The syndicate shoot

syndicate pheasant shootUp and down the country, syndicate shoots are run by teams of hard-working and committed men and women who are simply passionate about their sport. But, as Julien Pursglove discovered, the sweet fruits of success are always well worth all the effort.

(Photography: Craig Payne)

In late January I joined members of the Normanshurst Estate syndicate for a day’s driven shooting. The shoot is situated within the picturesque county of East Sussex, just a few miles north-west of the well-known market town of Battle with its historic abbey, and close to the site where the famous 11th-century Battle of Hastings took place between Harold Godwinson II of England and Duke William II of Normandy in October, 1066.

In fact, the English army are said to have passed through the estate en route to confront the Normans – having marched all the way down from Northumberland, where they had been victorious at the Battle of Stamford Bridge the previous month.

Thus giving the estate its name, with ‘hurst’ in Anglo Saxon meaning wood.

The estate consists of approximately 900 acres of pasture land and well managed woodland, where, interestingly, the ancient art of charcoal burning is still practised.

The vista would have been very different in 1066, probably with more forestry made up of the oaks that Sussex is famous for. Indeed, the public have extensive access to the footpaths and bridleways running through the estate, but this does not seem to have any detrimental impact on the shoot.

Priority is given to other land users on a shoot day – proceedings temporarily suspended by a whistle until they have passed.

pheasant syndicate shootThe shoot captain is John Hill, ably assisted by Jason Park and Mike ‘Moo’ Gray.

I have known John for a number of years now. He used to shoot on a place a few miles away near Blackboys, also in East Sussex, where many a newcomer to game shooting has taken their first bird.

John is totally dedicated to his sport, and he always strives tirelessly to give everyone an enjoyable day – often taking a backseat himself for the benefit of others present. On a shoot day he can be seen working his springer spaniels in the line or directing the Guns and beaters.

There’s a real emphasis in the Normanshurst shoot on actively encouraging new blood to get involved. Young Ollie Marshall is a prime example, who comes with his father Lewis, works his young springer bitch Bracken, and thoroughly enjoys everything rurally orientated.

Indeed, the Guns are a real mixed bunch.

Among them are consultants, general practitioners, financiers, BT engineers, woodmen, builders and some that have retired – to name but a few – all banded together by a common interest in participating in game shooting at a reasonably affordable price.

Once the season ends, the team work throughout the summer months, carrying out various duties across the estate for the benefit of the habitat and pheasants, which are bought in as poults.

The shoot has tried partridges with little success in the past, but has not entirely given up on them.

There are, of course, many other species that benefit from the efforts of the syndicate members. An abundance of songbirds, for example, make good use of the cover crops and food distributed for the pheasants, especially during the winter months.

Landowner Jan Auer is very keen to encourage the responsible use of his land and countryside, provided visitors respect the rights of all, remain on the footpaths and keep their dogs under control and on a lead as there are farm livestock throughout. The syndicate is fortunate this season to have had the assistance of Steve ‘Paddy’ Payne, a retired gamekeeper and true countryman, who has been a guiding hand with his extensive rural knowledge.

The topography of the estate is such that they can show some really nice high birds at Normanshurst.

It is a ‘shoot one, beat one’ affair, with the Guns divided into two teams. I must say, due to the layout of the estate, a day does involve a lot of walking between drives for both beaters and Guns – it is not for the faint-hearted!

Proceedings usually kick-off at the local hostelry, where we were fortified with a warm drink and a bacon roll. This gives newcomers and guests the opportunity to meet their companions, and John welcomes everyone and runs through the important details for the day.

Then the Guns draw their pegs before a 10-minute drive to a car park on the estate.

Once suited and booted we made our way to the first drive of the day, Charcoal, which consists of chestnut coppice with a marshy bottom and runs through to the lake. On a dry day the cover holds birds well which flush high over the Guns initially, then out over the lake at the end of the drive, where they are forced even higher by a row of tall trees. It makes for some challenging shooting.

Next, a change of teams and off to Park, a drive made up of standing broadleaf woodland, with a thick bulge which holds birds well which are then flushed off a bank.

The third drive of the day was Top Cover – again broadleaf woodland with a cover crop at one end. Here, the Guns line out along a small valley and are presented with some really sporting birds. The cover crop is only really productive for the first two or three shoot days, though, so John is reviewing with his members what they should sow to improve this and prolong its productivity.

boy and spanielAfter Top Cover we enjoyed elevenses and a debate about the morning’s performances back at the barn, together with the usual mickey-taking.

Various homemade concoctions were handed round, most loosely referred to as some variation on sloe gin, but welcome all the same.

Lifelong friends Andy Chapman and Norman Farnes had drawn adjacent pegs on this day, so there was ample friendly rivalry. Both Guns shot well with Norman taking some exceptional birds.

Another familiar figure is Clive Rea, who was accompanied by his ageing yellow lab, Ted, who although advancing in age would much rather be with his master on a shoot day than be left at home.

Captains followed – a mixture of brambles, fallen trees, standing oaks and conifers. On a good day, this drive can be quite productive, but it’s very hard going for the beaters and not dissimilar to an army assault course.

Birds tend to break left and right early on, offering sport to the walking Guns on either side. I saw Nick Yeoman, another consistent sportsman, take some spectacular birds here.

Due to the terrain and sizes of the drives, the dogs working both in the line and picking-up are essential to the success of the days. As with many shoots like Normanshurst, they are a mixed bag, and enjoy the day out as much as their owners. Although some of the Guns have their own canine companions, the main dog-workers in the beating line are husband and wife Robin and Clare Wilson, Clare Gray, Kevin and Josh Kirkham with Byron, and Louise Landers with Tugley, together with young Ollie and his dad.

And of course just as important is the picking-up team, which consists of another husband and wife team, Carole and Andy Goldsmith with Barley and Arrow, Sam (Samantha) Kirkham working Monty, and Jo Hartland with Moose – all of which are labradors.

There are a number of rough patches which exist across the estate. One such area is a wedge of woodland that tapers to a point above a small gulley sloping down to a couple of ponds. Although there is limited cover and it is very wet, this patch seems to be a magnet for the birds, and is usually blanked in – providing good sport for some – while the following team take position for what would be our next drive, Sandy Lane.

Depending on your position in the beating line, Sandy Lane can be quite hard going. Although the beating line generally starts off straight, by the end of the drive it is invariably a different story! The birds flush across another gulley, producing testing shooting for the Guns.

the teamIt is not unusual to flush a muntjac on Sandy Lane, which more often than not hurtles up across the field before disappearing into the final drive of the day; Eight Acres. It is down the side of this particular drive that Harold’s army is thought to have marched.

Pockets of rhododendrons are dispersed throughout the various drives – which are great for holding birds – but at Sandy Lane they are virtually impenetrable, so the spaniels are vital.

At the conclusion of the day’s proceedings, I think every Gun had enjoyed some shooting – some more than others, as is often the case. Nonetheless, a respectable bag was shared between all those present, and syndicate members were able to enjoy the fruits of their year’s labour.

Long may it continue!


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