Britain’s best pheasant drives
Chris Batha rises to the task of nominating the best in the business.
It was the Normans who introduced the pheasant to England, but it was not until the 18th century that it became king of game birds as a result of the new French fashion for shooting birds on the wing. Then as the sport evolved, the pheasant became the backbone of driven game shooting and a high curling pheasant is now considered by many to be the ultimate sporting challenge.
Pheasants prefer to run rather than fly, but when driven will take flight with their distinctive ‘whirring' wing beat and often accompanied by their strident ‘kok kok' call. A pheasant's cruising speed is around 30 to 40 miles per hour, but startled from cover can reach 60. However, it was soon recognized that their height of flight is directly proportional to the topography of a shoot in question. And that with higher hills and deeper valleys, birds would soar over a line of Guns. The terrain of the West Country and the Welsh Marches, along with the dales and moors of the North of England and Scotland, were perfect.
But sheer steep topography alone does not guarantee high birds. Judicious planting of cover crops, intelligent siting of release pens and a keeper who thinks like a pheasant - someone who is able to recognise that after the initial flush from cover, a pheasant next looks for sanctuary ie. safety and warmth. It is this combination that determines the height and quality of a high pheasant drive.
David Hitchings was one of the pioneers of high pheasant shooting in the 1970s and his insight and achievements in presenting very high driven game at the Gurston Down shoot has been the blueprint for many shooting estates and aspiring head keepers.
It is this exceptional presentation of high birds, and its continuing improvements in both breeding and estate management, that draws discerning sportsman, both homegrown and from around the world. There can be very heated debate between sporting enthusiasts about which estate shows the highest and most testing pheasants, and we all have our own opinions as to which are the top drives in the UK.
However, any individual's personal opinion is governed by their own experiences and the estates at which they have shot. So when asked which was my most spectacular drive this season, I could readily give an answer. But you can't ignore how your decision will have been influenced on the day of your visit by the peg position in the line, wind direction, how you shot etc. And of course there are many good shoots which I have never been to. So, I decided that I would ask a very experienced team of visiting Guns who annually tour the UK, shooting some of the best sporting estates, seeking the very highest driven pheasant on offer.
The chosen team for the purposes of this article consists of a roving syndicate of Canadian friends, who visit the UK each November, touring the country and shooting at a variety of some of the best known estates. While there are some outstanding shoots which they have yet to sample, they can nevertheless put together a fascinating top ten from their experiences. Their insights provide an impartial opinion on what they consider to be the best drives in Britain.
The Champions Tour, as it has become known, evolved from a group of Canadian travelling Guns between 2002 and 2004. With time they wanted a bigger challenge and shoot organiser Matt Biker suggested the Bettws Hall shoots. So in November 2005 they shot Brigands, Kempton and Delbury, before travelling to the Isle of Wight for two days with Tony Ball, and a grand finale to the inaugural tour at Arundel with the Duke of Norfolk.
The team returned to the UK in 2006, kicking off at Molland and West Molland, followed by Delbury, Kempton and Brigands. Once again they concluded with two days on the Isle of Wight, and finally a couple of days at Arundel.
2007 began with a four-day stay at Bettws Hall, taking in Brigands, Vaynor, Kempton and a second taste of Brigands. This was followed by a rich dessert of Molland and West Molland. And of course the coffee and mints of two days at Arundel. The digestif being three days at Las Beatas for driven redlegs in Spain.
2008 began in style on the Glorious 12th at Gunnerside with three days of driven grouse, followed by a fall visit to Bettws Hall for five days of their usual favourites, and as always a couple of days at the old favourite Arundel and the castle. And a couple of days at Las Beatas in Spain.
The Champions Tour has continued to grow year by year and 2011 was no exception.
They are a colourful team, great friends and passionate about their shooting. The tour always begins in London with the delivery of a luxury minibus which is as unique as the shooting party itself. Nicknamed Big Red, for its size and colour, it is a specialist vehicle built for touring bands. But it offers excellent transport for a shooting party, the front carrying eight passengers in considerable comfort. In the rear is a separate secure area that has ample room for all the essential shooting kit and guns that a travelling syndicate could need. This annual trip has been, tongue in cheek, affectionately named the Champions Tour. First stop on the tour was Bettws Hall on the Welsh Marches, where their nominated best drives were The Cocked Hat and The Downs at Vaynor, The Oaks at Brigands, The Ralts and like everyone who visits Bettws Hall, Brigands' Seven Twenty.
Next stop was Molland and Chargot, with West Molland Wood, Spitfire and Melanie's respectively making the ‘Best in Tour' list.
Then on to an old favorite with the team, Arundel, with the drives of Bunker Hill, Pudine, Fort Putnam and Michael's Beeches making for a full house on the list. You tend not to hear much about Arundel but it is an exceptional shoot.
Then to Yorkshire, shooting at Warter Priory where all drives were top drawer and the team favourites were Racedale and Avenue End. On to Duncombe, where Antofts and the Sheep Pens were considered outstanding drives. Last but far from least, Rievaulx, and two fantastic drives, Standley's and Critters, made the team's ‘Best of the Best' tour list.
Another big favourite is Thirlstane Castle, where shoot organiser Wilson Young has developed some fantastic drives, The Face being a stunner.
The team shoots with me in the USA in Oregon every January and when asked my opinion of the best drive I saw in 2011, it gave me the perfect opportunity to canvas their views on what they considered to be the Best of the Best. We all came to the same conclusion. They like the Bettws Hall shoots where at Brigands, drives like The Marsh and Seven Twenty would make anyone's list.
But this year there was a new drive which at the time was called Jet Fighter. Frankly, it stunned me. I have never seen a drive present pheasants of such height, quality and quantity and for a such a duration that it seemed endless, as wave after wave of some of the highest birds I have seen passed over the line. They were coming from such a height, that they curled their wings and stooped hawk-like over the Guns. And such was their speed that their wings were swept back like a bird of prey on a stoop. The combination of height and velocity made the drive awesome to witness, let alone shoot. At its conclusion I asked the keeper Jamie Kembrey how this incredible presentation had been been achieved. He replied: “Was it good? I only ever see the birds getting up in front and flying away - I have never seen the drive from the Guns' perspective, perhaps I should.”
The new drive was Bettws Hall director Anthony Pryce's inspiration. The valley had been a significant forest until two years ago, but after commercial felling and re-planting, he identified the opportunity to create something truly spectacular. The valley was taken on in 2010 and a few drives were tried out. Through trial and error, and a great deal of perseverance, the new drive, Jet Fighter, has surpassed the likes of St Peters and The Oaks to become the centre piece of the shoot.
The hillside climbs a sheer 500 feet or more in front of the Guns, and birds can rise anywhere as the drive proceeds. In the early part of the drive, pheasants of all heights pass over the line. However as the drive progresses, the birds get higher and higher. These arc angels come in waves over the Guns, and such is their height and quality, that Guns shooting it have renamed it Humble Pie.
Quite simply, it is one of the best drives I have ever seen. But please do not simply take my word for it, this is also the view of members of the Champions Tour - they felt that the only comparable drives were The Marsh and Avenue End at Warter Priory.
Any connoisseur of high pheasant should have it on their shoot card for 2012.