Just how high is high? Every shoot seems to claim to have high birds these days. Mike Barnes went to Whitfield to find out what really high pheasants look like.
We all love to shoot a high bird. To a greater or lesser degree every shoot has them, and estates in Yorkshire, Wales and the West Country, along with one or two other places, have more than most. The great debate is in the equipment used and the ethics of shooting at very long range pheasants and partridges, but pheasants in particular, which are harder to bring down.
If pheasants cannot be clearly shot with a modest choked best London gun, then surely there has to be questions raised as to the point of shooting at this kind of bird presentation? And yet we should not forget that Percy Stanbury, whose classical style has been faithfully copied by many of our finest game Shots, used a Webley & Scott live pigeon gun with 30” barrels, choked full and full. Therefore if we also enjoy shooting a high bird, then surely we should have the equipment to do so efficiently.
I have kept a pretty open mind on the subject. I have used over-unders exclusively for the last 20 years, purely because they deliver much less recoil (particularly fitted with an Absorball recoil pad) to a dodgy neck. I found that they are also easier to shoot effectively. So that part of the debate is not relevant to me. But is using a 32” trap gun with in excess of 40grams of shot still sporting shooting? On this I have still to be convinced - or at least until now, for I have recently experienced the concept of a day of extreme pheasant shooting.
The destination was Whitfield in Northumberland, a lovely shoot, through the heart of which flows the Allendale river. It was fully resplendent in autumn colour and I was the guest of Dave Carrie, from North Yorkshire, who in light of the current debate, had invited me to see a full day of seriously high pheasants. His Magnificent Seven team were equipped for the occasion with 32” guns and loads ranging from 34gram (in a 20 bore) to 50gram (in a 12).
Unfortunately, due to a late cancellation, there were only six Guns (another member had to leave at lunch, leaving only five), but for the purposes of the day it mattered little - they got more shooting and I got my story.
Dave, who runs a successful waste business near Leeds, explained that he didn't discover shooting until he was 37. But he has since made up for lost time. He is an outstanding shot and is the current GB FITASC Grand Prix champion. His passion in all forms of shooting is ‘long birds'. So much so that he shoots exclusively on high bird shoots in Yorkshire, Northumberland and Wales. Whitfield is a particular favourite as they offer a day of Extreme Pheasants, during which all birds will be at 40-75 yards, with many more distant still.
We met the night before at the incredibly accommodating Centre of Britain Hotel in Haltwhistle, where Dave explained: “People don't think it is possible to shoot birds at 70-80 yards, but tomorrow with the right equipment I think you'll see that this isn't the case. And as for wounding or damaging birds, you will see less of that than on many normal shoots. I will be using 50gram loads of 3 shot. They carry 210 pellets and with full choke there will be enough in a group of sufficient impact (due to the size of the shot) to be effective and kill the birds cleanly without damaging them.” He added that he normally used 42grams of a 4 shot (both by Express), but for the purpose of these words chose 50gram to show what was possible. He quite fairly made the point that this was no different to using a 6 shot pellet for half the range. “We are using loads which are considered normal for wildfowling, but as we are shooting pheasants at ranges typical for wild duck, then there is no difference.”
It's a fair argument, and one which makes more sense as the day unfolds. As it transpires he is one of three British champion clay Shots in the line who regularly shoot with him at Whitfield - John Hargrave from Spalding, Lincs, uses a Kemen 32” choked full and super full, with the same Express Max Game 50g loads, while former British Open champion Tony Booth, from South Yorkshire, like Dave, shoots a Miroku 32” but with Saga 44gram of 4 shot. The other regular member of the team is Tom Bailey of South Lincs (a former county champion) who uses a Browning 20 bore with FOB 34gram 4s. Joining them was retired Lichfield lawyer Graham Moore, who shoots a Fabarm 30” over-under choked full and three quarters. He shot some home loads 42gram 3 shot provided by David Whyte (loading for Tom) and then Express 32 gram 4 shot and 36gram 5 shot.
