Caldecote – Bedfordshire
Mike Barnes savours a day on an award-winning shoot in Bedfordshire.
PHOTOGRAPHY: BOB ATKINS
So who are the winners of the Purdey Awards, and what happens when the fanfare starts to fade? We need look no further than 2011 winner Simon Maudlin, who continues to take forward the 800-acre family farm shoot at Caldecote, near Biggleswade, in impressive fashion.
Although 2014 will go down as a year where, generally, many grey partridge projects across the country have disappointed, the Caldecote count was just over 300 on the 681-acre project area. And yet the farm looks little different to others in the area where there are little or no partridges of any sort – some are barren of wild game altogether. In any event, Bedfordshire is not a county where one would expect otherwise.
Simon explains: “The shoot was formed in the 1960s. The farm was at the time, like others in the area, very much a market garden operation, delivering vegetables to London, by train from Biggleswade. In earlier times, the trains brought back horse manure from the streets of the capital, which of course was a tonic for the farms – great for vegetable growing!
But then horse power gave way to the infernal combustion engine and, in time, supermarkets gatecrashed the party and with their global buying power there was no longer a demand, or need, for market gardens, which were actually great for wild game – the lettuce beds were a haven for greys.
But Peter Maudlin (Simon's father) was passionate about grey partridges and did what he could until Simon eventually took over. A voluntary gamekeeper did a top job but reached a point where he was ready to step down and along came Melvin Wright who, like Simon, had taken part in a gamekeeper's course at Sparsholt College. Both returned inspired by the experience. Simon says he feels his passion for grey partridges comes down to the fact that 1976, the last great partridge year, was the year he was born!
Melvin's particular talent is for the trapping of vermin, to help the resident game but also a range of other bird species. Simon, meanwhile, is joint farm manager – so it's a perfect combination. He has no doubt that the key to having successful wild greys is two-fold: “Taking care of your margins and keeping on top of vermin.”
Their success is all the more impressive in view of the fact that Simon runs the farm with brother Richard, while Melvin is a full-time electrical contractor. Vermin control, therefore, takes place early every morning and after work in the evening – he is passionate about wildlife and also very knowledgeable.
There is little arguing with Simon's success with ELS since entering a scheme in 2006, and he has high expectations for the HLS which he entered last summer. A whole range of farmland birds have flourished. Simon told me: “A couple of bird watchers were out on the farm recently and were amazed at what they saw. The first thing they said was ‘you must have over 100 grey partridges on these fields'. I replied: ‘301 actually'.” A number of bird watchers visit.
The counts weren't wrong. I have seen the birds in the air – and like all others who are confronted with driven greys, I found them mesmerising. I had the great good fortune to be invited to shoot at Caldecote. The date was December 6. “This particular date was always my father's day,” explains Simon, “and his guests are still taking part. Unfortunately, my father is no longer with us, but we always try and make this day special.” And so it was.
I was deeply honoured to be in the team for the day. The forecast was sunshine, blue skies and a soft breeze. Yes, I know what readers are thinking… but it would be great for photographs. So I booked photographer Bob Atkins, and arranged to meet at 7am at the Fieldsports offices.
So began a memorable day. The A1 was kind and we found the farm easily and in good time. The shoot room is in the middle of the farm – there to meet me with “coffee?” were Simon, Melvin and two or three of the Guns.
Photos on the shoot room wall tell their own story – a very happy one. I chatted with 78-year-old Clive Bates, a great friend of Simon's father, who was enjoying his 51st year at Caldecote. He was able to share much of the history of the shoot. It was apparent from this conversation and others that there is great respect for the Maudlin family. “Peter was like the Pied Piper – children followed him everywhere, and he brought lots of youngsters into the sport,” said Clive. The family have also been key in the village, having excellent sport facilities.
Soon enough we were all gathered and paying full attention to Simon giving a rundown of the day ahead. There would be five drives, and we were shooting pheasants, redleg partridges, grey partridges, and the usual various. Simon urged the Guns not to shoot at pigeons until the first shots had been fired at game. The wild birds are very jumpy. And yes, feel free to shoot greys. Firstly, there was a very good count – also, it would be likely that not many would be shot (see later!).
I drew No. 8. Shortly after, we made our way to the shoot trailer, full of animated chat. I was pegged next to Clive, who was to keep me up to speed throughout. On reaching my peg I could see I would be looking straight into the sun, and in front to my left were some trees. We were warned that there could be some greys on the drive, but they were a step ahead of most of us. A lot of pigeons swirled into view, and then shots were fired. Somewhat blinded by the light, I was slow to grasp that not all the birds were woodpigeons. Then I heard that wonderful chattering as a covey of about a dozen burst through the line – unscathed! I didn't even get a shot off. There was an impressive show of game so I took some comfort in a brace of pheasants and three redlegs that I managed to catch up with – giving some pleasure to my ever-doting lab, Cara.
A super day's sport ensued. A remarkable mix of pheasants and redlegs (mostly reared, but a decent stock of wild) throughout. Money from the Purdey Awards had been used to improve and enlarge the rearing operation, creating more space for the birds. Given the conditions, they flew brilliantly.
Elevenses were after the second drive, and we then had some substantial snacks after an excellent fourth drive, which had seen several greys flying in every direction but the one desired for snapper Bob. But then, suddenly, a covey of eight or nine appeared to my right. This is it, a right and left, surely? Keep cool. I could see buildings behind me and also people, but my shot was safe. It was also accurate. A touch of panic followed as I threw the gun at the second bird – and missed. Blast! The blow was softened by it being an excellent drive.
Then to the final drive, Pada. “There should be a few greys here,” smiled our host.
Bob informed me that he had some good shots in the bag (translated, that means he has some great stuff). He had thus far not been in the right place at the right time for the greys, but was pointed in the direction of some likely escape routes, and so headed for one of them, Nikons at the ready.
The ground was open stubbles, rising slightly in front of the line, where there was a long strip of maize. Still a clear blue sky. The sense of anticipation was immense, exaggerating the longish wait as Simon and his beating line brought in a large swathe of ground. Eventually, some pheasants and a redleg, then a brace of greys. And then… an explosion, a classic starburst of greys in every direction, all seemingly singing. Most of the line had shots, but only Robert Capon managed a right and left. I had one speculative shot – missed! There must have been 50 or so in the air, a good portion of which appear in the photographs that accompany this article – a merging together of possibly four coveys. A further 10-strong had passed through the other end of the line earlier in the drive.
Simon blew the whistle with 50 yards of cover to go. That's enough. It really was quite sensational and more would not have made it better. And yet, despite what we had seen during this wonderful day, just seven greys had been shot. Their numbers, the mesmerising weaving flight, the buzz of excitement – it's a whole different game to redlegs.
All of this on a self-help basis – no paid staff or helpers. Little wonder they struck gold in the Purdey Awards.
97 pheasants, 45 redlegs, 7 grey partridges, 1 jay. Total: 150