Barton Bendish - Norfolk
Dull and overcast maybe, but yesterday's fog had lifted and spirits were high. We were at Barton Bendish, a small and attractive Norfolk village, off the beaten track between Downham Market and Swaffham.
There was one sole purpose for our presence - wild grey partridges, and lots of them. It was to prove a day beyond anyone's wildest expectations, on ground which hadn't been keepered or shot for 20 years until the arrival of gamekeeper David Chandler exactly three years ago.
The 4,500 acre Barton estate was bought in 1994 by Albanwise Ltd, a farming and property investment company with wide interests, including farms in Norfolk and Yorkshire.
Company chairman Count Luca Padulli has taken a great personal interest in the estate, where the company owns a number of properties in the village, including the pub, the Berney Arms, which has been given a fabulous makeover, as has the village hall opposite. Moreover, the walled garden at the main house has been beautifully restored and now provides the pub with all of its fresh produce.
So what has all of this got to do with partridges? Quite a lot actually. Anthony Blanchfield of Albanwise explained: “This is all part of a holistic approach to the restoration of Barton estate, and Count Padulli felt that recreating a shoot was a logical step to take.”
Thirty-five-year-old David Chandler had heard a rumour that a shoot was being started. He had a first class pedigree, having started his keepering career at 15, spending seven years working for noted wildlife photographer Chris Knights who had a very successful partridge shoot at Narborough, and reared pheasants too. He then spent two years at the outstanding Saham Hall shoot working for Kevin Bowes. Then eight years on wild partridges and pheasants with Hugh Van Cutsem at the award winning Hilborough estate. So when he sent a speculative letter to the Barton estate office before any advertisement appeared, he was summoned for an interview, and shortly thereafter given the job.
“I knew of the estate and its potential - it was a forgotten piece of ground. I used to pass it every day on my way from Gooderstone to Narborough. I joined in March, and my first spring count revealed 41 pairs of greys - with the amount of vermin present I don't know how they survived.”
In less than three years he has accounted for 321 foxes, 702 carrion crows and 551 magpies. Meanwhile, untouchable airborne predators include practically a full list of curly beaks. I spent an afternoon with David and Anthony in early September, which was a remarkable experience. Apart from witnessing David's excocet eyesight and wildlife knowledge, we saw buzzard, marsh harrier, hobby and sparrowhawk. “I could do predator tours”, he laughed. But we also saw lots of partridges - in one field of stubble there were six big coveys, five of which were greys.
On November 21 we would see just how many partridges there really were.
There was a hum of anticipation as Guns gathered at the hall - some familiar faces with reputations as tidy shots... Edward Van Cutsem, Lord Leicester, Viscount Coke, Robert Carter and his son Rob. All good partridge men.
The Count welcomed one and all and presently the Guns climbed aboard an immaculate 1960 Thames Trader lorry, today's Gunbus. Early worries about fog proved ill-founded, and pretty soon Guns (ten plus a family guest Gun at each end of the line) were making their way to their pegs in a field of stubble. Woodland skirted one side of the field.
Chris Knights and myself were both wielding cameras (there was little doubt as to whose would be used to greater effect!). The odd bird appeared, and then the first big covey of the day hurtled over Lord Leicester, whose opening shot took a bird nicely in front. But the drive didn't really get going - five English were shot, a dozen redlegs and a few pheasants.
There was a soft south-easterly breeze - was that a problem? David was unfazed: “Not at all - the wind direction is ideal for today. I thought there would be quite a few pheasants which want clearing up, and the field of sugar beet which we drove is being lifted tomorrow.”
On to drive number two. It was a classic. Partridges bursting over a long hedgerow, starbursts of greys and high-powered redlegs. It was the kind of bird presentation that could never be replicated by reared game.
There was some fantastic shooting too - for an observer, the whole scenario was something special.
Two more drives followed, all out of sugar beet with beaters taking in three 40-acre fields, plus the ever-important flankers. The birds could not have come better.
