Staffordshire is something of a ‘best-kept secret’ for partridge shooting, as Owen Beardsmore discovers on a classy day at Catton Hall
Many people will have heard of the Catton Hall Estate, located in the heart of the Midlands on the Staffordshire/Derbyshire border. The private, family-owned estate, which covers some 2,500 acres of mixed arable and mature woodland, sits alongside the river in the Trent valley. To the shooting fraternity it is well known as a venue for the BASC Gamekeepers’ Fair and also hosts a variety of events throughout the year, from equestrian trials to caravan rallies, simulated game shooting to music festivals, and even a huge firework display at the end of the summer. With such a busy agenda you would think running a highly reputable game shoot would be a daunting task, but it is a challenge that this estate rises to each year, and headkeeper Mick Walton and his team do a great job of producing high-quality days throughout the season. This estate has an established sporting repertoire and is well laid-out for driven and rough shooting; they have game book records dating back to 1905 showing the sport and bags achieved.
Last October I joined a social team of Guns as guest of Simon Boardman-Weston and had the pleasure of a partridge day surrounded by the beautiful autumnal colours of the Catton Hall Estate at its best. You may think this sort of venue is only home to big bag days, but you’d be wrong: Catton Hall caters for a variety of budgets and tastes, ranging from 50-bird days where you bring your own lunch, to 350-bird days with lunch in the house. All days, ours included, start with a ‘meet and greet’ coffee in the servants’ hall, beside an open fire.
Our host Robin Neilson, and his delightful wife Katie, are there to welcome us and it is nice to have a catch up with the team, some of whom I have not seen for a while. It’s smiles all round and some good banter, and I know it’s going to be a good day – based on the company alone!
A trayful of stirrup cups arrives, and we all swig our shot of the Estate Sloe Gin to reveal our peg number on the base and then Robin runs through the day, covering health and safety, expectation and discipline, before we board the shoot trailer and head off out into the field.
Catton Hall Estate has been in the hands of the same family since 1405 and is within the new National Forest. It is able to take advantage of its contribution of new plantations as part of the shoot drives. This, coupled with over 30 acres of
‘My only pre-season training had been at our duck pond, and the flaring flight of a Frenchie is a bit different to a mallard dropping in at dusk’
strategically placed game covers, helps present good birds to a well-placed line of Guns throughout the season, but for us, that day, it was particularly for French partridge, with a suggestion that any reasonable mature pheasants could also be taken at our discretion.
The first two drives are The Belt and the Top Barn, and we have a lovely show of birds across the line and with the slight breeze, we are immediately tested. My only pre-season training had been at our duck pond, and the explosive, flaring flight of a Frenchie is a bit different to a mallard dropping in at dusk or a poky old tufted whizzing across the water! I am going to have to consider my lead, as bird after driven bird appears over the end of my old Beretta 687 EELL.
It’s the end of the second drive and we have all fared well, with each Gun getting some shooting and a few good high pheasants in the bag. The pickers-up do a fine job of retrieving all the game. After a quick break of coffee and Katie’s homemade fruit cake (and a bit more banter), we are off for the next two drives – Catton Wood and Donkhill. Again, we are treated to excellent birds, trickled over the line, covey after covey, by the experienced beating team led by headkeeper Mick.
Mick Walton has been at Catton all his life and started as under keeper to his father, Wilfred, in 1972. Four generations of Waltons have keepered or worked on the Catton Estate, so it is no wonder that Mick knows his ground so well and is meticulous about the presentation of the birds to the Guns and the enjoyment of the day.
By lunchtime we have completed four drives and have a respectable bag of just over 80 birds. We return to the ‘big house’ in a jovial mood for a full sit-down lunch prepared by Katie and her staff. Everything again is homemade and delicious, and our hosts join us round the table as we discuss the morning.
An hour soon passes when you’re with good company and the afternoon sport resumes with the Windmill Drive, suitably named as the morning’s breeze has now picked up and would certainly turn the sails, if in fact it still worked. Both partridge and pheasant are aplenty, as is the shooting, and the cobwebs from lunch are soon blown away.
This is Staffordshire partridge shooting at its best and this drive accounts for 40 birds, including some outstanding pheasants. All the Guns have had testing shots and plenty of misses. The estate’s mix of new plantation and cover crops works very well, as the birds hold in the open plantations and flush from the cover, making the show of birds steady and reliable, complemented by the seasoned team of beaters and steady dogs, as well as the competent pickers-up. It is a pleasure to be part of it.
The final drives are the Black Spinney and The Rough and, again, we are not disappointed as groups of strong-flying birds break cover and are presented to us. For these drives, I am personally ‘not in the shooting’ but my fellow Guns are, and it’s a pleasure to watch partridge being taken in fine style, at a good height, with 1oz/28-bore cartridges.
The final whistle is blown by Robin and we collect our spent cartridges and make our way back to the game cart where we congregate and watch the bag being brought in.
We are shoulder to shoulder with beaters, pickers-up, drivers and Guns – just how it should be! Everyone is smiling. We are just shy of our 200-bird bag, but we have been selective in our shooting and generous in our cartridge usage. The weather has been kind, the sport has been testing but consistent, and the company has been good fun – so all in all a great and memorable autumn day.
We make our way back to Catton Hall for afternoon tea, more homemade cake and lashings of banter.
Many thanks to Simon for the kind invitation, to Robin and Katie Neilson for being excellent hosts and to Team Walton for a wonderful day of Staffordshire partridge and pheasant. Good luck with this season.
‘Four generations of Waltons have keepered or worked on the Catton Estate, so it is no wonder that Mick knows his ground so well’
The team of Guns: Front row (L-R) Bryn Aldridge, Tim Collingwood, Richard Duffus, Chris Davis, Julian Robbins, Simon Boardman-Weston, Robert Hinchcliffe; back row (L-R) Robin Neilson and Owen Beardsmore
Shooting parties have been coming to Catton for over 30 years
Catton Hall lies at the heart of 250 acres of parkland
Everyone was all smiles after a day of excellently presented birds
The mix of open plantations and cover crops makes for a steady and reliable show of birds
Keeper Mick Walton checks the game cart