Grand hunting in York
Robert Black has experienced hunting in Australia and around the world but he writes that it all pales into insignificance when you step onto the famous Yorkshire moors in England for a driven game bird shoot.
Over my years I have been privileged to shoot numerous ducks, quail, rabbits and hares across the length and breadth of Victoria. I have enjoyed many jumps across the ditch to New Zealand, the land of the long white cloud, taking first class bag limits of Mallards, paradise ducks and canada geese, along with numerous hares that thrive over there as they have no foxes.
It all pales into insignificance once you attend a driven English game bird shoot in glorious Yorkshire, UK, as this truly is the experience of a lifetime.
My group of eight guns, organised to perfection by our shoot leader Jon Thomas of Cobaw Sporting Clay Shooting Reserve, took off late October 2017 for Manchester. On arrival, we hired rental cars and completed the three-hour drive over to the glorious picturesque village of Helmsley, Yorkshire, which I deem to be the shooting capital of the north of England.
Dress code is strictly tweeds, silk shooting ties, breeks, long stockings, knee high and sporting flashes or flags and for footwear, wellies, or should I say the original Le Chameau gumboots.
If you don’t dress the part I’m not certain our English cousins would allow you to participate in these Downton Abbey style shoots. I think if you turned up in Aussie shooting camo and waders with your face blackened with charcoal you would be given the short shrift and promptly sent around the back of the manor so they could set the hounds on you.
That said, the dress code adds to the unbelievable atmosphere and ambience of rubbing shoulders with the Lords of the Manors and their first-class gamekeepers and estate managers.
Our group settled in the Black Swan Hotel, the hub of Helmsley, which superbly caters to every whim and wish of shooters. Guns are welcome and you have your own individual double-locked combination gun safe and access to a gun cleaning room.
Rooms are beautifully appointed, full English breakfast is served at 7 am and staff are at your beck and call and there to ensure your stay is nothing short of first class and, more importantly, memorable.
A typical shooting day commenced at 8 am in the village square where you were introduced to your shooting agent for the day by organiser Jon Thomas, who then promptly gave individual cars the postcode of the estate we were bound for. Most trips took about 45 minutes.
Upon arrival at the manor house, we were greeted by the gamekeepers for an early morning cup of tea or coffee and, on occasions, a bacon and egg roll.
All were warmly welcomed and without fail, a comment always came forth about the upcoming hammering the Aussies would soon suffer when The Ashes commenced, but as we suspected, history now records the opposite.
The English take their shooting very seriously but their cricket is classified like a religion and non-believers are frowned upon.
The gamekeeper outlines safety and etiquette for the day: the golden
rule is quite simple — blue sky above your gun barrel. It is a driven shoot so naturally, beaters and dogs are driving the game towards you. Low birds should be left for another day.
Occasionally the odd quip is thrown in about how 200 years ago you lost a point for shooting a beater but today it’s a life sentence in Dartmoor Prison.
The day normally consisted of five drives, pegs are drawn and each shooter then has their starting number for the day and after each drive you simply move up two pegs.
The anticipation factor on each individual drive is equal to the excitement and build up one experiences at Duck Opening. The atmosphere is electrifying as you await a magnificent cock pheasant or fast-flying hen bird or a partridge travelling like a scud missile flashing across the sky, at times at heights that present the ultimate challenge even to the most experienced high duck shot.
As the drive continues you are truly amazed and look up in disbelief at the sheer number of game birds that fly over your head. Hundreds is not an exaggeration and as you finally settle down after the initial rush of blood to the head you slowly start to realise you can select birds that you not only consider sporting but ones that provide the utmost challenge to your shooting prowess.
At the end of the first drive, which is signalled by the blast of the gamekeeper’s horn, you up stakes and return to your cars to follow an estate car to the next drive. One must bear in mind some of the estates we were fortunate and in many ways privileged to shoot on were more than 10 000 acres of magnificent hills, dales and forest, so the next drive could be anything up to a kilometre away.
The basic shoot is based on an honour system, meaning if you have booked a 300-bird day (that’s birds downed not birds released) and there are eight guns covering five drives, you allow roughly 60 birds per drive so each gun aims to take seven to eight birds per drive. Naturally if per chance you are on a lean peg and only shoot, say, two to three birds, the next drive you have an honourable bag limit of about 12 birds.
After two or three drives the shoot comes to a halt and you partake of elevenses, although most of the time it was after noon when we reached a well set up shelter. The waitresses served ‘in the field’ pork pies, slices of fruit cake with a delectable slice of cheddar cheese on top and sloe gin to wash it all down. Sloe gin is mixed with bubbly wine or in some cases true champagne, or if it’s a bit nippy out, bull shots, which consist of beef tea, laced with fine sherry.
The shoot then recommences and the final drives are completed. Then it is back to the manor house to replace gumboots with clean footwear and enter a magnificent dining room for a first-class meal accompanied by G&TS, beer, and excellent red and white wines.
On all shoots, the gamekeeper addresses the group, giving out individual game cards bearing the names of the guns, game bird tallies, names of drives and weather details.
Our group enjoyed two days of shooting the prince of game birds, the much-revered grouse, on the vast Yorkshire Moors. Grouse shooting is the reverse of shooting high-flying pheasants and partridges as it involves shooting from pits in the ground at birds that seem to travel at the speed of sound, zig zagging across the vast acreages of heather, at times no more than 150 mm or six inches above the heather. Not for the faint-hearted or short-sighted shooter.
One outstanding day that deserves an honourable mention was on the Egton Estate, personally hosted by the Lord of The Manor, The Hon. Olly Foster. A truly unforgettable day.
The beaters did a first-class job of driving pheasants high over the trees presenting all guns with first-class challenging shots. The day consisted of four drives and we took 281 pheasants. On one particular drive alongside the River Esk, it was incredible seeing birds hit the fast-flowing river and watch the splendid dogs diving in the fast-flowing current to retrieve every single bird.
Olly seemed to enjoy the day as much as the guns, not only acting as a spotter but also a loader; he made you feel like an invited guest on his remarkable and outstanding North Yorkshire Estate, not just a paying customer. That goes down in my book of life as a true red letter day.
I will add that five of our group took their own guns and battled with customs on the home front and in the UK, while the other three simply hired guns on the way to Helmsley.
A very happy and thoroughly satisfied group of shooters finally embarked homeward bound and all exclaimed it was certainly the shoot of a lifetime.
Anthony Tallack with a prized pheasant
Dr. Bill Davies and Anthony Tallack (standing) and Bob Black (seated) in full shooting regalia. Back row: Ian Waldron, Tony Barrett, Jon Thomas, Paul Schembri, Anthony Tallack and Peter Bobeff. Front row: Judy Waldron, Dr. Bill Davies and Bob Black (seated)