Fantastic Four day for GWCT prize winner
One lucky team of guns enjoyed a shoot day with a difference last November: four drives, each at a different Bedfordshire or Hertfordshire estate
Janet Menzies joined the lucky team
When your host advises you that elevenses will be at 12 o’clock sharp, no hanging around, you know you are in for a busy day’s shooting. Edward Phillips, estate director at Luton Hoo, was most apologetic at having to get the guns in order before a shot had even been fired, but he explained this was to be a shoot like no other. It was clear the day wouldn’t work if the guns proceeded in the normal dilettante, coffee-housing manner of guns everywhere.
As Andrew Slack, chairman of the Bedfordshire branch of the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust (GWCT), outlined the day, it became obvious why everyone needed to be at the top of their game. The shoot would comprise not one but four different shoots, each contributing its best drive to create what the GWCT titled, with some justification, “The Fantastic Four”.
Our convoy of chauffeur-driven Land Rovers was to whizz around Bedfordshire and Hertfordshire taking us to shoot at: St Paul’s Walden Bury; King’s Walden; Lilley Manor Farm; and finishing up at Luton Hoo Estate itself. There could be no thought of conducting this along the lines of an Exmoor shoot, where the various teams tootle aimlessly around the place until the convoys are muddled and guns end up not just on the wrong peg but the wrong drive – and even at the wrong shoot. Achieving the Fantastic Four would be a logistical feat more along the lines of defending Estonia.
Slack explained how the project came into being: “It is the first time our committee has ever attempted such a big function as this. The Fantastic Four day’s shooting is the prize for our raffle. We aimed to sell between 150 and 200 raffle tickets at £200 each and we’ve actually sold 175, which means we have raised £35,000 for the Trust. But a day like this doesn’t just happen, I think it’s taken more than a year to put it all together. We couldn’t possibly have done it without the shoot owners being so helpful with it. Edward Phillips and Luton Hoo have been the driving force to make it work, and it’s a big project.”
THE LUCKY TEAM
The raffle winner was Ian Simkins, who put together a team of lucky guns, comprising family and friends. He said: “Shooting with the family and my friends is what I enjoy most. At home we may not have the greatest numbers of birds but the atmosphere is the most important thing. So it’s great to have two of my sons with me today and some old friends, and let’s hope we are up to the challenge of the Fantastic Four. I haven’t really got much game shooting in so far this season but I have been practising,” Simkins’ old friend, David Fahie, chose this moment to inform him that he’d already been out five times, which was taken in good part. Nevertheless, there was a definite air of nervous anticipation as we set out for the first drive – and the shoot hosts were every bit as focused as the guns.
Billed as the “Fantastic Four”, each shoot was naturally anxious to show the very best birds on the very best drives, not an easy task at the beginning of November. As the guns lined out for the first drive at St Paul’s Walden Bury shoot, the host, Sir Simon Bowes-lyon, explained: “Today we have a big emphasis on putting some great birds over the guns, so we are trying to have a drive where the birds will fly straight across – that’s the idea, anyway. Normally with pheasants we do the drive the other way and stand the guns further round from the flushing point. We are hoping for challenging birds today – it’s fairly experimental but let’s give it a try.”
A fox strolling insolently down the line was not a good omen as the drive began but the first pheasant over defeated the guns, so hopefully this would set the tone for the day. The Home Counties are not famed for steep terrain and the wooded slope of the drive carried none of the terrors of facing up to a Welsh cliff face. However, an alert gun would notice that the birds were flying to an area only accessible over the tops of a thick stand of deciduous trees diagonally behind. Those who took this into account did better than the more relaxed. Chris Sherriff was one who respected the drive’s idiosyncrasies, commenting: “I had an excellent position in the wood, with good birds coming over the top of that big tree.”
Simkins’ sons, James and William, had drawn pegs close to each other and formed a double Simkins family attack, as William explained: “We were either side of the tree so we were both in the shooting.” James added: “There were some good birds, and that drive went well even though it was experimental.” Ian Simkins agreed with his sons’ verdict: “The first drive was perfect and the wind really added to it.” With the experiment declared a success, neither host nor guns had time to rest on their laurels as
Phillips rapidly shepherded us to the second drive, laying out the complexities of his plan. “It is quite an exercise getting everybody in the right place at the right time. We have the same team of beaters for the first and the third drives. For the second drive the estate is providing its own team and the fourth on Luton Hoo they are shooting today so we will be there last.”
Arriving at King’s Walden Bury for the second drive, Coach House, Richard Pilkington – managing the day on behalf of his father, Sir Thomas Pilkington – was ready to welcome us. “This is one of our central drives – we wanted to show our best for the lucky winners. We want to provide some sport but it is our first day of the season so it will be difficult. We have a few partridges but mainly pheasants. The topography is very different here, so we can produce a different type of bird. They curl away, they don’t want to fly straight like the Westcountry birds do. The land behind the drive is higher and steeper so it will get them up – it is not where they are flying from but where they are flying to that makes the bird a good quality. Another plus for Hertfordshire: it is great for oak trees and the pheasants enjoy the acorns.”
