What makes an award-winning shoot?
Tim Furbank looks at the things that all Purdey Award-winning shoots have in common, and argues that there are lessons that all of us can learn from them.
I guess that some of you may alter the question and ask ‘who cares about an award-winning shoot’? And you may well be right. Perhaps we shouldn’t be publicising what we do. Perhaps we should just keep our heads down and get on with it. After all, the general public don’t understand shooting and never will, so why bother trying to educate them?
Personally, I don’t believe that, and I think that we are now at a crossroads in terms of the direction that shooting takes.
We could drive blindly on over the crossroads, releasing more birds and shooting more days and bigger bags, or we could just wait, have a little look left (no political bias intended) at the flack that will inevitably come our way from the anti-shooting brigade, and have a little look right at what we could be doing to promote what we do to avoid always being on the back foot and in ‘defence’ mode.
The Purdey Awards for Shooting & Conservation are a fantastic celebration of all that is good in the shooting world. In the six years that I have been on the judging panel, award winners have come from all spectrums of our sport, from a small wildfowling shoot on 80 acres of reclaimed quarry within eight miles of London Bridge, to large grouse moors, small-scale syndicate shoots, privately owned farm shoots, wild grey partridge and pheasant shoots and large commercial shoots. Comparing a grouse moor with an 80-acre reclaimed quarry or a large wild bird estate in East Anglia with a 100-acre put-and-take shoot in the Cotswolds is not easy, but all of the Purdey Award winners have a number of things in common.
First, they are all passionate about their shoot. For the judges, it’s not about how much money or resource you throw at a project, it’s the thought, time and passion that goes into making it happen. Last year’s Gold Award winner, David Sandford from Portloughan, County Down, was so passionate about reintroducing the grey partridge to Northern Ireland that he managed to persuade 21 neighbouring farmers on the adjoining 1,500 acres of farmland to join him in a project to help the greys. On his own 250-acre farm, he ploughed up grassland to introduce cereal crops so he could leave stubbles; he planted acres of wild bird mixes and nectar mixes and, even more impressively, managed to secure a cross-border agreement to translocate four coveys of greys from the Irish Grey Partridge Trust in County Offaly. Because the weather is so unpredictable in Northern Ireland (for unpredictable read ‘cold and wet’) he then set up a captive breeding programme to ensure a few coveys could be released each autumn.
After only two years, he had pairs that successfully bred and reared broods in the wild. David is a realist and knows that, given the weather, they will rarely have a shootable surplus so contents himself with releasing some pheasants to provide some spectacular sport for Guns standing in a beautiful setting on the shores of Strangford Lough.
All of the Purdey Award winners have shown that they understand the importance of good habitat. Good habitat may mean well-managed heather, it may mean well-managed woodland or well-managed field margins or well-managed seed mixes. Did I mention well-managed?! That doesn’t have to mean neat and tidy but it does mean that it is managed in such a way as to benefit game and other wildlife.
David and Orla Hall from Glebe Farm in the Cotswolds, Bronze Award winners in 2015, have 100 acres of mixed woodland and grassland along one spectacular valley. When they bought the land, the woodland was in a poor state and some of the banks were completely over-run with scrub. They immediately set to work with chainsaws, bill hooks and strimmers and the transformation in four years was quite remarkable. The woodland floor is now regenerating and the south-facing bank is a raft of colour in the spring as well as providing warmth and shelter in the winter.
On such a small area, the easiest option for game cover would be to put in a few strips of maize on the tops of the banks to pull the pheasants up but the Halls wanted to deliver something for the farmland birds as well, so each strip of maize has a wild bird seed mix comprising kale, fodder radish, quinoa, millet and dwarf sorghum alongside it.
All of the Purdey Award winners undertake predator control at the crucial time of year, the spring. They are not all wild bird shoots so some have a greater attention to predator control than others. Some deal with foxes by lamping them, and corvids with Larsen traps, whilst others are more intensive and run snares, tunnel traps and Larsens, as well as investing in night vision for fox shooting.
Simon Maudlin, Gold Award winner in 2011, has a delightful put-and-take pheasant and redleg shoot in Bedfordshire but what sets his shoot apart is the fact that they regularly have 300+ wild greys on their 800 acres of ground. And the reason for this is simply habitat management and intensive predator control between February and June. Simon and his right-hand-man, Melvyn Wright, both have day jobs (well, Melvyn does – Simon is a farmer!) but they still manage to get round snares, tunnel traps, Larsen traps and crow cages before work and it really pays off. Their spring pair count varies between 30 and 40 pairs and this usually gives them a shootable surplus of wild greys each year as well as broods of redlegs and wild pheasants. It makes the shooting very special.
Award-winning shoots are happy to promote what they do to local interest groups, schools and other organisations. They are not resistant to people from non-shooting backgrounds seeing what they do; instead they use it as an opportunity to show that shooting and conservation go hand-in-hand.
Kelly Partridge-Hicks, from Little Haugh Hall in Suffolk which won the Purdey Bronze Award in 2016, runs an unashamedly commercial shoot with some outstanding conservation projects. They make it clear to all their Guns and any visitors that the shooting revenue pays for the conservation! In fact, their conservation credentials are so good that the Suffolk Wildlife Trust uses their shoot room for meetings and the farm at Little Haugh to show members and visitors some of the conservation work that Kelly and her team are carrying out.
respect for the end product
Finally, they all ensure the game they harvest is treated with respect and goes into the food chain. The minute that we lose sight of the fact that we are harvesting a free-range food source is the minute that shooting is doomed. We are shooting for sport and for pleasure, but if the birds you shoot are simply a target and you don’t care what happens to them afterwards, then you need to have a long hard think about what you are doing.
David Sandford in Northern Ireland has no problem finding homes for his game. The beaters always take birds, as do the Guns, and what is left David processes himself and sells to local restaurants and hotels. This is not practical for many shoots but we do need to be more innovative in what we do with game and we need to encourage more people to eat it.
It is becoming common now on shoot days for a minority of Guns to decline a brace at the end of the day, even when they are offered oven-ready birds. I believe that everyone should take a brace at the end of the day and, if oven-ready birds are offered, then offer to buy more than a brace and give them to friends/family/colleagues. If you offer properly-packaged, oven-ready birds to most people (vegetarians excluded) and tell them it’s like ‘wild chicken’ with a suggestion on how to cook it, they will give it a go. Believe me, it works; I now have several ladies who work in my wife’s dress shop who look forward to me delivering some oven-readies to the staff kitchen!
I also think more game should be served to Guns on shoot days. According to one article on shoot etiquette that I read, ‘game should never be served on a shoot day’. What utter nonsense. What better way to put Guns in touch with what they are harvesting than feeding them with it? On one commercial shoot in Northamptonshire, one of the pickers-up breasts out four brace of partridges that are shot on the first drive and, at elevenses, they are sliced and barbecued and served with celery salt. Fresh and delicious! Over 20 days of shooting, that accounts for 80 brace of partridge.
So, if you have a shoot of which you are justifiably proud and, on reading this think you share some commonality with the above, then why not enter the Purdey Awards this year?