Just two drives occupied the morning. I stood behind Dave on peg one of Craghead. He was accompanied, as usual, by Desmond Mills, retired ex-Purdey gunsmith who lives near Harrogate. “Des is a very good loader and we work really well together. I have no sight in my left eye, so he watches to my left which leaves me free to concentrate out front and right.” The pegs are among rocks at the water's edge, the birds being driven over the tall tress that cover the sharply rising cliff face of a bank opposite. Their tops are 80 yards distant. Odd birds appeared down the line and eventually in front of David, but as is often the case on an end peg they were veering off to the right, making for very difficult shots. High, crossing, curling, gliding, dropping - and a long way away. His first four or five shots brought no result, none too surprisingly. But there was no panic, the motion was smooth, no snatching, no quick shooting, just sure and deliberate.
Then he found them. It was quite incredible - he was pulling off some amazing shots, birds that us lesser mortals would not even consider as ‘in range'. Yet he clearly knew he had the capability - and like anyone in sport who is good at what they do, he seemed to have lots of time.
Next peg down, John Hargrave was similarly plucking some spectacular cocks out of the heavens. The birds were more directly overhead for him. In fact, looking down the river it was possible to see all enjoy some fantastic shots, Tony Booth accounting for a hen with ice on its back.
The drive was meticulously run, with pheasants dribbling out over all of the Guns, then there were pauses, a few more, then a small flush. “The hardest part is looking up,” Dave turned and smiled. I too was craning to stare at the tree tops. Then a cock soared high overhead. He killed it beautifully, before he swung onto an enormously long hen making its escape along the tops, left to right, which he shot as clean as a whistle. It must have been close on 90 yards. Amazing. A fantasy right and left.
But he hadn't hurried, he had chosen his bird. “The secret is in studying the bird. People can come here and easily get disheartened. Very often they miss a bird and then start giving ridiculous amounts of lead - but as in all game shooting no two birds are alike, just as no two days are alike. What you have to do is study the bird and think about it - what is it doing? Look for the line. You know you have the equipment - you just need to put it in the right place.”
While very, very few shoot consistently here, this team clearly get it right more than most. The second drive was Kings Wood Rock, a jewel in the Whitfield crown. Guns were this time stood with their backs to the river, the sharp tree covered escarpment running up in front of them.
I stood with Graham Moore, who was back Gun and shoots with the team from time to time. He is also a regular at Brigands in Wales. “I am not in the same league as these boys, but I enjoy shooting with them here. They are very, very good. The whole day is quite demanding, but I love a challenge and my view is that you only get better through experience.” With that, he shot a high cock to his right, a lovely bird and a great way to start a drive. “The only drawback to these kind of days is, camaraderie apart, they make some other shooting seem a
I could see the others pulling down some fantastic pheasants, and a number out front too. Dave later explained: “You don't want to rush your shot, but if they are coming directly overhead, I tend to think in terms of my shot charge meeting the bird head on - it has to make for an effective shot, and a greater chance of a clean kill.” He gave the broadest of smiles, which was, in fact, the most regular occurrence of the day all along the line. “Well, what do you think - is it what you imagined?”
He knew the answer to the question. Likeable, enthusiastic, and an incredibly good Shot here was a man in his element. I had seen what the helpers on the shoot had seen - a team who could handle themselves. They were clearly very good and very experienced. They knew what to shoot, and what not to shoot. In other words - sporting. And me? I'm not sure I could handle this equipment, but if my neck would permit it then I wouldn't now have a great deal of hesitation. An old Guinness catchphrase came to mind. It ran along the lines of “I don't like Guinness because I have never tried it.”
There has always been shooting at Whitfield but it was not until 1989 that the transformation started. Head keeper Stuart Maughan has been instrumental in establishing it as a premier league shoot.“ I joined as an underkeeper in 1976,” he told me, “straight from a year studying gamekeeping/fishery management at Sparsholt. Born in Carlisle, I had always loved the grouse moors, but after leaving school qualified as a teacher and taught history and PE at Ashington, from where I now get all my beaters.” The call of the wild was irresistible and he gave up teaching to go to Sparsholt College in Hampshire. “It was excellent and I learned a lot - I also got to meet the legendary Harry Grass, the Broadlands head keeper, who was very good to us.”
