Kelling Hall - Norfolk
Kelling Hall in North Norfolk sits at the heart of just under 1,800 acres and has one of the county's best shoots. For 15 years it was run by Shirley Deterding who now reflects on her time at the helm.
I love a challenge and some 15 years ago I was presented with just that - the opportunity of running my own shoot at my home, Kelling Hall. This came about as, unfortunately, my husband Jim had a stroke and so here I was thrown in at the deep end in the middle of the shooting season! The proceeding days went past in a blur of keepers, beaters, whistles, dogs, birds, rain and hail but somehow we managed to get by with not too many ghastly mistakes, and trying to laugh my way through a muddle.
At the same time all this was happening my keeper Harold Molineux was not well and on some occasions the whole day was run by two women, much to the horror of some of the male Guns! Heather, the keeper's wife, gallantly (and capably) running the beaters line and me trying to keep control of everything - it's surprising we did not end up with total chaos or killing each other! My friends were marvellous during this chaotic time, their help and advice invaluable.
As the season grew to a close, with some relief on my behalf, I began to think of the next season and how we could make some extra drives, or improve on existing ones, and most importantly, get the whole estate onto a wild bird basis. It was an exciting time. I read all I could on keepering - joined the wildfowlers' association, the keepers' association, read books and talked a lot with some of the old, retired keepers who remembered the good old days of wild partridge, stubble fields left over-winter, old fashioned keepering, vermin control, care of hedgerows, acres left undisturbed for wildflowers and seeds, it all made sense.
Firstly I had to get my own keeper and his assistant to my way of thinking. Gone would be the option of ‘buying in' unmentionable numbers of birds or rearing thousands from eggs - it would mean hours of leg-work, walking hedgerows, checking traps, protecting the nesting wild hens as much as possible without disturbing anything; providing as much wild cover for the hatching chicks to keep them from flying predators' sharp eyes and, of course, leaving as much wild uncultivated areas as the farming would allow.
The first season started with much trepidation. Not knowing how much wild stock we had, we bought in a few small French/blueback cross cocks to distribute through the woods to make sure my guests had something to shoot. The day arrived and warning my guests it might be very thin, that legal vermin was high on the agenda and that it was ‘cocks only', and on pain of death no hens were to be shot or a big fine had to go into the ‘Save Our Shooting' campaign if any Gun ‘forgot' the rules! To our utter amazement the day produced over 300 head. This was extremely good news but it had been a fabulous warm and sunny summer with virtually no rain so everything was on our side. The Guns were too good too!
The next season we cut back severely on the number of cocks bought in and continued to plan our farm planting with the help of grants from the countryside commission, growing the maximum acreage for wild bird seed and leaving margins along the hedgerows. We continued our plans with the aim of eventually becoming a totally wild bird shoot.
But we were not having the same luck with the wild partridges. Year after year we put pairs of wild English birds in strategic places but somehow they continued to disappear however hard we tried. Finally I decided that we should concentrate on pheasants alone because the estate had originally been laid out as a pheasant shoot, with woods planted to take advantage of the undulating countryside and the winds from the sea.
As we advanced towards my second season I decided to experiment with some new drives. The keepers and I planned some small strips of maize in strategic positions and planned for the Guns to be lined out at the point which we felt was where the pheasants would be at their maximum height before dropping towards the woods behind them. There was also certain block of fir trees on our boundary which had never been shot before and I always felt it had possibilities; little did I know how successful the drive would become! It was very satisfying.
Last season I actually witnessed one of our most famous shots miss half a dozen pheasants or more in quick succession on a windy cold day in January. I felt I had achieved what I had set out to do, produce wild, small, high flying birds - quality not quantity! I think all my guests, without exception, appreciated what I was trying to achieve.
