone for a little while longer.
My position gave me full view of father-and-son team Richard and Jeremy Fisk, local farmers who shot out of their skins on the finale – high partridges, in the main, all on an obvious slide to our right, a good percentage being single-barrel kills.
Odd birds with an engine out were quickly despatched by neighbouring guns, which further illustrates the spirit of the line. I saw few average birds shot and the tidying-up was heartwarming. Sad to relate, these days it is not as com-mon as one would wish.
With the final whistle blast and shots echoing away down the valley, just after 1.30, I told Chris what Richard Purdey had said about the shoot. He had described it as “a prime example of a classic farm shoot which has enabled its owner’s passion for conservation to flourish, and which demonstrates perfectly the fact that if it wasn’t for the shooting, the sport and the fun there, then there’d be far less conservation work going on in the British countryside – with dire consequences for its biodiversity.”
As the background murmur and chat from the combined groups turned towards the bag count and the prospect of a late lunch, Chris surveyed a belt of young trees, just a handful of the 50,000 that he has planted.
He smiled reflectively and suddenly looked bashfully at the ground. “I’m 71 now,” he said. “Not that old, I suppose, but I would like to think that I’ve left a mark here. We’ve certainly had some fun, but I do believe we’ve also made our mark, don’t you agree?”
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