Before Covid confined us all to barracks last December, one lucky group of Guns enjoyed a testing partridge day near Whitby writes Graham Downing
From the edge of Borrowby Moor the views over the North Yorkshire countryside, across wooded ghylls to the North Sea beyond, are spectacular. And on a crisp December morning, with pheasants curling high off the moorland edge in a south-westerly breeze, there must be few more uplifting places to be in Northern England.
Borrowby Moor is one of the signature drives of the Newton Mulgrave shoot, which for the past three years has been run by seasoned North Yorkshire Guns Phil Bottomley and Alistair Reed.
“When our local farm shoot folded in 2005 I really missed it, so I approached local landowners, became shoot captain and got it going again on a syndicate basis,” said Bottomley. “I had shot three or four times at Newton Mulgrave and when I heard on the grapevine that the sporting lease over the estate was being offered, I approached Ali and we visited the estate on a shoot day just so that he could see the potential. The result was that we set up a shoot business together, we took the lease and we had our first season in 2019-20.”
There has been a shoot over the 1,600-acre estate for many years, though in the past it was privately run. From the edge of the North York Moors, the country dips east towards the coast, taking in both rough grazing and, lower down the hill, improved pasture, all of it laced with wild, straggling hedgerows and banks of gorse, oak and beech. Cover crops of kale, maize and triticale back up the natural cover on the shoot’s 11 drives.
“We use an adviser from Frontier to suggest what’s best suited to our soil and aspect,” says Bottomley. “The kale works well for us, however, and we employ a local contractor to drill our cover crops in strips of one to four acres.”
The shoot releases both pheasants and partridges, and normally produces five or six partridge days in September and early October before focusing on the pheasants from mid-October onwards. “We’re principally a pheasant shoot. It’s good to have the partridges – and they really add to the earlier days – but we couldn’t sustain the shoot purely on partridges through the season,” comments Bottomley.
He is also careful not to overstock, and the shoot is audited by the British Game Alliance to ensure that standards are met and that the shooting is fully sustainable. “We’ve got some very nice shoots locally, and we don’t want to over-egg this one. This is essentially a modest pheasant shoot, but we show some pretty good birds by virtue of the ground we shoot over.”
In a normal season, there would be around 28 shoot days, of which six are reserved for a local syndicate. With keepers’ days and family days, that leaves some 18 let days available.
Particularly exciting are the little wooded ghylls down which, when wind conditions are right, partridges can be encouraged to fly, offering some splendid snap shooting, but the stars of the show are the banks below the moorland edge. These steeply sloping, hanging woodlands enable birds to be launched off the fringe of the heather moor and flown over Guns arranged below on undulating pastures, producing drives that remain long in the memory.
It was to one of these moorland edge drives, Dave’s Wood, that a team of local Yorkshire Guns headed in the second week of December. Keeper Guy Breckon had instructed his beaters to push through part of the upper ghyll before the Guns arrived at their pegs to ensure that as many of his birds as possible were on the highest part of the bank, then he brought the drive in from both sides, knocking out the gorse to a point from which the final birds flushed.
And they came well, drifting slightly on the south-westerly wind from left to right, favouring the lower peg numbers. “It’s the first time I’ve shot here,” said Robert Matten afterwards. A beef farmer from Thirsk and a close friend of both Bottomley and Reed, he likes to be challenged by well-presented pheasants. “They were testing but shootable. A lot of people are put off by really high pheasants, but I like challenging birds. I’m really not that bothered about the bag, it’s the quality of the birds that interests me.”
The next drive, Borrowby Moor, is on the same bankside as Dave’s Wood, but it is higher up the hill and requires a half-mile journey in the shoot vehicles before the Guns are lined out on fields of tussocky rough grass and sedge. The principle, however, is similar: birds are drawn carefully to the top of the moorland bank before being flushed and pushed off with the wind beneath their tails. The sou’wester blowing on this bright December day was lifting birds towards pegs 6 and 7, then turning them down the line, producing a mixture of oncoming and quartering shots.
It was not just pheasants that came off the hill. David Palmer was well positioned to take advantage of the partridges that sped down the ghyll. “There were some wonderful partridges off that drive,” said Palmer, who runs the NFU Mutual office in Thirsk. “I’ve shot here before, it’s an outstanding shoot, and I’ll bring a friend here next season. Borrowby Moor is a fabulous drive. You stand well back and the birds come at you off the bank. They’re wonderfully high and consistent, and spread well across the line. Everyone gets a turn.”
As we all know, anyone getting a decent day’s shooting last season was blessing their good luck, and this December day was among the last before a full Covid lockdown was reimposed. Arrangements were adjusted accordingly, and instead of the normal lunch in the shoot room, lunch boxes were made up by Bottomley’s wife, Helen, who looks after the catering, while Reed’s wife, Joanne, helped serve lunch and drinks outside in the fresh air. “There was a real sense of freedom just being able to get outside for a good day’s shooting,” commented Tom Bell. “It was a pleasure to be out and everything we were able to do seemed like a bonus after the restrictions we had been used to.”
Proprietor of local gun shop Northallerton Shooting, Bell knows his way around the majority of the shoots in the district. “Phil and Ali have really improved the shoot, and they’ve got a very good young keeper. The terrain is undulating, so you’re shooting some very good birds, particularly those fantastic partridges off the moor edge. We’re a group of friends who all know each other well. Good shooting and plenty of laughter make for more than just a good day out.”
Bell was well placed for the third drive of the day, Foxholes, where the Guns were pegged across fresh, springy pasture while a shaft of bright afternoon sunshine lit up the distant village of Hinderwell. The drive takes in more of the lower arable ground of the estate, with the Guns facing the rolling hills above. With beaters coming from both flanks and pushing everything into a game cover above pegs 4 to 6, it produced a number of very tricky pheasants as well as some high, testing partridges.
“It’s a drive where, even if you’re not in the thick of the shooting, you can see a lot of things happening and it’s good when there’s a bit of space in the line to be able to see how others are getting on. The partridges really came over me with some venom. The birds were 30 or 40 metres high and even as a seasoned shot I found them testing,” commented Bell afterwards.
Some of the tallest birds on the shoot were presented on the fourth and final drive, America Banks, which Bottomley regards as an ‘A’ list drive. Here, a large area of ground from the upper part of the estate is brought in to a mixed hilltop cover crop of artichokes and kale, before the birds are launched off ‘Mrs Brown’s hill’. They can be quite exceptional and for David Palmer that is exactly what they were.
“The birds come from a long way away and you can see them for a long time before they get to you, which is not always a good thing. Just before the whistle went I was tracking a hen. I gave it an enormous amount of lead before pulling the trigger, and it collapsed and fell behind me. It was the highest bird I have ever shot and was stone dead with the last shot of the day. Some birds just stick in your mind and that was one of them.”
On so many shoots these days the birds are taken straight from the drives and transferred to a chiller – and for good reason, especially on a warm partridge day in the early part of the season. But modern practice does, I think, take away any opportunity for the Guns to look at what they have shot and pay their respects. It was therefore pleasing to see that at Newton Mulgrave, the tradition is to lay out the bag at the end of the day for inspection. “I think it’s a tradition that the Guns appreciate,” commented Bottomley. “It demonstrates that we’re open and transparent about what has been shot, and I think it makes a nice finish to the day.”
As the Guns drove home, the Prime Minister announced on the radio that a full lockdown would be commencing at the end of the Christmas holiday, bringing an unscheduled end to the shooting season for most of us. However, that memorable day in North Yorkshire was one that Covid could not take away.