Spanish style at Challacombe
How would French redlegs, bred and reared in Spain, perform during a Westcountry southwester?
How would French redlegs, reared in Spain, fare in the Westcountry?
Janet Menzies went along to find out
It was the second day of the season but the French red-legged partridges at Challacombe, on the western edge of Exmoor National Park, flew brilliantly, overcoming both gale and rain – and, indeed, many of the guns. This last achievement was probably the Spanish-bred-and-reared partridges’ finest, as the team included some of the country’s high-bird specialists.
Challacombe shoot, formerly attached to Castle Hill, is now part of a group of shoots run by the Bray Valley Sporting Club. This interesting concept – running an elite syndicate as a club – was explained by one of the founders, Charles Fussell. “We set up the partner shoots of Challacombe and Edgcott about seven or eight years ago as sporting clubs, organised as a company with an independent board. So it is a little different from the traditional syndicate shoot. Angus Barnes, who
owns Loyton Lodge where we all stay, is also our man on the ground. Angus is the brains behind the operation. He liaises with the keepers and takes responsibility for designing drives and if we take on new ground, and generally running the shoots. Then he will report back to the board. Members have a fee to join and there are fees depending on how many shoots you attend. The whole structure seems to work very well. You can tell because the central core of the membership all gets to shoot together about three or four times a year and, when we do, we all enjoy it and there is a real party atmosphere.” It was one of these days that The Field was invited to attend, with Editor Jonathan Young showing his mettle.
home from home
The club’s home, Loyton Lodge, is a beautiful, contemporary, classic lodge near Morebath, owned by the Barnes family. Angus Barnes’s sister, Isobel, explained how what has been voted “one of England’s best party houses” came into being. “Angus and I grew up at Loyton, a lovely place for children. My parents came down to Exmoor to farm here originally. When it came to pass onto our generation, Angus had the idea to convert what had been the old milking parlours into an entertainment venue. Now the lodge has been created from the buildings around what was the main farmyard. We are so pleased that the conversion has worked so well to create this lovely courtyard space.”
Now, however, it was time to set out to shoot in glorious Westcountry September sunshine. Few believed the gloom merchants who were predicting a southwester by midmorning, or we would have been a bit more focused about finishing our multi-course breakfast. But the storm came as swiftly as a covey of partridges over a hedge, darkening the sky, lashing up the clouds and dumping large quantities of penetrating Exmoor precipitation upon us. We lined out for the first drive, Reservoir, with the eponymous water behind us and a steep gorse bank rising up into a doom-laden sky.
With the flushing point so far above us, any partridges that did join the party were obviously going to be challenging. Sure enough, birds began to appear in view, silhouetted ominously against the skyline. In no time they were upon us. The first coveys tended to fly along the ridge and then curl over the far end of the line. As the drive progressed, the flushing point moved across the bank so all the guns got some good shooting – with varied results. Guest gun Russell Ball, who had just flown down from Scotland, didn’t mind admitting that it took him a while to adapt. “This is my first trip to Exmoor so I am learning about these high birds. I wasn’t giving them enough lead at the beginning but the drive was great fun and now I’m enjoying watching the dogs work on the water retrieves in the reservoir.”
There were plenty of retrieves to be made, as the birds had flown heroically. Although not ideal for shooting, the weather gave the shoot a chance to prove that its Spanish-partridge experiment works. It was really noticeable how strong and well grown the birds were for this point in the season. Challacombe’s redlegs are not brought over from Spain to Exmoor until they are ready to be released. The theory is that the better Spanish climate will bring the birds on and enable them to show well on challenging Westcountry terrain.
Certainly the birds had done their bit on the first drive. Now it was up to the guns to prove that they too could put on a good show
despite some un-spanish weather. Shoot chef Tom Godber-ford Moore may not have been able to do anything about the weather but before the next drive he certainly matched Spanish refreshments with a series of tapas-style nibbles and hot beverages.
Despite being well fortified, it was hard work just getting onto our pegs for the second drive, aptly named Niagara. Guns lined up down the valley facing a bank of beech trees, with the flushing point screened behind the trees. This made for some snap shooting with little time to see the bird as it skimmed by high above. The guns all responded well to this; they were decisive and swung through positively in a style that works well for partridges.
