Joining a fine English tradition
Ugbrooke Park provides a driven pheasant shoot in the finest English tradition but it is also earning a reputation for challenging duck shooting and if you do venture there, you will be welcomed to the country estate with a familiar “G’day”.
Established over centuries, the drives are set in a serene valley in the Devon countryside that has been the family seat of the Clifford family for more than 400 years.
The current custodians are The Honourable Alexander Clifford and his wife Dr Caitlin Blake-lane, a Melbourne girl who is also a practicing veterinarian.
The couple met at the Melbourne Cup and as their relationship blossomed the man she knew as Alex said he would eventually have to return to the family business.
Caitlin imagined it might be a fish and chip shop overlooking one of Devon’s sandy beaches, but Alexander is the eldest son of Lord Clifford of Chudleigh, Devon, and Suzanne, Lady Clifford of Chudleigh.
The family business is Ugbrooke Park, considered one of England’s finest country estates.
The house has a history dating back 900 years, which includes periods of stately grandeur and desperate, troughs of disrepair. Requisitioned as a school during World War II, it later served as a refuge for the Polish army and a lowly grain store. The Clifford family rescued the building in 1957 and painstakingly restored the stately home.
There is still a Polish connection, being one of the many pheasant breeds raised and released on the estate.
“We put a lot of birds over each group so the needs of clients and every standard can be catered for,” Alexander said.
Devon is renowned for the high pheasant and Polish, English, French and Scandinavian birds are used, as well as the michigan blue and kansas blueback breeds from the United States.
“The really sporting gun wants to have a challenge so if you have hundreds of birds flying over you but all flying differently, I think that is a challenge,” Alexander said.
Caitlin is by admission, at the other end of the spectrum.
“I’m a Melbourne girl, a city girl but I’ve always been a horsey person so I spent a lot of time in the country growing up. I did a bit of pest control on friends’ farms and I had to have a firearms licence for veterinary purposes as a large animal vet in Australia, but that was the extent of it,” she said.
“This was completely new to me and it has been a steep learning curve.
“For people like me who are just getting into shooting, very keen but in need of a little confidence building, that is where our loaders come into it.”
The family tradition is to have gentlemen loaders, people from the
community, retirees, and friends of the family who act as loaders through the season in return for a day or two shooting.
“With the changing of the guard, a lot of Alexander’s friends are starting to come in and they will help load the guns but also act as a coach and provide a bit of guidance if needed,” Caitlin said.
“I love having a loader who will give me a bit of encouragement, just to build my confidence up a bit.”
The gentlemen loaders also act as safety officers.
“Between 20 and 40 beaters are out in the woods in front of you and you can’t see them; my first duty is to protect them and also the other guns in the line. I trust the loaders and will back them to the hilt,” Alexander said.
“Other shoots have professional loaders who come in and look after a gun for the day with the expectation of a stonking tip starting at £80 ($135), whereas our gentlemen do not (it is specifically forbidden) get paid, we give them a day or two shooting at the beginning of the season.”
Another key ingredient to the success of Ugbrooke Park as a shoot is Alan Easterbrook, who is helping a third generation of the Clifford family and is in his 55th year as gamekeeper.
“We are in a very special position and what’s fabulous about Alan is we haven’t had someone who is stuck in his ways; he’s gone from putting a few pheasant eggs under some broody hens in the early 1970s to a full operation now where we can breed up to 20 000 pheasant,” Alexander said.
“We know we have clients come back year after year because they know what they are getting; in any business, if you have stability it makes everything more relaxed.
“With Alan’s experience, if things go rocky he knows what to do.”
Alan also introduced driven duck to Ugbrooke Park, which adds another dimension to the experience, although Alexander jokes his family has been slow to learn.
“When my Grandfather took him on and we started with Mallards he would say to him, ‘You’re only putting out ducks, where are the drakes? All of our guests would like to see these beautifully coloured drakes.’ He didn’t realise it wasn’t until much later on that they got their colour.
“My father again said the same thing to him and I said exactly the same thing to him again when I first took over,” Alexander said.
“I’m proudly the only Clifford who hasn’t asked that question; as a trained vet, I knew that,” Caitlin chimed in.
Driven duck is only possible due to changes to the grounds commissioned in the mid-18th century.
Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown, considered England’s greatest gardener, earned his nickname for telling prospective clients that their property had “capability for improvement”.
At Ugbrooke Park, his improvements included three dams created along a stream that ran through the valley but these days they look like natural lakes formed in the landscape.
Mallard driven from ponds at the top of the valley will fly to one of the lower stretches of water, passing high over the guns at every conceivable angle.
“In the past, driven duck shooting in the United Kingdom has had a bad rap and people generally haven’t liked it because of the style of shooting: it wasn’t really sporting,” Alexander said.
“There’s plenty of duck here but they are testing, coming from all angles and they are high; we have a growing reputation in the UK and some would say they are the best in the world. Caitlin and I both like to say that Capability Brown almost designed it for shooting; we wouldn’t have the edge with the ducks without his work — no Capability Brown, no duck.”
The ninth Lord Clifford started the shoot at Ugbrooke Park when he returned from his travels, which included hunting buffalo in America with General Custer’s >>
>> expedition. Alexander discovered his great, great, great uncle’s game book from 1896 recording bags and drives around the estate that are still in use today.
The estate caters for large parties who spend a luxurious weekend in the main house and day trippers who just want to join the fray.
“It does vary, there are different types of people: you get the true sportsman who is looking for that challenging bird, variation of birds and a challenge but you also get clients who see red and want to shoot everything in front of them; they are not selecting the birds, which can be disappointing,” Alexander said.
“You also get the social guns who like to shoot a couple of birds, drink a bit of sloe gin, have some good food, have nice claret, and enjoy time with friends.”
Caitlin said the grandeur of the estate doesn’t equate to a lifestyle familiar to viewers of classic period dramas.
“It is hard work,” she said. “It is very different to life in Australia and hard to explain but those who stay here see that it is really a team effort; we live in the house but we don’t live in all of the house all of the time, we don’t need that many bedrooms.”
Caitlin works off the estate as a vet as well as helping with the shoots.
“It hasn’t challenged my values; the birds are bred and raised on site, and they are farmed animals. I obviously like to see them dispatched in a humane manner but I’m not a vegetarian, they are a farmed animal and they are eaten as well.
“I haven’t had to wrestle with my conscience and on the other side I see the livelihoods we support; there are so many people that depend on the shoot for their livelihood and I see those benefits,” she said.
“I’ve really enjoyed becoming a part of the shoot community, through an owner’s point of view, a conservationist point of view and also as a lady gun. There aren’t too many of us girls at the moment but there are more and more getting into it; I’m loving being part of this little uprising of girls with guns.”
For a cohort of sporting guns a driven shoot in the UK is a pilgrimage, something you must experience.
“You can find great shooting all over the UK and we are certainly not saying we are the best shoot but we are the best experience. If you want a true country house experience with all the trimmings, Ugbrooke Park is the shoot,” Alexander said.
It is also the only country estate with a fair dinkum welcome.
“That” it, G’day, how’s it going?” Caitlin laughed.
And perhaps by the time you get there, another Aussie roaming the estate.
“I was on ebay last night looking at kelpie pups,” she said.
You can find out more about Ugbrooke Park at www.ugbrookepark.co.uk