A founding member of the National Gamekeepers' Organisation and internationally renowned headkeeper at Castle Hill in Devon, Brian has been a gamekeeper his entire working life and has been instrumental in the development of high bird shooting in the West Country.
How did you get into gamekeeping?
When I was at school, there was a local farmer called Ron Knight who took me beating on a Tuesday in the shooting season – I skived off school and went with him to a shoot near Blandford, Dorset, called Wooland. There, I met a gamekeeper by the name of Henstridge who showed me what goes on in a beating line and I took to it like a fish to water. I then applied for a job at Sherborne Castle as a trainee keeper under John Yandel and Ron Day. I was a trainee there for about three years during which time many silly things happened – many of these are mentioned in my book.
Since developing two of the UK's most famous high bird shoots, do you now regard yourself as a gamekeeper or a shoot manager?
I have always been a gamekeeper and have never wanted to be tagged as a shoot manager. There has only been one year in my working life when I wasn't in direct contact with game. That was my last year with Alan Milton when I had to oversee the three shoots – Miltons, Chargot and Bulland – and I hated it. I wanted to get up in the morning and look after my birds. I really missed the keepering side of things.
Which aspects of shoot management do you find the most rewarding?
Seeing a healthy shoot where there is a wide variety of wildlife, both birds and mammals. Followed by putting on a good drive where experienced Guns struggle to hit birds that both the Guns and I know are definitely shootable!
And least rewarding?
I really don't think there is any side to my job that I don't enjoy. But, I do hate losing birds to foxes. There's nothing worse than finding 40 or 50 dead pheasants outside a release pen, having been disturbed during the night.
What would you say to people who question the ethics of high bird shooting?
As long as the birds are in-range, height is irrelevant. No one can guarantee that you will kill every time you pull the trigger, regardless of the bird's height. You can still miss or wound a low bird. The responsibility lies with the Gun to ensure that they practise on clays and have the skills to kill really tall pheasants if that is what they want to do. At Castle Hill we employ 12 pickers-up, each strategically placed to quickly gather up any runners. That is important.
What are your thoughts on big bag sizes?
A day's shooting is a day's shooting and, to me, the bag is irrelevant as long as those birds end up in the foodchain. It doesn't matter whether you shoot 100 or 500, as long as you have the pickers-up to ensure that all birds are accounted for. I have no problem with bag size, just as long as the job is done properly. I would say a perfect bag size would be somewhere between 400 – 500 because people will not travel from around the world for a small day – they want to have a full day's shooting.
Thinking back to when you first started out as a keeper, how do Guns compare nowadays in terms of attitude, etiquette and knowledge?
I would say that Guns are no different now. There have always been two types of shooters – those who have grown up in shooting and those who have made their money and come into shooting later in life. And we have always had the latter – in the early days they used to come from the oil companies in Scotland. What would an American know about a UK shoot? Very little. They are there for the sport. But, equally, I think it very important to tell them and educate them. They are not worried about the mechanics of it, though.
Have you been surprised by the way that shooting has taken off and become big business in the West Country?
Absolutely dumbfounded. I never thought shooting would get to this level, not just in the West Country but in other parts of the UK, too. We have created a huge number of jobs – in 2008 we conducted a survey which estimated that £36million was generated by the greater Exmoor area shoots and there were 12,000 direct jobs including 120 gamekeepers. We estimated that something like 25,000 bed nights in local pubs and hotels were generated by shooting. We are currently having the survey redone for the surrounding Exmoor area – it will be interesting to see the new figures.
As a cricketer, did you give Ian Botham any tips when he shot with you at Castle Hill?!
Unfortunately, it was one of the wettest days I have ever known and the conditions were therefore unsuitable for pheasants, so we ended up shooting ducks. Unfortunately, I didn't get a chance to give him any tips but he was great fun in the bar afterwards.
Do you prefer to break for lunch or shoot through?