Having joined Whitfield he found it practically going backwards - there were only two keepers on 16,500 acres, including a 6,500 acre grouse moor. “I very nearly went back to teaching. But when John Blackett-Ord took over in 1989 we had a good chat. I felt that we had a beautiful estate which we were not utilising. Thankfully he was as keen as I to create something special. He agreed and to his credit made a big investment and we have never looked back.”
They have certainly fulfilled their ambition. There are now eight keepers, two of which are full-time on the moor which has this year delivered 2,100 brace, while the partridge shooting off cover strips and moorland edges has gone extremely well, and now they are all but fully booked for their magnificent pheasant shooting by the Allendale river.
None of the river drives which have become such hallmark of Whitfield existed prior to his time. There are now 12 high drives, the most famous being Kings Wood, Craghead and ERII. “We only do ERII a few times a season - in this way we keep it special.” The birds are in the woods, where they are hopper fed. “There's no hand feeding - the hoppers keep them wild. The only problem is that you never quite know what number of birds we will find in a wood on shoot day.” That is why he doesn't peg out, but positions Guns according to how the birds are flying. The pheasants are released as poults, so that the keepers are free in spring and early summer for vermin control.
They offer three types of day - Extreme, Intermediate and High. Charges are based on shots to kill ratios. “For an Extreme bag of 225 we give 7:1, but usually ask for eight double Guns. Realistically, it works out 10+:1. On this particular day (who prefer single Guns) it was 1,930 shots for 203, though David, John and Tony would have been well below that figure.
“On Intermediate & Valley Partridge 4:1 (more often 5 or 6:1 ) and High (which is a mix) 5:1, normally 7:1. The purpose of us giving cartridge rates is to cover ourselves for selective Guns who shoot at the best and miss but do not take on more reasonable birds. Prices per bird reflect the bag size and amount of shooting.
“l like all Guns on all days to fire a minimum of 100 shots per day but an eight-Gun 250 bird day on Intermediate would work out at 150+ on average. On Dave's day it would have been nearer 300+ as we were only six Guns, dropping to five. On Extreme it would normally be 200+ each per day.
“Loads vary, but this team were using 42gram to 50gram loads from 32” barrels with 3-5 shot and full choke and are good Shots, if not some of the very best. Not many can stand this level of firepower. On average 32gram to 40gram is the norm with 4-6 shot, but everyone has their own choice of load.
“We put the birds over in and out of range and let the Gun choose what he shoots at. lf he thinks it is too high he can leave it for a lower one which is a choice many shoots are unable to offer. l struggle with high bird critics who l presume require little challenge, often no better than 2:1 and like large bags of birds at 20 metres or less. l see most birds wounded at the closer ranges when the Gun is perhaps just not fully on them.
“High bird shooting is not for everyone and some get very frustrated at missing, but most sportsmen thrive on the challenge. lt takes time to reach this level of skill and the right equipment helps, however one of the best birds l ever saw shot was with a 24gram 20 bore. l have seen some immense birds shot by experienced Guns over the years with a variety of gun calibres, chokes and cartridges.”
They run a strong team of pickers-up to monitor wounded birds and sweep the area well afterwards. “We try to run eight or more pickers-up who know the ground. We sweep the ground and use radios to pinpoint a picker-up onto a bird he may not have seen.”
Their returns confirm their shoot efficiency - 45% on pheasants and 60+% partridges. No doubt their topography also helps, in as much as over rolling hills birds glide into the distance, whilst here over these steep valleys they either land after clearing the tree tops or pitch into the wood. They don't shoot big bags but Stuart has no objection to them: “l am against the large scale shooting of poor quality, but bigger bags are fine if they are good sporting birds.”