Another famous day which stands out in my memory was early in the season, as we gathered in the library for coffee and the usual instructions for the day, I added on at the end ‘no parrots and no ostriches'. Everyone fell about laughing and asked for the sloe gin to be passed round again. The first drive of the morning was in the valley in front of the Hall looking down towards the village and the sea. A few minutes into the drive a shout went up from the beaters and out of the wood and down the slope ran a large ostrich! You can imagine the faces of the guns - I, of course, knew there was an escapee from the local aviaries somewhere lurking in the woods feeding on a local carrot field. At the end of the afternoon on the final drive out came a flock of brightly coloured parrots winging their way back to the woods to their favourite night perch - more escapees from the aviaries of course.
On one shoot we had four married couples shooting. I think that was maybe a first, and I regularly held an artists' shoot with Will Garfit, Rodger McPhail, myself and others filling the line. On one occasion at the end of January we had a ‘species shoot' to see how many different varieties of legal prey we could find in one day - it made interesting reading with the bag spreading from mouse, rat, grey squirrel, stoat, rabbit etc. Then there was a red deer (with rifle shot early in the day) and every variety of flying sporting birds, vermin as well as pheasant, partridge, mallard, teal, jay, magpie, woodcock, crow etc. It made an extremely fun and challenging day - the dogs were in their element. Our shoot had become truly fun and enjoyable, not a tedious commercial day of dozens of large, over-fed, fat birds lumbering over indifferent Shots.
Some of the best shooting at Kelling is in the late January days with strong easterly winds, cold off the North Sea, lifting the birds to new heights. The pheasants will also slide inperceptibly on the wind making for challenging shooting. On one occasion we shot 60 plus woodcock until I blue the whistle. They were coming onto our shoreline exhausted after a long flight from Scandinavia, we could easily have shot 100 or more.
Kelling is a wonderful shoot to those who do not expect enormous bags - the challenge is in the unexpected. I think it is also very pretty and situated on the Cromer Ridge we enjoy some surprisingly undulating ground, which obviously helps with bird presentation. We shoot a lot in woodland and over small lakes when the dogs come into their own retrieving out of the water but with our ‘wild' policy we are highly dependent on good summer conditions to enable the hens to produce good numbers of chicks. Unfortunately, this season has not been a good year, though it may turn out better than we feared as recently my head keeper, Will, reports seeing quite a few small young broods. Though as we are very reliant on the weather I have taken the precaution of supplementing the wild stock again with a few cock pheasants, especially as I have succumbed to having some let days this year as shooting costs have escalated dramatically. But with a good wild bird stock in hand over several seasons now, things should continue to be successful on my ‘almost wild bird shoot'.
However it now seems very likely that we will be moving on. Neither of us are as young as we were and we have put the house and estate on the market, to do a little downsizing. It will mark the end of a very happy era, with a lot of great sport and wonderful memories. And I know that whoever comes here will just love it. And maybe they too will go almost wild...
I was at a dinner party and a young man made a bet with me that he would retrieve any dead birds out of the lake after the drive in question had finished, if I would issue an invitation for him to come and shoot - of course I took up the challenge, then forgot about it.
My next shoot day arrived cold, misty, dismal with a mean wind off the North Sea and a thin crust of ice on the lakes. The big drive over the water had just finished and while the Guns were busily picking up their birds I was instructing my houseman to set up tables with the hot soup and sausages. A cry went up and looking round imagine my surprise and horror to see the said young man, stripped to his undershorts, dive into the freezing waters, shattering ice as he went and swimming out towards a pheasant lying on the water - he was slowly turning a nasty shade of blue/green as he returned with the bird in his mouth. Terrified that we should have a very sick young man, I pulled off my coat and sweater and wrapped him up and another person arrived with their dog towel to rub some warmth and feeling back into his now shaking body - it was a very frightening experience.
However, he had done what he said he would, although I had entirely forgotten about the bet. I shall never do that again and he was either very brave or very foolish, probably both! But he subsequently came to shoot with us - and shot well but left all the retrieving to the dogs!