Rievaulx, north yorkshire
A sporting story almost four decades and three generations in the making which is just getting started.
Justin birkett built on his father’s foundations a shoot that rivals the best in this iconic sporting county – with his own sons now on board this shoot really is reaching for the stars. by martin puddifer.
For a man as busy as he is, Justin Birkett is remarkably calm. The 49-year-old Yorkshireman has a long and personal connection to the shoot on the Rievaulx Estate near Helmsley, an earlier incarnation of which was once run by his late father, and one that would eventually supersede his teenage ambitions of attending Sandhurst and later joining the Irish Guards.
By the time you come to read this, Justin will have just entered his 34th season at Rievaulx, a partridge and pheasant shoot close to the ruins of the abbey destroyed after the dissolution of the monasteries. Like so many in his position, Justin first arrived in the job he loves “by accident”, though perhaps not in a way he’d have liked. Thirtyfour seasons ago he was studying for his A-levels at Ampleforth with Sandhurst in his sights when his father Melvin was hospitalised following a heart attack. Justin left college to help his mother and also became involved in the shoot, which was probably hosting no more than 20 days with modest bags each season. By the time his father had convalesced you would have thought that it was time for Justin to re-enter full-time education and achieve his military ambitions. However, such was his attachment to the shoot, and doubtless his thoughts on its potential, he came to the conclusion that the British Army was not for him after all.
A fresh start meant a complete clear-out at Rievaulx. Justin keepered the shoot himself during his first proper season, putting down and hand-feeding a few thousand birds for syndicate guns and parties arriving for 10 let days. The following year Justin took on Robert Paris, who remains at the shoot to this day. Johnny Nicolson, “a real thinker” first arrived 14
“It was hard work early on, especially when trying to get the farming community to accept shooting and collaborate with us.”
seasons ago straight from school and assumed his current role of headkeeper in 2015.
“There was some pressure in those early days,” said Justin. “Dad created the foundations for the shoot to grow considerably. A lot of the shoots around here are owned by landed gentry and have been for hundreds of years. We aren’t that lucky. We started with 60 acres near home with a further 200 acres we owned the sporting rights to – Rievaulx now controls 5,000 acres with 3,500 shot over across four beats. It just happened for us. I didn’t know how long I was going to do it for, to start with it was a case of needs must and I got my hands dirty. I enjoyed the keepering side in those early seasons. It was a bit like the army in some ways, the discipline of getting up every morning, seven days a week, and grafting. If I didn’t the birds would be gone.
“The biggest challenge when you’re growing a shoot like this is the collaboration with the local community. In the early days it was hard work, especially when trying to get the farming community to accept shooting and collaborate with us. There was a lot of blood, sweat and tears but I took it as a personal challenge. Eventually we pulled everybody together, and by the time I officially took over in 2004, we achieved that to our mutual benefit. Things have exceeded expectations.”
Oxendale showed off not only Rievaulx’s birds but also its topography.
There is sport here for all tastes and abilities.