Not all shoots can meet the exacting criteria set by Jonathan Young. However, if you want to book a day to remember, here are the 20 best pheasant shoots that do
The 20 best pheasant shoots picks out the cream of the crop. With the season fully underway, The Field lists the best pheasant shoots in the country from Dorset to Scotland. Which will you make it to before the season ends? Or book now for some of the best pheasant shooting next season.
Pheasant shooting tips are essential for the experienced hand and new gun alike. The thrill as the season starts doesn’t…
THE 20 BEST PHEASANT SHOOTS
Now the harvest’s gathered in, what does your shooting diary look like? If there’s acres of white space and a winter of DIY beckons, it’s time to book some days, pronto. But where to go? Undoubtedly, many of the better days have long gone but there’s always the chance of a cancellation, even on the top shoots.
What we want from a day differs but, for many, the best pheasant shoots would have the following qualities:
- Decent birds, ie between 35yd and 50yd high, on a variety of drives.
- An absence of artificiality, ie a dearth of wire, release pens, feeders and piles of pheasants running around your feet.
- A cheerful keeper who’s not too in your face and who has the gumption to change the line and drives if the wind changes.
- A line of pegs that’s at least a good gunshot apart. Close pegging is awful.
- A line of pegs that takes into account the fact that birds’ behaviour will change during the course of the season. What worked in early November might not in January.
- Good pickers-up who believe you when you’ve marked a bird and go for it rather than taking all the easy retrieves off the guns’ dogs.
- On a commercial shoot, a host who realises he’s actually being paid to run the day and that the real host is the shoot captain who’s footing the bill with his friends.
- An absence of litter.
- Lovely countryside.
- A decent but not silly shoot lunch. If lunch really is the best drive of the day you’re at the wrong shoot.
I sent these criteria to those who’d been round the block more times than a London black cab and back came their recommendations for the 20 best pheasant shoots. Some are, of course, flavoured with commercial interest and that should be obvious. But even when there is a vested concern it should be remembered that no agent will push a shoot that doesn’t work.
I confess to having had reservations about this one, having heard stories of new shots who’d struggled there. Put bluntly, they could not hit the birds and Brigands in my mind was filed with other so-called “extreme” shoots where some people apparently derive pleasure from trying to kill birds that are out of normal modern shotgun and cartridge range. I then shot it last November and realised my foolishness in listening to rumour and failing to establish fact, as it is one of the best pheasant shoots. The day was perfectly organised, with a silent beating line producing a steady stream of birds over the entire line on every drive. Undoubtedly, some of those pheasants were not in range – so we left them and concentrated on those that were. The result, we agreed, was one of the best pheasant shoots we’d experienced.
Amy Evans is the daughter of Gwyn Evans, who owns Bettws Hall, the sporting company that runs Brigands, and she is in charge of sales and public relations.
“The name of the game here is high birds, as high as you can find whilst still being in range (only just) – and lots of them,” she says. “The shoot spans nearly 15,000 acres of Snowdonia’s deepest valleys, over which the birds are driven. From the moment the horn has been blown on the first drive you will see exactly what these birds are made of. And no, they’re not going to get much lower. The most noticeable element of Brigands, which sets it apart from other shoots of this calibre, is the continuity along the line. Whether you are pegged four or eight, you are bound to have plenty of birds to keep you occupied, which makes it one of the best pheasant shoots.”
The Chitcombe shoot lies in the crumpled folds near Blandford Forum, Dorset, and has a few drives that prompted one picker-up to ask the guns whether they’d brought their binoculars, “cos you’ll need ’em”.
Run by Roderick Wurfbain, it’s mainly a private family affair, with a few let days. Some of the more spectacular drives are Jacob’s Steps, Chitcombe Down and The Hangings. “There is no need to travel any farther south-west to find the bird of your dreams,” says Wurfbain.
Warmly recommended by David King, a highly experienced shot, as one of the best pheasant shoots.
“Situated in the Torridge Valley and about halfway between Great Torrington and Hatherley in North Devon, Heanton Satchville covers 5,000 acres with 25 drives based, in the main, in the Torridge valley. There is a mixture of drives from woodland (conifer and hardwoods) and game crops. Many of the drives feature steep valleys running down to the river and offer not just high, straight-over birds but fast, swinging, slashing crossers.
“They are most comfortable with 250 to 300 birds before Christmas and slightly smaller days through January. But they can and have on occasion in the past shot 50-plus days round the outside.
“The terrain is dramatic, particularly as one is often in sight of water, and I have several times missed birds through watching the otters. So we’ve got fabulous terrain, very testing birds in beautiful surroundings and to add to the pleasure of the day we have keeper Kevin Brosnan. I think Kevin has been keeper there for nearly 40 years and he still runs everywhere. He’s always standing in the line, quick to help any struggling gun and unobtrusively control the beating line to ensure as far as possible that all guns get shooting which makes it one of the best pheasant shoots.
