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