Alec Marsh meets the fieldsports fixers: those insiders who are the key to securing the finest sporting adventures on the most exclusive estates

There may be as many as 10,000 shoots across Britain, from farm-run affairs to the biggest corporate operations. Some 400 rivers to fish for salmon in Scotland; and the Masters of Foxhounds Association represents more than 170 registered packs in England, Wales and Scotland. Even before you factor in the grouse moors, the stalking and the wildfowling, you are left with a dizzying array of sporting adventures.

For would-be sportsmen and women, the question is where on earth to begin? Inevitably, the start of the answer is not what but who you know. Chances are this will have governed what you’ve experienced so far in the field, helping to shape your sporting preferences. This will have introduced you to like-minded folk, those who form your own little black sporting book. But there are always gaps that need to be filled. So meet the need-to-know gumboots on the ground, the fieldsports fixers. We introduce the insiders who are on hand to guide you on your next sporting adventure.

Opening the doors to sporting adventures on the best estates

Ted Innes Ker is the younger brother of the Duke of Roxburghe. He grew up at the magnificent William Adam designed Floors Castle in the Scottish Borders. This is the seat of the Roxburghe family’s 50,000-acre estate, and therefore Innes Ker enjoyed access to some of the best sport in Scotland and, arguably, the world.

After a five-year professional golf career and a stint at property consultancy Galbraith, he decided that he wanted to build a business around what he liked doing best. Fishing, shooting, golf and exploring Scotland’s west coast. “That was what I loved to do and was relatively good at, and also I had spent my life growing up entertaining people, helping them learn to fish, play golf, hosting people at my parents’ houses,” he recalls.

Ted Innes Ker

Ted Innes Ker opens the doors to the best and most private estates

In 2018, Innes Ker picked up the phone to around a dozen top estates whose owners he knew and set up Reiver. The company offers ‘luxury experiences in Scotland’, mainly to American clients. His typical offering includes several days on the west coast for boat trips, helicopter beach lunches, lobster potting or golf, before heading to a private estate for some fishing, stalking or grouse shooting.

For guests who aren’t taking part in sport, there are exclusive moorland lunches and meticulously curated trips to Edinburgh and elsewhere. “Through being fortunate enough to be born into the background that I am, I have access and I have been to the best and the most private estates in Scotland. That’s what I wanted to open the doors to,” Innes Ker says.

“These are not the kind of things you can book online. It’s purely if you have that relationship with that landowner or the owner of the castle – that’s how you get access to really quite extraordinary situations.” Everything he does is bespoke, he says. While not sharing precise details, the sporting opportunities do include Floors Castle itself and another estate where guests arrive by a private chartered seaplane. “I’m promoting the unpromotable,” Innes Ker confirms.

Sporting adventures on the hunting field

Rising to the trot of the international market is precisely what Megan Bliss of Blackthorn & Brook has been doing for the past 10 years. She provides bespoke hunting tours to Americans. Based in the south-west of England, where she is married to Ryan, Master of the Blackmore & Sparkford Vale, she takes clients to up to four meets with different hunts in a given week’s visit. These are selected from around a dozen that she knows intimately and where she has built up “a network of friendly faces and brilliant horses to hire”.

Naturally, the hunts will need to work well geographically and all need relevant accommodation. Horses are key, too. Here the personal connections are vital, says Bliss. She cites one huntswoman in Cornwall telling her, “Oh, I don’t really do hirelings any more, but I suppose for you…”

Bliss adds: “It’s the horses that are by far the most important part. They can make or absolutely ruin a holiday.” Activities need to be sourced for non-riders, too. She recalls a Christmas lunch where two clients and their family joined them. The secret is making visitors feel welcome. “It’s experiencing hunting as a local, really,” she says.

Knowledge gained from 10 years as a gamekeeper

Delivering an experience is at the heart of the work of Gordon Robinson, the veteran shooting fixer at the Purdey Sporting Agency. He is based at the Royal Berkshire Shooting School near Pangbourne, where he’s been for 26 years. His personal knowledge of shoots in the UK alone runs into the hundreds. This might put him in the same league of knowledge as the shooting obsessed 2nd Marquess of Ripon.

“You have to be into shooting, to have a passion for it,” Robinson tells me. “Being a gamekeeper for 10 years allowed me to have that background knowledge of what happens on a day. In turn, this allows me to understand if things go wrong, why they’ve gone wrong.” That will help him determine good shoots from bad, too, and possibly even fix problems before they arise.

