Countryside studies at Milton Abbey school
A lively shoot in Dorset, where pupils beat for parents, showed a new generation of countrymen and women in the making
This small school shoot is very much a family affair, finds Duff Hart-davis
What could be less politically correct than a coeducational establishment that teaches its pupils to rear and shoot pheasants? The answer must be, “Nothing.” Yet Milton Abbey School, near Blandford Forum in Dorset, is precisely such a place and it is flourishing. This became evident on a wet, murky morning in November when the headmaster, Magnus Bashaarat, held a day for parents and helpers.
Over coffee in the excellently equipped Tuck Shop (every conceivable kind of coffee), I asked if he considered it wise to publicise such an event. “Why not?” he replied. “It’s all part of the BTEC Countryside Management courses that the children are studying. Besides, there’s no-one to cause trouble. We’re really well tucked away down here. There are no motorways and no railway station. It’s quite a job to get here. It’s proper, old-fashioned countryside. Village life. Estate life.”
The shoot met outside the magnificent greystone, 18th-century house that looks out over immaculate rugger and hockey pitches down an equally magnificent valley, laid out as a park by Capability Brown in the 1780s, with beech woods beautifully placed on the hills to frame a long sweep of green.
The headmaster was not shooting. The eight guns were either fathers or other adults with connections to the school. Keeper Kevin Hurst, a stocky, genial, former Royal Marine sergeant-major, is a professional; but the 19 beaters (17 boys and two girls, aged 14 to 18) were all volunteers, decked out in brandnew, banana-coloured high-viz jackets.
The riot act was read by shoot captain Lissy Carr, director of Land Based Studies. Tall and slim, with an authoritative delivery, she spelled out the shape of the day. “All drives will start and end with a whistle. If at any time you hear two short whistle-blasts, please stop shooting immediately. The beaters today are our pupils and the shoot is being run for educational purposes. The aim is to give our children experience: they’re being assessed for teamwork skills and initiative – so for them it’s just a school day. As for first aid, our beaters carry all sorts of gunshot-wound patches and they’re in full radio contact. On the only public footpath, we’ll have a marshal at either end. If anyone shoots a white pheasant, it’s a £25 fine.”
The school now has 275 pupils; demand for places is strong and the number keeps rising. It has 81 acres of its own land and thanks to the cooperation of neighbours, the shoot covers 350 acres. Its scope is further extended by the fact that the Forestry Commission allows the boys to build release
pens on its ground, and to drive its woods during the season.
On the day I was there, the first drive was the farthest away, a couple of miles down the road at Lower Farm, where dairy farmers Ed and Josh Hiscock grant the school full access to their land. This year the brothers built a release pen and planted a cover crop of maize, in return for which they have a day of their own at the end of the season.
getting into position
Having left vehicles at the farm, the company had a healthy trudge uphill on a muddy track, until beaters and low-numbered guns disappeared over the top and the higher numbers lined out below on a steep grass bank, out of sight of the crop. At number seven in the lower tier was Bill Raby, whose son, Angus, would have been beating had he not gone off that morning to the Isle of Wight as fullback in the rugger XV. “He was in a bigger school,” his father explained, “but he couldn’t quite make the top teams. Here, with fewer boys, he got a better chance and I’m really pleased with the way he’s come on.”
The maize held a good many pheasants but most of them went out right-handed and only a few absolute crackers came over the lower line. Our neighbour, Anthony Rhodes, downed one cock bird in style but missed another that was drifting sharply sideways in the wind. “If I’d killed that, I’d have gone home happy,” he declared.
It was hardly surprising that his eye was in, for he gets plenty of practice at the shoots he runs in Dumfries and Galloway. In the south he is an enthusiastic supporter of the school, and for this season had generously contributed pheasant eggs and poults. His son, Will, a diminutive 15-year-old, was in the beating line; the boy is already an accomplished shot and at home in Surrey keeps chickens of his own, meticulously recording and selling their eggs.
For the second drive, the beaters expertly brought a large beech wood down to a corner, pushing out the first white pheasant of the day, which wasn’t shot at, and a tawny owl, which made a swooping exit. The gun below the corner, Stuart Venables, was representing the Came estate near Dorchester for a family that has a connection with the school. He, too, had a son in action – Vlad, a sixth-former, who was beating.
As the line advanced, yellow jackets flashed brightly between the bare beech trunks, and when the team emerged from the wood, the keeper declared himself well pleased. “The birds came out lovely,” he said. “That’s the first time we’ve got round ’em properly.” It showed what confidence he had in the boys when he despatched a small beater with a radio to the next drive. “Get in the bus, back to school, then walk across the field straight to the folly and let me know when you’re there.”