As Pilkington predicted, the birds flushed through a bank of conifers, reaching great height before banking teasingly on the wind while still giving the full line a fair chance. With guns now warmed up, the chances were frequently taken, leaving the group buzzing as they came off the drive. James Simkins said: “We are getting the opportunity to experience so many challenges on one day – it’s all different. Normally you are shooting with your friends and you know the shoots very well, so this is great.”
We are getting the opportunity to experience so many challenges
Thanks to the efforts of Phillips and our Land Rover Experience chauffeurs, we arrived at the next shoot, Lilley Manor Farm, on time to enjoy a substantial elevenses (at midday exactly) provided by GWCT helpers. Simkins family friend, Guy Newton, was fascinated by the impact terrain has on a shoot. “My family is from Exmoor and of course the shooting is so different down there. But where I am now is totally different again, managing the shoot at Heveningham Hall in Suffolk. It was the last estate where Capability Brown designed the landscape, so we are now restoring that amazing parkland.”
Setting out for the third drive, Kingshill, the guns were encouraged by host Christopher Rogers inviting: “Fill your boots!” He went on to explain: “Our best drive, which we were planning to shoot today, has stopped working for some reason, so we have switched to a different drive for you. Basically, just enjoy yourselves.” This may have led to a certain amount of gamesmanship creeping in during the drive, as the guns lined out in a natural bowl of gently sweeping country where everybody was in full view of each other. Simkins admitted: “Yes, I’m afraid there is something of a competitive element in our team – especially when we are shooting at home. But at home we are worried about will we have enough birds.” This was scarcely the problem on Kingshill drive as birds of all heights and at all angles sped above the guns, emerging through the still dense leaf canopy and determinedly standing on their tails.
With one more shoot to visit, this exciting drive set the seal on the day and both guns and hosts relaxed as it was obvious the project was a success. Rogers jumped in the convoy to ride with us and join the gallery for the final drive at Luton Hoo. The camaraderie that had grown up between the participating estates was an added, unquantifiable benefit of the day. Shoots often work in isolation, there is even occasional friction, but with shooting under more pressure than ever, working together is a good feeling. As Slack commented: “We want a fighting chance to defend the sport of game shooting. For shooting to survive we want to be able to show our best side. And we can demonstrate it adds value to the environment through conservation – we feel the GWCT is vital to do that.” Phillips agreed: “The shoots have been helpful because they have taken on their own management of their drive. It has actually been good fun organising it. Not just in terms of putting support into the Trust, but it has also been great for enjoyment all round.”
Getting to the final drive at Luton Hoo was rather a surreal experience as we drove more or less past the Vauxhall Motors manufacturing plant, and really didn’t feel like we were in shooting country at all. Then, a couple of left turns later, we were on our last drive and the sky was thick with high partridges flying fast on the wind. As the guns carefully selected the highest birds in each flush I was reminded of partridge shooting on some of the famous shoots of the south and south-west, rather than being just a stone’s throw from that charming country village of Luton. Phillips laughed: “Well, we are five minutes from the M1, but really you can’t tell. The countryside is beautiful here and it just goes to show that top shooting is possible in this comparatively developed area, with some clever planning. We believe we can show some cracking birds, and today has given us an opportunity to represent the type of shooting you can get here.” Definitely worth braving the traffic on the M1 for.
The GWCT “Fantastic Four” shoot was hosted by Sir Simon Bowes-lyon at St Paul’s Walden Bury; Sir Thomas Pilkington at King’s Walden Bury; Christopher Rogers at Lilley Manor Farm; Edward Phillips, director of Luton Hoo Estate. For information about the GWCT go to: www.gwct.org.uk
Vehicles provided by the Land Rover Experience at Luton Hoo Estate.
▲ ONE RAFFLE TICKET, FOUR DRIVES, EIGHT GUNS ON THE GWCT DAY,
Above: gun Ed Hutley on the St Paul’s Walden Bury drive. Left: Chris Sherriff takes a high bird on the final drive of the day at Luton Hoo Estate
Picking-up pheasants on the St Paul’s Walden Bury drive, where birds were driven over a stand of trees
Above: John Rice on Coach House drive, King’s Walden Bury. Far right: James Simkins at Lilley Manor Farm (top); retrieving a redleg at St Paul’s Walden
Picking-up after the King’s Walden Bury drive, which offered a few partridges but mainly pheasants
Above: William Simkins, the son of the owner of the winning ticket, on the third drive at Lilley Manor Farm Right: winner Ian Simkins, who assembled the team of guns, on the final drive at Luton Hoo Estate