MIL­TONS, EXMOOR

A colourful team from Bel­gium sam­ples the high de­lights of this stun­ning pocket of the Exe Val­ley.

Shooting Gazette - - News - By Chris Warren.

Keep­ing up with par­tridge roy­alty in the West Coun­try.

What is it about me and Exmoor? Should there ever be a drought in that part of the West Coun­try they just need to call on C. Warren Esq. to visit and the clouds will thicken and the rain will fall – I guar­an­tee it. I know it doesn’t al­ways rain there – I’ve seen the pic­tures – but when­ever I put my head out of the door I know it will at some stage be­come moist. Never mind, my cam­eras are pretty wa­ter­proof and it beats work­ing for a liv­ing.

Every time I visit Exmoor I’m as­tounded by two things: how good the to­pog­ra­phy is for pre­sent­ing de­mand­ing birds, and that it wasn’t un­til 1981 that the first com­mer­cial shoot on Exmoor opened its doors. It was as if the scales had fallen from peo­ple’s eyes and what now seems ob­vi­ous seemed pos­si­ble. This Na­tional Park is now a mecca for high bird shoot­ing and the ef­fect on the lo­cal econ­omy must be stag­ger­ing. Char­got, North Molton, Cas­tle Hill, Withy­combe, Had­deo; the list of shoots many of us would give our right arm to visit goes on and on. But where did it all start? Mil­tons in the Exe val­ley, that’s where.

Alan Mil­ton (the name is just a co­in­ci­dence) took on Mil­tons in 1974 as a small syn­di­cate shoot and brought in Brian Mitchell as head­keeper. They saw the potential and, seven years later, with Rox­tons on board, it be­came the first proper com­mer­cial shoot on Exmoor and the model on which the oth­ers are built. Not only do they of­fer high pheas­ants but high par­tridge as well – another first for Exmoor. The face of driven shoot­ing was changed for­ever. Since then the pop­u­lar­ity of the shoot has soared with roy­alty, celebri­ties and the fa­mous, to­gether with many of the finest shots in the coun­try tak­ing on the chal­lenges Mil­tons has to of­fer. Though Brian Mitchell went on to Cas­tle Hill and helped set up the whole high bird Exmoor thing, Mil­tons has gone from strength to strength.

The Bel­gians are com­ing

I was in­vited down there at the start of last sea­son by Dan Reynolds, and his as­sis­tant Ol­lie Maxwell joined

“Exmoor is now a mecca for high bird shoot­ing and the ef­fect on the lo­cal econ­omy must be stag­ger­ing.”

me at the Royal Oak in Wins­ford the evening be­fore to give me a heads up on the shoot and the day to come. Ol­lie told me: “The es­tate is owned by the ThomasEver­ard fam­ily and is man­aged by Dan Reynolds on be­half of a pri­vate syn­di­cate. We shoot over 5,500 acres of pas­ture and wood­land across the steep val­leys and combes of the Exe Val­ley. To­mor­row, we are look­ing to shoot 300 par­tridge across four drives with most of the team com­ing from Bel­gium.”

When the sea­son gets go­ing they shoot three or four times a week, and Rox­tons lets days to teams of guns from all over, some of whom have been com­ing for many years.

Whether a team stops for lunch or shoots through is up to them, but Ol­lie’s read­ing of the weather fore­cast had per­suaded them to shoot through. It might rain in the morn­ing but it was go­ing to pour in the af­ter­noon: the Chris Warren ef­fect in full swing.

It was an in­ter­est­ing team that met at Hol­lam Farm the next morn­ing, nine Bel­gians and four guns who had come up from Corn­wall. They had met last sea­son at a neigh­bour­ing shoot and when Jan Lavri­jsen was putting this day to­gether he had per­suaded the four from Corn­wall to join his com­pa­tri­ots (not that they needed much per­suad­ing). Some of the guns were shar­ing pegs so there were nine guns ac­tu­ally shoot­ing. Jan is an An­glophile, at least with re­spect to shoot­ing, and last year spent no fewer than 35 days in Eng­land shoot­ing and stalk­ing

– this de­spite the eight- to 10-hour jour­ney from Geel near An­twerp to Exmoor. He has taken a few days at Mil­tons every year for the past five and clearly en­joys the way the shoot is run and the qual­ity of the birds.

High and hand­some sport

It was a short jour­ney to the first drive, Barn, where the guns lined out along a steep-sided val­ley so typ­i­cal of Exmoor with its com­bi­na­tion of rugged­ness and bu­colic charm. The short wait be­fore the par­tridges be­gan to come over the guns was en­livened by the buz­zards and ravens fly­ing above the combe. I was in­ter­ested to see how the birds would fly this early in the sea­son; the an­swer was rather well. The beat­ing line did a fine job of con­trol­ling the birds that flew high and hand­somely over the guns, curl­ing across and down the val­ley and pro­vid­ing en­ter­tain­ment for all. The signs of a good day were all there: well pre­sented birds, se­lec­tive guns and a team of ex­pe­ri­enced pick­ers-up that knew their job. There was driz­zle in the air but the tor­ren­tial stuff was a long way off, or at least so I hoped. Dur­ing this drive Ol­lie was un­for­tu­nately called away and the job of host­ing de­volved on Paul Lugg, head­keeper here for some 18 sea­sons. As you would expect for a man with his enor­mous ex­pe­ri­ence this fazed him not a jot and the day con­tin­ued in a calm and re­laxed manner, which pretty well sums Paul up.

The second drive was called Church, named after St. Peter’s, Ex­ton, the tower of which you can see peep­ing over the ridge to the right of the gun line. Although this drive uses the same val­ley as Barn, be­cause of the ge­og­ra­phy, the birds this time round were higher and more chal­leng­ing but the guns rose to the oc­ca­sion and the pick­ers-up had a lot of work to do.