For Robinson, it’s like running a dating agency, and as a result it’s about relationships with guns and estates. “It’s also asking the right questions,” says Robinson, who, like our other insiders, hosts days for clients. “A lot of people think they know a lot; a lot of people do know a lot. And a lot of people know nothing. You have to gauge that.”

Questions cover budget, location, accommodation, the type of game, the time of year, days of the week and, crucially, levels of experience: “There’s no point me taking guns who are fairly new to the sport to the likes of Devon or Wales, where everything is 50 to 60 yards high. They’re not going to have a good time. It’s important to know that the clients and the estates are a good match.”

Ultimately, it’s down to “what ticks their boxes when it comes to shooting. Some people are more interested in the champagne when it comes to elevenses.” This encyclopaedic understanding of shoots, passion for sport and direct relationships are what make the difference. His aim is “allowing people to experience situations that I would like to experience and getting it right”.

Bespoke sporting adventures

For those who aren’t born to it, there is the sportswoman Serena Cross – columnist for The Field and brand ambassador for Purdey. Having helped many beginners and experienced guns at her family’s shoot Caerhays in Cornwall, Cross went commercial with her shooting advisory business, Phoenix Sporting. It is a ‘country lifestyle consultancy’ launched in 2021. “We’re giving everybody who wants to get into shooting the opportunity to have the confidence to go out in the field, and no one would ever know you weren’t born to it,” says Cross. She is “passionate about getting people into the sport”.

Serena Cross from Phoenix Sporting

Serena Cross from Phoenix Sporting offers a highly bespoke service

Cross’s personal and personable service is highly bespoke, essentially led by the needs and aspirations of the client. However, it extends beyond helping hitherto non-shooting wives and girlfriends to advising seasoned guns who need to work on their technique or want to expand their sporting horizons. This could be migrating to grouse from pheasants or trying their hand shooting doves in Argentina.

“I can find whatever shooting anyone wants pretty much anywhere in the world,” says Cross, whose own sporting black book is informed by decades of sport and passions that include boar and woodcock shooting. “On the day I’m their friend, mentor, guide, guru – it’s about relaxing and enjoying the day because that’s what we all do it for.”

It’s knowing the right people to ask at the right moment

Another agent with a boots-on-the-ground perspective is Mungo Ingleby of Sporting Lets. He began his career working as a gillie on the Isle of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. “Being able to tell people exactly what to expect is critical,” says Ingleby, a passionate angler who has caught salmon from some 40 rivers. “The sporting landscape is changing, and you need to be able to tell people what to expect on the ground. It takes a long time to build up that level of experience – going to the different estates, walking the ground.”

Mungo Ingleby with a spaniel

Mungo Ingleby has links with estates going back half a century

It’s critical for managing their expectations, too, as well as helping to provide the right fit based on availability. For Ingleby, this knowledge, along with strong commercial links with estates going back 50 years in some cases, set the small firm apart. This is especially important when the big clients all want the same thing – walked-up grouse, fishing and stalking.

“The reality is that there aren’t vast swathes of availability across Scotland,” notes Ingleby, who spent 16 years as a chartered surveyor, the last eight of which were at Galbraith, before taking on Sporting Lets. “So that’s part of the process because there are few locations where there’s an even spread of fishing, stalking and shooting. It’s a process of informing – trying to marry people to the right location.”

Like Innes Ker, Ingleby has international clients who require lodge weeks with a variety of daily sporting and non-sporting options. Finding the right guides to provide the additional support these parties require is all part of the business – one that’s growing, too. He’s also confident he can get his clients into the most elite opportunities. “It is knowing the right people to ask at the right moment.”

There’s an intimacy to each sporting adventure

A former JP Morgan private banker, Edward Downpatrick set up Aristeia Travel during lockdown. It promises to take people to “wild, beautiful parts of the world… to explore and be culturally immersed”. Against this ambition, the sport is contextual. If clients were heading to Mongolia, he would suggest hunting with eagles and then some game hunting. Similarly, salmon fishing would feature on a trip to Patagonia. Likewise, clients wanting to come to Scotland would desire a “multi-pronged tour” that could include stalking or fishing.

The crucial dimension is the first-hand knowledge and hosting. “Because we are the size we are, there’s an intimacy to each trip and my guests and I get to know each other well,” Downpatrick says. “It means I can provide better service each time someone comes on a trip, and beyond that, opens up parts of the world and experiences for which they didn’t yet know they longed.”

Creating a great experience for someone, he believes, comes down to something else, too. “Joy should be integral to everything. If you can achieve that, you’re doing a good job,” says Downpatrick. That, and the right contacts, of course.

Click here to read The Field’s guide to game-shooting abroad.