Don’t miss this month Milton Abbey
How one school in Dorset is making the most of its extensive grounds to introduce its student body to the world of game shooting and conservation.
Milton Abbey School in Dorset has its own shoot and pupils are learning all about the countryside, shooting and conservation both in the classroom and outdoors, including on several shoot days they organise themselves.
Could you imagine if your old school had its own pheasant shoot? Milton Abbey School, midway between Blandford and Dorchester in Dorset is lucky enough to be able to say it does, and last season hosted five shoot days, each one managed by Sixth Form pupils studying a BTEC in Countryside Management.
Pupils are not alone in their endeavours of course, all being aided and abetted by Fourth and Fifth Form pupils studying the Countryside and Environment BTEC, everyone under the experienced eye of gamekeeper Kevin Hurst and other academic staff. Course models taught in the classroom - including game bird production, woodland management, working dogs and pest control - come to life on the shoot throughout the year with pupils being responsible for everything from game bird husbandry and pen maintenance to shoot day logistics – even down to sending out invitations to the guns. Come shoot day, pupils can be found in the beating line and showing other beaters and guns (most often friends and family), the Forestry Commission (with whom the school works on woodland conservation), local landowners (who offer the shoot access to their land) and even school governors a short, well-drilled shoot day.
“The Milton Abbey School shoot is as much about learning the ways of the countryside as it is about running a small shoot,” explained Jack, who is studying a Countryside and Environment BTEC. “We tend to the birds whether they are hatched on site or introduced to Milton Abbey as poults. We watch them grow and learn which environments they like to live in. We don’t put many birds down so we have to look after what we
have carefully so we can produce as good a day’s shooting for the guns as possible. We do all of the beating ourselves and have to gather the birds up after the shoot to prepare ourselves for the next one.
“In my first year with the shoot we had bags of less than five but this year we are well up into the 20s, which is a mark of the progress we are making, not to mention all the work that goes on behind the scenes to produce these days. The Sixth Form pupils actually get to shoot on the last day of the season so I am looking forward to that next year!”
The gamekeeper is a happy man too. “After many hours in the classroom our shoot days are always a cascade of ‘eureka’ moments for pupils when theory suddenly becomes reality before their eyes,” explained Kevin Hurst. “The relevance of habitat management, release pen design and functionality, feeding regimes and predator control all become relevant. Education does not get any more interactive than this.”
One day in december…
Kevin takes up the story of a day at Milton Abbey last Decemberé The Abbey’s Christmas shoot day is always special. Our guests are primarily local landowners who generously allow us to beat and stand guns on their land. Additionally we had local resident Paul Amor, former pupil of the school Duncan Wallace, and Mr Dominic Prince, a friend to the school, in amongst the guns.
The weather was favourable as we were still enjoying the back end of the cold snap along with some light cloud cover and a mild easterly wind, which, when combined, held the birds tightly on their feeding ground. Leaving the guns with Lydia Lee, a teacher of Countryside Management, the beaters departed to blank in the first drive, Monks Path.
The Path is a short drive that culminates in a flush from a cover crop adjacent to the school’s health centre, high on a rising bank. The crop is only an acre in size but provides enough cover to comfortably hold 50 birds. The cold wind had pushed the birds high into small copse above the crop, making it difficult to launch them accurately over the guns. As the top line tiptoed in behind the trees, as predicted the pheasants started to depart the wood with gusto. Some birds ran into the crop, some escaped sideways and some lifted and turned over the flanking guns, which got them off to a positive start, taking them cleanly. The few birds left were trickled out, giving most of the guns a chance to swing at some early birds.
The second and third drives, Beech Trees and then Farm, are both woodland drives. The beaters disperse in four teams under my direction to blank the woods into a collecting area. From there, the Lower Sixth Form pupils then direct the lines via radio to walk the birds into the flushing points. The early birds in Beech Trees were a steady line of partridges that the guns dealt with extremely accurately and efficiently.
For a shoot that only puts down pheasants this is indeed a welcome surprise and confirms that the countryside management pupils must be doing something right in terms of habitat and environment.
a break and a few farewells
While the guns, beaters and pickers-up were off having fun in the woods, the hospitality pupils and staff were busy preparing lunch. On completion of Farm and after a brief stop for photographs in front of Milton Abbey, everyone convened in the Prince’s Room for lunch. Sadly we had to bid farewell to six of the beaters who were representing the 1st XV in a home rugby match against a local team. The mood was jubilant during lunch and the food hearty;
“Pupils are responsible for everything from game bird husbandry to logistics.”
“The birds presented high and strong, rising into wind and giving some amazing sport.”
warming the cockles on a chilly day.
With more work to be done I whisked the beaters off straight after dessert to the final drive, Coombe Plantation, a small area of woodland jutting out between three fields. In the centre of the wood is a release pen home to some hand-reared black necks. With the beating team depleted, the guns could hear the beaters taping and clapping their way back towards them as they approached their pegs. As the guns went live on pegs the first bird emerged from the woods - it was our resident tawny owl, gliding effortlessly past peg No.8, accompanied by the call “Owl!” from every other peg. It’s always reassuring to see birds identified and respected in this manner. For the record, the gun on peg No. 8 didn’t remotely flinch, having identified it immediately.
Shortly after, the black necks started to rise from the trees above the guns, the first of which emerged high and fast drawing nine shots to fly on unscathed at the far end, much to my satisfaction. The birds presented high and strong, rising into wind and giving some amazing sport to guns at the end of the day.
As the shoot party reconvened behind the 1st XV’S rugby posts to bring proceedings to a close, the bag was declared: 23 head for 80 shots, consisting of one pigeon, eight partridge and 14 pheasant – a thoroughly consistent return for the season. The bag at Milton Abbey is deliberately never put under pressure as the day is about so much more than that. First and foremost the shoot exists as a teaching aid to support the Countryside Management department in delivering the relevant modules of the BTEC criteria at the school. The atmosphere and picturesque setting at the school make for an exhilarating day of shooting conducted as precisely as any commercial shoot in the country, albeit scaled down significantly. Tradition and correct etiquette is reinforced at every opportunity but more importantly, everyone enjoys their day and the company of likeminded people. Many of the guests chose to see the day out watching the 1st XV play out the remainder of their match before departing on their homeward journeys.
milton abbey pupil Jack with his prize.
Mark Warn, from the Forestry Commission, and his daughter, Charlotte.
Gamekeeper Kevin Hurst briefs the beaters ahead of the shoot.
Milton Abbey is embraced by 500 acres of grounds designed by Capability Brown.