“The guns lined out along a steep-sided val­ley so typ­i­cal of Exmoor’s rugged, bu­colic charm.”

Dur­ing the au­tumn, elevenses is usu­ally taken in the field so ev­ery­one can ap­pre­ci­ate the su­perb set­ting that Mil­tons en­joys but be­cause of the some­what damp weather we returned to Hol­lam Farm and the warmth of the shoot room. With wet coats jet­ti­soned the guns were able to rel­ish the sausages, sand­wiches, Cham­pagne and soup that were on of­fer - they do rather good elevenses at Mil­tons - and I was able to ask Jan what it was that at­tracted him to the shoot. “It is our dream des­ti­na­tion,” he said sim­ply. “My brother Peter and I en­joy the breath­tak­ing ter­rain and the birds to match.” He elab­o­rated, “The rest of the team are in­cred­i­ble and will do ev­ery­thing in their power to make sure your day goes ac­cord­ing to plan. Paul and his keep­ers, pick­ers-up and beat­ers are all top class. Mil­tons was one of the pi­o­neers of high bird shoot­ing and I think after all the years on top it is still the team to beat.” High praise from some­one who shoots reg­u­larly in this part of the world.

Ae­rial was next up. This part of Exmoor is a lit­tle wilder than the first val­ley and the view was stun­ning – so were the birds. They flew like minia­ture fighter planes and they needed quick re­ac­tions and a lot of lead. Paul sat with his then part­ner (now wife) Me­lanie on a bench in the mid­dle of the team of guns and used his walkie-talkie to speak to two of his un­der­keep­ers, Matt Park­house and Will NeateBurke, who were run­ning the beat­ing line, to fine tune the pre­sen­ta­tion of the birds. Twins Kris and Wim Nijs were shar­ing a peg and cer­tainly got their fair share of par­tridges on this drive. Their English was bet­ter than my Dutch or French but we didn’t need words, you don’t get smiles like that after a medi­ocre drive.

It was another sig­na­ture drive to fin­ish, Squeakitts Top, which was wilder still. It had even bet­ter views and taller, curl­ing birds, and pro­vided a fit­ting cli­max to the day’s shoot­ing. I watched as Gre­ville Richards, one of the Cor­nish con­tin­gent and a first timer at Mil­tons, achieved at least two left and rights (or, more ac­cu­rately bottom and tops) watched by his loader Stir­ling Bab­bage. At the end of the drive he was clearly ex­hil­a­rated and I asked him about his first ex­pe­ri­ence of this Exmoor

shoot. “All the drives have lived up to their rep­u­ta­tions,” he said, “showing some ex­tremely high par­tridge even in these warm early sea­son con­di­tions. This last one was def­i­nitely my favourite with great high birds and some amaz­ing crossers.” Again, this is from some­one who shoots often and well, his wife calls her­self a shoot­ing widow and with some jus­ti­fi­ca­tion.

No rain on this pa­rade (sort of...)

It had never re­ally been dry but as if on cue, while the pick­ers-up were sweep­ing the bushes, the clouds grew lower, the light dropped and the heavy stuff be­gan. I looked at my watch: 1.45pm. All done in just over four hours and yet it had never felt rushed.

I talked with Paul as he led the line of 4x4s to Wins­ford and the Royal Oak for lunch. He has five un­der­keep­ers who help him run Mil­tons. As well as the two in the beat­ing line, Tim White was driv­ing the game cart and Josh Ca­ton and El­lis Brooks had spent all day dog­ging in, some­thing Paul thinks is very im­por­tant: “I am a strong be­liever in dog­ging in. In terms of the par­tridges, from the minute they are re­leased un­til the end of the par­tridge sea­son Tim and my­self push them home every evening.” I asked him what had al­tered in 18 years, par­tic­u­larly re­gard­ing

par­tridges: “I have made sig­nif­i­cant changes to the plots of cover in terms of in­creas­ing the acreage and the mix of cover crops, us­ing mostly maize. Ap­prox­i­mately five years ago we took back the whole of Church val­ley for the sea­son (pre­vi­ously the landowner ran a small shoot on this ground) and that adds to the num­ber of drives we can of­fer.”

Paul likes to keep his birds happy and has de­vised a new feed sys­tem. “It’s a stan­dard 40 gal­lon drum with a manola feeder at­tached via a tube - very sim­ple but very ef­fec­tive. The par­tridge are used to the manola from an early age. Like­wise I in­tro­duced an au­to­matic wa­ter sys­tem into the plots.”

The guns kindly in­sisted I join them for lunch at the Royal Oak in Wins­ford which spe­cialises in ca­ter­ing for shoot­ing par­ties. The won­der­ful slow roasted pork with all the trim­mings, and I mean all the trim­mings, went down ex­tremely well with all and there was a par­tic­u­larly good claret which sadly I could only taste as I had a long drive ahead. In the rain.

The views on Church were spec­tac­u­lar wher­ever guns were look­ing.

Jan Lavri­jsen (left) and his brother Peter stood out on the peg.

Head­keeper Paul Lugg di­rect­ing op­er­a­tions along­side his now wife Me­lanie.

Beat­keeper Matthew Park­house.

Har­vey Crane and Chloe Park­house, daugh­ter of Matthew Park­house.

Claire Old­ham and her team did a ster­ling job pick­ing-up.

A spaniel re­triev­ing at full speed is al­ways a sight to see.

Shoot helper An­ton Pear­son (left) and beat­keeper Wil­liam Neate-burke.

Lunchtime at the Royal Oak Inn in Wins­ford.

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