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 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:

Ve­hi­cles pro­vided by the Land Rover Ex­pe­ri­ence at Lu­ton Hoo Es­tate.


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

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