Most the pheasants went out right handed with a few absolute crackers
Next, the beaters drove part of Monmouth Hill, a long, Forestry Commission wood, with the guns widely spaced along an arable field below. It was frustrating, but not the fault of the boys, that most of the birds turned back along the edge of the trees, out of range.
Because everything was well up to schedule, Carr decided to squeeze in a duck drive before lunch. This was by courtesy of benevolent neighbour Wayne Little, who owns a lake close to the school and allows pupils to release pheasants on his land. “Keep quiet as we approach the lake,” Carr warned everyone. “Please stop talking as we get near.”
additional duck drive
The stealthy approach worked well, and no duck took off before everyone was in position outside the ring of shrubs and trees that encircled the shore. At first the only residents that moved were blackbirds, which poured out of the trees in amazing numbers. But then the usual thing happened: at the first shot, all the mallard took off together and departed. Only a few came back and only three ended up in the bag.
Lunch was in the Prince’s Room – a grand, high-ceilinged chamber at the back of the house. A roaring fire helped dry sodden coats, while a black-clad butler handed out drinks to the guns. The beaters got no wine, but they ate the same food as the grown-ups – and first-rate it was: steak pie and fresh vegetables, followed by cheese. During the break there was time for snatches of conversation. Finlay Tosh, of the Lower Sixth, reckoned he had been shooting, “since the age of about 10”. He now has a side-by-side, 12-bore Kestrel that he keeps at the nearby Purbeck Shooting School. Still more heavily armed was George Gifford, in his secondlast year. His home is in the Highlands and he stalks there with a Tikka T3 .308. In Dorset, he goes out by private arrangement with the keeper after sika on the Purbeck hills and, when we talked, was setting his sights on one particularly large stag.
Girl beaters were no less keen. Jess Madge, studying for A levels, had just started to shoot and was, “hoping for a gun as a Christmas present from Mum and Dad”. When she said she already had a 12-bore, “that no one else likes to use because it’s a bit wonky”, she meant that it had a left-hand cast, which suited her as she shoots off her left shoulder.
None of the guns was more enthusiastic about the school’s regime than Giles
Wates, who runs a stud farm just 10 minutes away. His eldest daughter, Harriet, went through Sixth Form; his second, Tabitha, is in the Sixth now; and his son, George, in the Fourth. “Harriet’s senior school wasn’t working,” he said. “Then she came here and blossomed. In two years I had a different child. After a few months at home she went off for a year in New Zealand – without this school, she’d never have done that.”
Although the emphasis of the curriculum is on countryside management, the school has an exceptional range of recreation besides normal sports pitches: a nine-hole golf-course; an indoor rifle-range; a swimming pool; stables in which the girls may keep their own horses; and mountain biking in the surrounding woods. As the day went on, it became clear how closely the pupils are involved in running the shoot. They build release pens, catch up birds at the end of the season, set the laying pens, introduce the cock birds, pick up and clean the eggs, supervise the incubation and hatching, and do forestry work.
To close the day’s proceedings – after two small drives in the afternoon – the company gathered on the terrace beside the house, where Hurst announced the bag – 23 pheasants and three duck – and thanked everyone for taking part. “I would applaud the beaters,” he said. “They’ve had a very tough day. They’ve probably covered about five miles each. In the afternoon we did struggle to get birds over the pegs – but that’s the beauty of what we do here. On Monday we’ll get in the classroom and analyse what happened – whether the problem was the weather, geography, people’s behaviour or what.”
The bag may have been modest but for a visitor such as myself the day was a revelation. It showed that the boys and girls of Milton Abbey school are not merely polite but exceptionally articulate and friendly. It did not seem fanciful to suppose that the beauty of their surroundings has a benign influence on them, and I came away with the comfortable feeling that another generation of true countrymen and women is in the making.
A stunning backdrop for guns, including the 10thcentury Abbey church founded by King Athelstan
Above: pupils Gus Birkkeck, Josh Coleman and George Gifford beat a beech wood expertly for the second drive
Russell Pawson about to address a bird on the first drive of the day
Above: Will Rhodes and Rafferty Butler with keeper Kevin Hurst. Top: Anthony Rhodes and Camilla Bashaarat
Top: Dominic Woolland, Jack Woolland, Josh Coleman. Above: Camilla Bashaarat, school governor Charlie Bingham and headmaster Magnus Bashaarat. Below: flankers push birds over the guns