THE ONE-BIRD SHOOT

The best things come in small pack­ages… Matt Limb OBE joins a team run­ning a driven shoot set on just 50 acres to find out if the say­ing is true

Sporting Shooter - - Contents - WITH MATT LIMB

It was a damp and dank late au­tumn morn­ing, with light driz­zly down­pours, as I made my way to North Lincolnshire and The Wolds. They are a world of dif­fer­ence from the Fen­lands and cab­bage fields in the south of the county. Here, the steep hill­sides and ma­ture wood­lands form a pat­tern as far as the eye can see and it is far more akin to its north­ern neigh­bour in York­shire, than the south­ern flat­lands of Cam­bridgeshire. As I drove down the nar­row lanes, the land­scapes called out ‘shoot­ing coun­try’ as pheas­ants sat on the side of the road get­ting shel­ter from the wet; in its day, this would no doubt have been home to the world­fa­mous Lincolnshire Poacher, if he ever ex­isted, or was he on the marshes in the south of the county? To­day, his name has been given to a fine cheese and many lo­cal pubs but is best known for the tra­di­tional folk song.

I reached my des­ti­na­tion high in the Lincolnshire Wolds, close to the high­est spot in the county. As ever, it came as no sur­prise that the meet­ing place was a small farm­yard. I was soon greeted by the shoot cap­tain, Chris Guest. “Hello, good morn­ing, wel­come to the one-bird shoot.” Not the nor­mal greet­ing you would ex­pect, but then this is not a nor­mal shoot – it claims to be pos­si­bly the coun­try’s small­est shoot!

The shoot, now in its fifth year, oc­cu­pies just 50 acres, sit­ting on the edge of a vil­lage and nes­tled on the banks of the River Bain. The set­ting is stun­ning, and de­spite its size it boasts half a dozen drives and can of­fer a good morn­ing’s shoot­ing. It is nor­mally shot three days per sea­son, in tra­di­tional walked-up style.

With the Guns gath­ered and the safety brief be­hind us it was time to make a move to the first drive: the rough marsh ground along the River Bain that runs al­most the length of the shoot. We split into two groups of stand­ing and walk­ing Guns, as the mix of Labradors and spaniels worked their way down the rough ground, which was wet and over­grown. Early prospects looked good as the fa­mil­iar noise of the crow­ing pheas­ant could be heard, but sadly to no avail as the drive drew a blank.

As the drive came to a close I chat­ted with Chris as he pointed over to rich ma­ture wood­lands across the nar­row river. “The great prob­lem we have is that we do not have any wood­land on the shoot, just heavy, thick hedges, so the birds are eas­ily drawn over the bound­ary. Plus, many of the drives push the birds over the bound­ary. I guess, given our size, that is in­evitable.” Un­de­terred, we move on to the sec­ond drive: one of the small cover crops driven back to­wards the river off a steep-sided, gorse-cov­ered hill. With ev­ery­one in place, the drive started. Soon a cou­ple of shots echoed dis­tantly from over the hill – first in the bag for the walk­ing Guns.

Al­most im­me­di­ately the dis­tinc­tive sound of a pheas­ant get­ting up was heard and it was soon seen ap­proach­ing over the hill and still climb­ing. A well-pre­sented cock bird, high and fast came over the stand­ing Guns; it was a pheas­ant that any shoot charg­ing £40 a bird would have been proud of. A cou­ple of shots from the first Gun missed, then the next Gun – with a sin­gle bar­rel – brought it down onto the wet ground to a cheer of “Good shot” from his com­pan­ions. With the drive over and two pheas­ants now in the bag, the in­evitable ban­ter started, most of it aimed at the shoot cap­tain, ask­ing if he would have to re­name the one-bird shoot.

As we walked over to the next drive I chat­ted with Chris about his shoot­ing back­ground af­ter hear­ing that he is part of a rov­ing syn­di­cate and also a reg­u­lar deer stalker, both lo­cally and in the High­lands of Scot­land. His in­ter­est in shoot­ing started at the age of seven or eight. His par­ents were not shoot­ing peo­ple but he was brought up in a small Shrop­shire vil­lage and en­joyed shoot­ing with an air ri­fle. It was about this time that a lo­cal gent in the vil­lage asked him along for a day’s beat­ing. Like so many of us, he was soon found beat­ing on lo­cal shoots and by the time he reached his early teens had his first shot­gun and be­came a reg­u­lar clay shooter. “There is no doubt what­so­ever it was that time in my life that in­flu­enced my fu­ture,” said Chris. “I had no idea go­ing through school what I wanted to do as a ca­reer, none at all, but my time in the coun­try, help­ing on farms and es­pe­cially shoot­ing, helped forge the life I have cho­sen.” Fol­low­ing school, it was on to univer­sity while still help­ing and work­ing on lo­cal farms, af­ter which it was a move to Lincolnshire and his first full-time job as an agri­cul­tural mer­chant, where Chris now spe­cialises in crops and seed in his ca­pac­ity as seed man­ager.