I always prefer to stop for lunch. Shooting is a social sport and lunch shouldn't be rushed. I find it sad that Guns want to just turn up and pull the trigger for several hours and then head straight home. It's a disgrace, in my opinion. Our regular syndicate get it right – they always stop for a good lunch and always have a wonderful day.
What are your thoughts on the creeping trend towards baseball caps and no ties in the shooting field?
I haven't actually got an issue with it, to be honest. As long as the keepers and loaders are dressed correctly, I am not offended by what the guests wear. We once had an Italian turn up in camo – he was a guest of the syndicate – and I later heard from the team that they were very surprised that I hadn't said anything.
Do you do much shooting yourself?
I have much more of a passion for producing a day's shooting than pulling the trigger. But my syndicate do invite me for a couple of days after Christmas which I accept and enjoy. But I think that they only do that to put me in my place after I have given them all such a hard time during the season! Other than that, I also have a few days on a lovely little shoot in Yeoford, run by the Brimacombe family, where we shoot between 70 and 100 birds and have a horrendous amount of fun doing it.
Who would be in your dream team of Guns?
Caspar MacDonald Hall, Alan Milton, Ian Yates, Bob Sperring, John and Michael Chandris, Simon Ford and Pete Gould.
Do you think there is still a place for the side-by-side on high pheasant shoots?
Yes, of course there is. Having said that, we don't see many here at Castle Hill, but in the right hands, a side-by-side is an effective tool. Interestingly, though, one of our regular syndicate members who has shot side-by-sides all of his life has just changed to over-unders.
What cartridge would you recommend for high pheasants?
For October and November I recommend Guns use 32g No. 5s here at Castle Hill, and in December and January 32g No. 4s will do the job just fine.
What would you regard as your greatest achievement as a gamekeeper?
I am very proud that I was there at the very beginning of the development of high bird shooting in Exmoor and have been involved throughout. Seeing this area develop as a destination for pheasant shooting has been very rewarding. I am also very proud of what I have achieved at Castle Hill.
Do you have any shooting/gamekeeping heroes?
David Clark at Sandringham for his knowledge of the countryside and his drive to get the NGO on the map, and Angus Barnes because of his commitment and investment in developing the Exmoor shoots.
What do you think the ideal West Country shoot day entails?
It would have to be a late November or December day. Eight friendly Guns and friendly helpers. The number of drives is irrelevant, but I would say a bag of 400 – 500 is ideal. It would definitely be a double-gun day as it is bloody hard work shooting 400 – 500 with single guns!
Do you have any superstitions on a shoot day?
I haven't any superstitions, but there are certain things that tell me it's going to be a hard day at the office. Such as when I walk out the door in the morning and feel dampness on my cheeks, or get to the first drive and the shots thud in the valley instead of ring/echo. Or, when the first birds are shot and their feathers hang in the air and when you can smell the burnt gunpowder from a neighbouring Gun – all of these things are signs of a heavy atmosphere and high pressure. The birds struggle to fly well in these conditions. Luckily, that can change in minutes.
Who is the best gundog handler you have ever seen?
A woman who really impressed me was June Atkinson who picked-up for me regularly and often worked seven or eight golden retrievers. There was never a dog out of place. Nice to watch and handy to have around. My wife Angela is also impressive with the dogs – she trains our cockers and springers, gets them immaculate and then I ruin them!
What, in your mind, are the key ingredients for an enjoyable day's shooting?
Quality birds are a given, but a nice, relaxed atmosphere is important, as is a good lunch. From the keeper's perspective, there is no substitute for hard graft and attention to detail.
Think like a pheasant
Brian's newly published autobiography, Think like a Pheasant is a fascinating read, covering his life in shooting, from his early years as an underkeeper on the Sherborne Estate through to the great Exmoor shoot of Miltons and the development of Castle Hill where Brian has now been for over 25 years. Covering his philosophy towards gamekeeping and countryside management, mishaps and successes along the way, and gamekeeping secrets and anecdotes, it is a must for anyone with an interest in driven shooting and gamekeeping.
Think like a Pheasant – by Brian Mitchell