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

The Field - - Contents - WRIT­TEN BY duff hart-davis ♦ pho­tog­ra­phy BY lucinda mar­land

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

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