There was much excited chatter as the picking up took place. It was clearly possible that after four drives the team had shot over 100 brace. More redlegs than English were accounted for, due to the fact that they would come over in ones, twos and threes - they were strong, fit flyers, but a swirling covey of greys offers limited opportunity to make a serious dent in their numbers.
Lunch. Guns in the pub, whilst keeper, beaters and picker-ups converged on the village hall where trestle tables were heaving with plates of bangers and mash. Both parties had much to debate. There was a terrific atmosphere. And still three more drives to go.
In fact due to an enthusiastic lunch and fading light, there would be just two drives - but how good they were. The last drive, off stubbles with mustard, was quite simply outstanding. Looking down the line it was possible to see all Guns simultaneously in action - plus some spectacular coveys. Truly, a grand finale.
The bag count was never going to be quick - there were simply too many birds! However it eventually came through - 530 head, including 107 brace of English partridges. Amazing.
David was clearly thrilled with the outcome. “I would have been chuffed with 100 brace - this is beyond any expectations.”
Count Padulli meanwhile was similarly delighted: “I am very pleased for David - it hasn't happened without a lot of hard work and investment. But it has been a special day and an important one for the estate. I am so pleased everyone has enjoyed it.”
Grey partridges 214
Redleg partridges 285
Grey partridges 120
Redleg partridges 157
A second day's shooting was held two weeks later, when there was a team of six Guns, captained by David Flux. “With a shorter Gun line, driving was more of a challenge” said David. “To help I pegged the Guns 50 yards apart, as opposed to 45 for the first day. The birds were also very wild, going back and squirting out the sides - but there was still plenty for the Guns who shot extremely well.”
How was it done?
Single-handed on 4,500 acres and no keeper for 20 years - how did David do it? “To be fair I wasn't entirely single-handed” he explained. “Barry Peel is a big voluntary help, and young Nicholas Larard-young was with me for five months to help with the trapping lines.”
Vermin control was clearly very important. He runs his traps from February to September, when he and wife Nikola take some holiday.
Although the estate went into Entry Level Stewardship in 2006, the six metre grass buffers were not sown in the main partridge area. And this comes into play only this year.
So what were the other key factors? Without question, hedgerows - good, big hedges, with broad well-drained bottoms provide great cover. Moreover, 14km of new hedgerows have been planted in the last five years. And the other key element which he feels has been so important, is ‘quiet'. Game are used to seeing him with his quad and feed spinner, but otherwise there are few visitors and little traffic or machinery. Nor is there the pressure of having lots of shoots. David adds: “We have also had excellent support from farm manager Richard Bailey and his team which makes such a difference. But the other big factor is that we have had three perfect springs on the trot. You can put everything into place but if you don't have the weather then it can be devastating.”
As mentioned, the first spring count was 41 pairs of greys followed by 155 pairs, and last year 310. The autumn count was 1,700 greys which was 121 pairs fewer than the spring count tally. This was not surprising with approximately 1,500 acres of rape and sugar beet. The redleg count was 1,031, again well-down on spring numbers.
They held a shoot for pheasants in the first year and shot 112. Last year they had a partridge day which resulted in a bag of 55 brace for 600 shots. Guns were a team of friends for whom driven grey partridges was a new experience.
Anthony Blanchfield is in charge of wildlife management and has led the estate's application for entry into HLS which went live on March 1, 2012, and the scale of the blueprint should have a greater impact still on what has already delivered spectacular results. “We are all very excited by it”, he says. It will feature enhanced margins, conservation headlands, beetle banks, a network of nectar pollen mixes, enhanced hedgerows, fallow plots and targeting a variety of bird species. Already their partridge project has resulted in a big increase in numbers of corn buntings, yellow wagtail, lapwing and many more.
Any way you look at it, this is a fabulous project and a great example of what can be achieved. Yes, it was a good spring for wild game, but how many single-handed keepers have this year, or any year, delivered a day's shooting comparable to this?