DRIVE TIME!

Stafford­shire is some­thing of a ‘best-kept se­cret’ for partridge shoot­ing, as Owen Beardsmore dis­cov­ers on a classy day at Cat­ton Hall

Sporting Shooter - - Contents -

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

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