High birds and other halves unite for an en­ter­tain­ing day in the South West.


High birds and a won­der­ful at­mos­phere hit Guns for six. By Si­mon Penis­ton-bird.

Jan­uary 3 dawned bit­terly cold with fe­ro­cious winds gust­ing up to 80mph. To be hon­est, I was dread­ing a call from James Mouland, our host and the shoot’s head­keeper, telling me that the day was to be can­celled, but hear­ing noth­ing, my wife Ce­line and I made our way to ren­dezvous with the rest of the team at the Wind­whis­tle Inn in Cricket St. Thomas. On ar­rival, I asked a slightly pen­sive James whether we were still on for the day. He con­firmed we would go ahead but the birds might prove “in­ter­est­ing”.

Hav­ing had a cof­fee and a chance to catch up with friends old and new, James asked us to draw num­bers. This was done with a very smart set of num­bered cups which, hav­ing downed the tot in­side, re­vealed our peg for the first drive. I had drawn No.5 – an aus­pi­cious start, I thought to my­self. Af­ter a brief safety talk, we went out­side to kit up and mount the Guns’ trailer.

Blow­ing a hoo­ley

As we set off, most of the Guns were ea­ger to get on the peg but a lit­tle anx­ious that the weather, which was blow­ing a hoo­ley, was go­ing to wreck the day’s sport. The first drive was to be the aptly named Wind Whis­tle. It was at the top of a ride through some an­cient wood­land. As we moved to our pegs, I sur­veyed the lay of the land. We were in a small­ish grass field which sloped up to a hedge, with a de­cent wood­land be­hind us. Ex­pect­ing the birds would clear the trees be­hind us, I as­sumed this would be a warm-up drive. Well, we all know what as­sump­tions can do to you. As the birds started to flush in ones and twos and oc­ca­sional lit­tle bou­quets, it be­came clear that this was no gen­tle eas­ing us in – this was in at the deep end. What the birds saw be­hind the guns I don’t know but they climbed and climbed, hit the wind and shot over the line in the blink of an eye. With the cross­ing wind caus­ing them to slide side­ways, they were tall and fast, twist­ing and turn­ing. By the time the horn went to sig­nal the end of the drive, most of us were scratch­ing our heads won­der­ing what had just hap­pened.

The sec­ond drive, Shave Pinch, was at the other end of this large wood­land. The Guns were lined out along the ride at the bot­tom of the wood and out into a grass field. I had peg No.2 this time as I had per­suaded James to let me try the Durn­ford Wheel in­stead of just mov­ing up two or three. It is well worth a try as it moves the Guns about a bit more ran­domly and means you don’t end up shoot­ing next to the same two Guns all day. This is nice if you would have ended up next to Mr Greedy all day, and it also means you end up chat­ting to more of the team as the day wears on. The

beat­ers came from the far left and right, grad­u­ally squeez­ing the birds up and out from the cover high above the wood. The birds were spread right along the line but the best were over the Guns pegged on the track in­side the wood. Sail­ing high above the mas­sive oak and ash trees, they made dif­fi­cult tar­gets again made even more chal­leng­ing by the wind-borne sideslip.

Af­ter a cham­pagne break we moved on to Why­ats Wood. Most of the Guns were pegged in front of an­other large block of na­tive trees. I was now No.7, which left me dou­ble banked be­low the wood with Mike Whit­field and his wife Sarah. As the drive started we saw birds com­ing for­ward, but many were ex­pertly dealt with in front. By the time they got out to us, they were com­pletely out of range. I spot­ted a won­der­ful bird com­ing over Mike. It was clear he hadn’t clocked it at all and Sarah was shout­ing “Michael, Michael!” in that spe­cial tone of voice that wives re­serve for their hus­bands and has so many more mean­ings than just “look up dear, there’s a bird com­ing over your peg”.

When the drive fin­ished, the Guns con­gre­gated back at the trailer and were joined by the beat­ers and then the pick­ing-up team. James bus­ied around serv­ing drinks while Han­nah, his part­ner, served elevenses. Af­ter home­made soup and bread, we had lo­cal sausages and then pheas­ant burg­ers, a spe­cial­ity of the shoot. James

told me that as the prices of­fered by the game deal­ers have plum­meted, he has looked to ways of us­ing their pro­duce them­selves. The food was de­li­cious and was wolfed down by ev­ery­one with great en­thu­si­asm. I got talk­ing to Joe, the game­keeper, and he hopes to of­fer oven-ready birds as well as breast fil­lets to the Guns this sea­son. It was so nice to see ev­ery­one mix­ing to­gether and en­joy­ing their day to­gether – it gave the day a feel­ing of be­ing a fam­ily shoot rather than just be­ing a Gun on a let day.

Once we were suit­ably re­plete, we mounted the Guns’ trailer and crossed the road to the park. Cricket St. Thomas is a beau­ti­ful old es­tate set in Som­er­set on the Devon bor­der. It has steep wooded val­leys, with rolling park­land be­low and set be­tween a se­ries of ponds and lakes. The in­ter­nal roads lead you past the old manor house, once Grantleigh Manor in the TV se­ries

To the Manor Born, and the cot­tage to which Au­drey Forbes-hamil­ton, played by Pene­lope Keith, was rel­e­gated af­ter sell­ing the manor. I can­not think of many more places more quintessen­tially English than here – it is ab­so­lutely gor­geous.

We de­bussed for Black­more, the next drive, and af­ter a walk across a field we found our­selves pegged at the bot­tom of a steep bank in front of a thick pine wood. The birds came thick and fast and de­spite a heavy shower – as if the howl­ing gale wasn’t enough – the Guns coped well. Pete Gray on No.6 missed with his first few car­tridges but then found form, hit­ting the next 11 birds straight – much to the dis­tress of Howard Tay­lor and his wife Anna, the pegged back Gun.

Af­ter an­other mo­tor tour of the park we un­loaded for Badgers, the fi­nal drive of the day. Pegged in

a semi-cir­cle in front of the lake, the ground rose steeply in front and was topped by a larch wood. Af­ter a short wait the birds be­gan to come – and kept com­ing. Joe seemed to man­age to fan them back­wards and for­wards, pro­vid­ing a con­stant stream of shoot­ing the length of the line. By the end ev­ery­one had had their fair share. Re­turn­ing to the Wind­whis­tle for a drink and a meal gave me a chance to catch up with James. It is only his sec­ond sea­son on Cricket, though the old shoot, which runs along­side Cricket, has been un­der his stew­ard­ship for much longer. They man­age to pro­vide 26 days of shoot­ing for teams of eight guns and have 15 main drives. James and Joe are keen to de­velop a few more drives, and pos­si­bly try some par­tridge days. They would also like to de­velop a gun­room, but James is pru­dent and doesn’t want to overex­tend him­self grow­ing the shoot sus­tain­ably over the next few years.

Badgers sits in a bowl at the heart of the shoot andshows chal­leng­ing birds.

Ad­mi­ral Seats is one of the most pic­turesque drives on the shoot.

Guns take a mo­ment to com­pose them­selves fol­low­ing a busy pe­riod.

There was plenty of ac­tion to be had at Why­ats Wood.

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