“It is his control of the beating line (which is almost totally silent, just the occasional sound of tapping sticks) that helps to make every day there successful and enjoyable.”
“Quite how he manages to run a commercial shoot and yet make every party feel they are the only visitors that year is astonishing.
“I have shot there since the late Eighties and it’s by far my favourite Devon shoot and one of the best pheasant shoots in the country.”
HAWNBY & ARDEN
Hawnby & Arden is one of the best pheasant shoots clustered around Helmsley in North Yorkshire.
“It prides itself on being a very traditional shoot –or how shooting used to be,” says the Earl of Mexborough’s son, Jamie Savile. “We are strictly pheasants only – partridge are for Norfolk aren’t they? – and we hold a couple of days per season of very high birds. The remaining days are always a very happy mix of good-quality drives and two real screechers to get the blood level up. We rarely shoot big bags – 250 is usually our maximum (although the teams certainly get the shots). Rather than putting on more days, we have been reducing the days to 38 per season to keep the feeling and atmosphere very special. The benefit is that the birds and ground are rested and that the guns feel very welcome. David, the keeper, is very much heard and not seen and controls the most incredible beating line; there’s never any talking, just gentle tapping.”
BERELEIGH AND BOWCOMBE
Jason Abbot, restorer of fine British game-guns, says, “ I completely agree with your criteria for enjoying the best pheasant shoots and they are few and far between. I would choose Bereleigh and Bowcombe, on the Isle of Wight.”
Angus Barnes runs a number of high-bird shoots and has now joined the Loyton shoot with the famous Haddeo ground, giving some 6,000 acres along the Exe Valley and it is one of the best pheasant shoots in the country.
The wonderful Sir Ned Goschen still hosts there. Many will remember his prowess at mopping up with a .410 birds that had defeated those with much bigger artillery.
“Lunch is usually served in the shoot tent, set in the grounds of Loyton Lodge,” says Valerie von Stockhausen, who works for Barnes. “This is a safari-style affair, with open barbecue tables and views of the surrounding countryside. A converted Land Rover Series 90 is used to serve mid-morning breaks from a purpose-built bar.”
Garrowby has been in the Halifax family for a couple of centuries and sits on the edge of the Yorkshire Wolds. “It’s simply one of the best pheasant shoots I have ever been to,” says Bertie Hoskyns-Abrahall, a partner in international law firm Withers and a top shot. “You can take days there but it is dead men’s shoes and the sort of men that have the days are those that can afford to cheat death for ages.
“There are no pegs, there are no numbers but the pheasants are seriously testing and it’s both the most thoroughly relaxed day’s shooting you can imagine (for the guns) and the most highly organised military operation (for the beaters).”
Mathew Latchford is a shooting consultant for Roxtons. “Wellshead lies just outside Exford, in the heart of Exmoor,” he says. “It is a truly sensational private estate, and when I say private I mean that it really does not get more private than this and it is one of the best pheasant shoots in the country . The shoot lodge is 300yd from a single-track road and upon reaching it you are in a small piece of paradise. There are no Tarmac roads for miles and no houses – just nature and pheasants.
“The drives all produce good-quality and high but sensible birds. Gary, the keeper, is very welcoming and the days are run in an impeccable fashion; there is never any shouting, every beater knows where they need to be and the drives can be moved or driven differently with ease. The keeper has a great skill in being able to make a drive last; he produces a steady stream of birds over the gun line, so there are never clouds of birds at any one time.
“There is an impressive attention to detail on the estate with well-maintained grassland leading to each peg, so standing guns are always able to find their position easily. The drives are all open and there is no snap-shooting, thus allowing time for any gun to prepare his/her shot and execute it to the highest standard, making it one of the best pheasant shoots in the country.
“The lodge is extremely well appointed with a full bar and roaring fire.”
“It’s one of the best pheasant shoots by a country mile,” says Olympic gold medallist Richard Faulds. “Taken over a couple of years ago by Andrew Law and run by George Stucley, you spend the day on the banks of the Tamar and surrounding valleys shooting pheasants that would challenge the best shots in the world.
“Alongside the quality of the shooting is the hospitality, which also is superb. Stay at Maristow Lodge the night before and all you need to do is roll out of bed into your tweeds and almost walk to the pegs.”
“I reckon – as do many others – that this is one of the best pheasant shoots in North Yorkshire and in the top five in the country (it would be my Number 1),” says Rob Fenwick, MD of EJ Churchill. “It’s impeccably run and Trevor Bailey is a proper host who knows exactly how to put on a brilliant day. The birds can be very high but there are plenty of others. You can buy days there but you need to be quick. This is from the very top drawer.”