As we neared the third drive I now un­der­stood why the cover crops looked so var­ied, of­fer­ing shel­ter to the 50 pheas­ants put down this sea­son on the shoot. Chris ex­plained: “Hav­ing some knowl­edge of the var­i­ous cover crops, plus the soil and ground, does help. This has re­sulted in good cover crops on the shoot de­spite their small size, but that said, maize is still one of my firm favourites.” The third drive was through one of his prized maize cover crops and gen­er­ated a good half-dozen pheas­ants; again, good high birds that any shoot would be happy with. Sadly, the

‘With two pheas­ants now in the bag, the ban­ter started, most of it aimed at the shoot cap­tain, ask­ing if he would have to re­name the one-bird shoot’

ma­jor­ity flew back over the bound­ary and not over the stand­ing Guns. As we gath­ered af­ter the drive, all agreed it was a les­son learned: a walk­ing Gun at the side of the cover crop could have had a few mem­o­rable shots and in­creased the bag.

Dur­ing elevenses and the all-im­por­tant hip flask con­tents com­par­isons, talk turned to the type of species that could be found on the shoot. It came as no great sur­prise that the marshy ground by the river was a reg­u­lar home for snipe and the odd duck, and some­times even a goose had been seen on the river. Then in the later sea­son wood­cock were reg­u­lars, no doubt mov­ing from wood to wood that sur­round the shoot. As for ground game, there had not been any sight­ings of hares – which ev­ery­one ac­knowl­edged as not sur­pris­ing given the ground – nor had rab­bits ever been seen. “We did try some par­tridges a cou­ple of sea­sons ago,” said Chris, “but it was hard work on a shoot day with­out beaters. It is re­ally good to still see the odd one ev­ery now and then as I walk the dog of an even­ing.” An­other is­sue that faces the shoot is the fox; again, no great sur­prise when you stand and look around to see miles of well-main­tained ma­ture wood­lands, farm­ing with heavy, thick hedges and vil­lages of­fer­ing easy pick­ings, all a per­fect en­vi­ron­ment for the fox – maybe he is the orig­i­nal Lincolnshire Poacher?

The day had cleared slightly and thank­fully the rain had kept off, but the damp was still in the air as drinks were fin­ished and it was time for the last two drives. The first pushed an­other piece of cover crop back to the river and again gen­er­ated a cou­ple of fast birds for the Guns. With a steadily grow­ing bag, the one-bird shoot was at se­ri­ous risk of los­ing its name! The fi­nal drive was the one I es­pe­cially en­joyed as, for me, it brought out all the very best el­e­ments of shoot­ing. All the Guns lined out along the small river, push­ing the rough marsh ground back in the op­po­site di­rec­tion from the first drive. Here, you could feel the true sense of what the shoot was about, as we worked through the marshy ground, al­low­ing the dogs to do what they do best: work, hunt and flush to the gun.

All too soon car­tridges were be­ing taken out of cham­bers and guns bro­ken as we walked the short dis­tance back to the ve­hi­cles, just three and a half hours since set­ting off. The bag for the morn­ing to­talled five pheas­ants, with two more days in the sea­son to plan and an ex­pec­ta­tion to shoot a sim­i­lar num­ber on both days; if you do your maths that gives a re­turn of over 30% on the 50 birds put down. That is healthy when you con­sider the sur­round­ing en­vi­ron­ment and the fact that there is no game­keeper. With boots changed and dogs sorted, game stowed and the back slap­ping on good shots and poor shots over, in the great­est of tra­di­tions it was off to the lo­cal vil­lage pub for lunch.

My drive back home was very dif­fer­ent: the sun was al­most break­ing through. The weather had been kind to us in keep­ing us dry, but did I en­joy my morn­ing on the one-bird shoot? Yes, with­out a doubt. It is the first shoot I have ever been on with cover crops, where birds have been put down (as op­posed to just wild stock), that has ded­i­cated drives (even if Chris ad­mits he has yet to name them); yet where there is no Gun bus, no beaters, no pick­ers-up, no game­keeper, no pegs for the Guns and it is a com­fort­able walk to do all the drives on foot, as ei­ther a stand­ing or walk­ing Gun, and de­spite all this the shoot can still present birds that of­fer a sport­ing chal­lenge – what’s not to like about that?

But I think there is more to the shoot, much more. To me Chris and his one-bird shoot em­brace the most im­por­tant en­tity in shoot­ing: to share time with like-minded friends and their dogs, do­ing what you en­joy. Yes, you can go to a highly or­gan­ised es­tate for a cor­po­rate day out and shoot a bag mea­sured in the hun­dreds, if not more; but would that be a bet­ter day out? Sure, you would use more car­tridges and have more shots on each drive; but isn’t shoot­ing about more than sim­ply pulling a trig­ger? It cer­tainly is to me.

Chris and his one-bird shoot rep­re­sent the great junc­tion be­tween a tra­di­tional walked-up farmer’s day or rough shoot and an or­gan­ised driven day. It brings out the best in both and shows what can be done with a rel­a­tively small piece of ground, some imag­i­na­tion and hard work. Look­ing to the fu­ture, I hope Chris pre­serves what is spe­cial about what just may be the coun­try’s small­est driven one-bird shoot.

‘Chris and his one-bird shoot em­brace the most im­por­tant en­tity in shoot­ing: to share time with friends and their dogs, do­ing what you en­joy’

The team is split into two groups of stand­ing and walk­ing Guns, ac­com­pa­nied by Labs and spaniels

The shoot of­fers both walked-up and driven shoot­ing

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