This suited Curly Hugh Smith. “I think it suits my type of shooting,” she explained. “I’m afraid I was dithering on the first drive about when to mount and shoot when you see the birds coming from a long way out.” Her husband, David Hugh Smith, had shot both drives with a lovely classic English style, no doubt acquired from his father, the late Andrew Hugh Smith, a well-known Exmoor shot. We agreed his father would have loved the day and Hugh Smith admitted to a certain modest satisfaction, too. “I did manage to shoot a very nice high single partridge, which I was rather pleased about. I think all the guns have shot well on this drive – that first challenging drive certainly sharpened us up.”
But no matter how brave the partridges, expert the guns or warming the food, the first storm of autumn was determined to stop play, so once we had a good bag it was decided to give the birds an opportunity to get into shelter while we did the same thing. A Spanish-influenced lunch of chorizos and smoked tomatoes and lobster gave GodberFord Moore a chance to distract us from the storm outside. And I was able to get the full story of the Spanish partridges from their breeder, Javier López de Carrizosa Mora-figueroa, who had flown over to shoot and see how his birds performed. Mora-figueroa told me how these noble
There were plenty of retrieves to be made as birds had flown heroically
Spanish partridges – true hidalgos – were able to provide us with such good sport. “Although the birds may look like a bigger breed, actually they are not it’s just that they are already a little bit older than an Englishreared bird at this time of the year. We can get started much earlier in Spain because of the climate, so we are able to bring the birds over to England in July and they are a few weeks ahead. Of course, the fact is that with the difficult weather in England it makes it much harder for partridges. By rearing the partridges in Spain we are taking on the risks of those early months and improving the chances of success because our weather is more reliable – it is always a good year. It’s not about the warmth, though, it is more that it is dry – it can be quite cold.
“But for me, personally, I think even more important is the genetics of the birds. I have been selectively breeding for quite a few years now. I believe we have increased disease resistance and I’m now reaching the point where I am very happy with the birds and they are doing well. But there is work to be done all round before you can produce a great bird over the guns – the way the drives have been laid out and the beating by the headkeeper, Rob Eggins, and his team are equally important. I have been working closely with the shoot so that I give them healthy birds that are able to adapt to the climate. I must admit I was nervous today to see whether the birds flew well in this weather. I am supplying all four shoots in the Bray Valley Sporting group and ultimately I would like to bring my birds to more shoots in the UK. I started with this project four years ago and it is great to see the birds flying so excitingly. I wanted to shoot today and I’m thrilled to see it all coming together – the careful genetic selection, the rearing in the Spanish climate and the terrain to show them flying well.”
With our tweeds steaming gently as we ate, we agreed that it was the full spectrum of careful planning and hard work that had made the day special. Cookery writer Jacqueline Roe, shooting with her husband, Nicholas, appreciated the help the shoot was able to give her with her health problems. “I have severe osteoarthritis in both knees, they’re both going to need to be replaced. The Exmoor keepers and loaders have gone out of their way over the past couple of years to keep me in the field, moving my peg where appropriate and always ensuring that a vehicle is available to get me there. I know this isn’t about how the birds fly – but perhaps there’s more to a shoot than the number of drives or the bag? I always look forward to going to one of Angus Barnes’s shoots and feel that I have a genuine relationship with the keepers, loaders and handlers.”
Roe is right: a caring team and attention to detail make Challacombe and Loyton special places to be. Challacombe is very much a 21st-century shoot. Its new approach to rearing and supplying partridges is bringing results. The management of the syndicate along sensible, business-like lines is a refreshing change and the accommodation and food are modern and luxurious. If this is a model for the driven shoots of the next decade, the future is exciting.
For let days and packages at Challacombe, contact Angus Barnes on 01398 331174 or email firstname.lastname@example.org
For details about Loyton Lodge and associated shoots, visit www.loyton.com
Top: Paddy Rafferty and David Hugh Smith
Above: the day’s sustenance had a Spanish theme
Left: The Field’s Editor, Jonathan Young
Above: partridges were well advanced for the time of year (top); a wet day for the dogs, too
Inset: the beaters are committed to the cause… Below: retrieving on the Reservoir drive