Angus Barnes also lets days on Combe Sydenham. “This was once the home of Francis Drake,” says Valerie von Stockhausen, “and has long been keepered by two of the famous Conachie family who have had keepering (and the Westcountry) in the blood for several generations. Whether a 100- or 500-bird day, the atmosphere will always be with the same – professional, friendly and great fun, making it one of the best pheasant shoots.”
Also chosen by Fenwick. “One of the old ‘very best pheasant shoots’ and under the new regime is only going to get better and better (probably back to its old days). I asked the headkeeper how many really top drives he has and he answered ‘at least 25’.”
Farther north, Fenwick picks out Northumberlands’ best pheasant shoots. “The scenery and setting is the best of any shoot in the country, period. The birds are fabulous, some very high but others just very challenging as every drive is different. For elevenses you stop at the tower and climb up it for one of the best views in Northumberland and lunch is in the 400-year-old abbey. I was lucky enough to shoot South Bunkers at the end of the season last year and it was one of the best pheasant shoots I have ever shot, anywhere.”
Also recommended by David King is Fonthill estate, owned by Lord Margadale. “When people talk about the best pheasant shoots in England, south Wiltshire doesn’t always immediately spring to mind, which is surprising when you consider the Chalk Valley, which starts at Gurston Down and finishes at Ashcombe with several very fine shoots in between and all not much more than a hundred miles from London. Whoever said ‘It’s not all just pulling the trigger’ was absolutely right. The mood is set at Fonthill when one drives through huge, imposing, old stone gates into this absolutely beautiful parkland with an enormous lake on the left. The shoot is divided into two by the A303, the part to the west incorporating Great Ridge. Great Ridge is steeply wooded and it’s more like being in North Devon. It hides one of Wiltshire’s great secrets, a drive called Cowdown. First time I shot it the performance was so bad (10 to 1) I gave up shooting for a year. The combination of 28-bore and 45yd, fixed-wing, curling pheasants bouncing up and down in a tricky crosswind was just too much. I’ve shot it twice since; it is always testing and would make any of the great guns we know grunt.
“There are other excellent drives, particularly Combe Bank, Chilfinch, Snailcreep and Pitchpenny. The estate is 9,000 acres with 16 pheasant drives, seven partridge and two or three mixed drives. The headkeeper is Mick Lewis. They do it incredibly well and offer very-high-bird days and can tailor the suit for all abilities, which is important to me these days in the best pheasant shoots.”
For those who like to be back in London for supper, Fenwick plumps for Hampden. “Set in the heart of the Chilterns, 30 miles from London, this is a stunning shoot and one of the best pheasant shoots. The house makes a very impressive backdrop and a great place for lunch, and you will be surprised at the height of the birds you can pile off those Chiltern hills.”
Mathew Latchford recommends Drumlanrig, the Duke of Buccleuch’s estate in Galloway. “Though it’s noted for its early partridge-shooting, with over 94,000 acres it is no surprise that Drumlanrig has the topography to show excellent pheasants and is one of the best pheasant shoots. The drives are kept separate so that a pheasant day is specifically a pheasant day. The pheasant drives are situated in impressive valleys with open grassland bottoms, which allow easy access for all age groups and the flat shoot platforms increase the enjoyment for everyone. The days revolve around the ‘pink castle’, where lunch and tea are taken and there’s a full-sized billiards table for those who fancy a game after shooting.”
Jeremy Shaw runs Carters Country Wear in Helmsley, North Yorkshire, looks after hundreds of visiting sportsmen a year and knows all the shoots in the area. He recommends Hawnby & Arden (see p55) and Ravenswick, run by Julian Boddy of Sportselect, as the best pheasant shoots.
“Ravenswick has drives for every level of shooting. It can test the best but the day can easily be tailored so that the relative novice does not feel intimidated.
“The countryside is spectacular and most of the drives are in the open. There’s no pegging. Boddy places everyone so you will have the best opportunity. Lunch does not dominate but both the food and wine are excellent and guns never feel they are being rushed, which is an art in itself.”
“Owned by the Best family, this shoot is set among stunning scenery and shows outstanding pheasants driven at perfect pace and well spread across the line,” says Jono Irby, Purdey’s head of sales. “The dramatic Gothic Victorian house offers a great lunch accompanied by good wines and plenty of laughter. Billy Best (mid-thirties) is a relaxed and very charming host who celebrates the great shots and provides solace in a gentle but humorous manner when you’ve made a Horlicks of the job. I had one of my very best pheasant shoots here – and one of my very worst – and loved them both.”
Contact: tel 01978 860235.