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
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