Molland Shoot – North Devon
The trouble with reputations is that they must be upheld. With this in mind, Marcus Janssen travelled to the revered Molland Shoot in North Devon to see if it lives up to all the fanfare.
So, where are you shooting this week?” asked Jim, my long-standing shooting and fishing companion. Jim is under the impression that as the editor of Fieldsports, I spend at least three days a week stood beneath skies black with grouse or up to my chest in rivers choked full of salmon. And when I don't have a rod or gun in my hand, I am obviously at parties quaffing Champagne with the models from the Really Wild Clothing catalogue. To be fair, I could probably do more to dispel the illusion.
The truth, however, is that the life of a magazine editor is one more closely tied to computer screens than it is to guns and fishing rods. But there is no denying it, the job has its perks. Take a couple of Thursdays' ago, for example: I was wading through a mountain of emails rather than heather (no, really, I was) when a call came through for me from Claire Zambuni. “Would you like to shoot at Molland on Saturday?” she asked.
In hindsight, my response was perhaps more appropriate to a bogus PPI salesman wondering if I would like a million quid than someone who was, apparently, inviting me shooting. “Erm, does a one-legged duck swim in a circle?” I said, somewhat suspiciously. As it turned out, this was no bogus call; the irrepressible fizz-ball that is Claire had somehow managed to get me onto a partridge day at a shoot that everyone who has ever pulled the trigger of a shotgun knows is ranked up there with the very best commercial shoots in the country.
But, of course, as any Michelin-starred chef will tell you, the trouble with having a reputation for excellence is that it must be upheld. Go to The Waterside Inn for dinner, for example, and you will invariably be royally disappointed if the lobster ravioli doesn't cause you to break out into paroxysms of near-orgasmic euphoria. In the same way, the Gun who books a day at Warter Priory, Drumlanrig or Brigands, for example, isn't going to be overly impressed if even one of the drives is anything short of knee-tremblingly good.
And so, as photographer Richard Faulks and I pulled up outside Bremley Farm House on the Molland Estate the following Saturday morning, I was determined not to allow my preconceptions of this shoot to undermine my experience of it on the day. In hindsight, I had nothing to worry about because what was to come would have exceeded even the most unreasonable expectations. In fact, even now, after the excitement of that drive known as Folly has fully subsided – and it did take about a week – my knees still tremble at the very thought of it. By Jove it was good.
Run by Bettws Hall's West Country shoot manager, Caleb Sutton, Molland's hallowed reputation – like that of The Waterside Inn – is, in my opinion, wholly justified. Every one of the five drives we shot was memorable (for all of the right reasons) but, like Alain Roux's white chocolate and black cherry soufflé, Folly was simply sensational.
Yes, as you would expect of a big, commercial operation – they do 90 days per season – the birds were plentiful. Extremely so. But I can honestly say that there was nothing obscene about it. Sure, if you were completely indiscriminate and shot at everything that came your way, it might amount to what the Daily Mirror would invariably call a slaughter, but thankfully, those of us who shoot tend to be a lot more discerning than that. And somehow, despite such a busy program, you don't feel like you are on the conveyer belt of a big commercial shoot.
Indeed, one of the things that stood out was the laid-back atmosphere. There was no great rush from one drive to the next, and both elevenses and lunch were relaxed, convivial affairs. Admittedly, the atmosphere on a shoot day will largely be determined by the Guns themselves – and I was fortunate to be shooting with a really pleasant team – but your host plays their part, too. In the same way that Diego Masciaga or any great maître d'hôtel blends into the background, remaining unnoticeable until you need them, so Caleb Sutton runs the show at Molland. With a calm and controlled demeanour that can only come from years of experience, he martials his troops with great subtlety. It is as if the drives just happen on their own; all cover crops are carefully positioned out of sight of the Guns, not once did we see or hear a beater while a drive was underway, and I do not recall hearing the crackle of a radio or the raised voice of an irate picker-up whose dog had apparently gone deaf. It's a slick and well-run operation.
There was a great range of birds presented across the line on each drive, affording every Gun the opportunity to shoot (at) what makes him or her happy, regardless of whether they shoot like Joe Nickerson or like Joe Average. As Simon Ward regularly says, there is nothing to be gained from showing only extreme-range birds that are beyond the reach of everyone but the very best Shots. In this regard, the team at Molland appear to get the balance just right. But, significantly, I saw very few birds that I would deem to be out of range of a normal pheasant load. Having said that, it was October and I suspect that, come January, it would be a different story.
The picking-up team at Molland deserve a mention of their own. They were a pleasure to watch as they emerged from behind leafy screens after each drive, methodically sweeping the ground both in front and far behind the Guns, covering every corner, every thicket and every hedgerow. By the time we moved on to the next drive, there was no doubt that every effort had been made to pick every bird.
After an excellent lunch of roast lamb and all the trimmings followed by freshly-baked bread and butter pudding, we were ushered back out to the vehicles to make our way to Saddleback, the final drive of the day. And, like a little digestif after a good meal, it was the perfect ending to a great day, leaving everyone feeling fulfilled without being over-faced. Indeed, one of the Guns, Sam Cornes, would be back the following day to do it all over again. “One day at Molland just isn't enough for me,” he said. “This place never disappoints.” It certainly hadn't…
The 5,000-acre Molland estate, which is owned and run by the Throckmorton family, lies on the edge of Exmoor National Park. And with a series of valleys made up of moorland, woodland and waterways, the habitat and topography are perfect for presenting truly spectacular pheasants and partridges with the Guns generally pegged in open grass valleys. Well-known drives include Pullery, West Molland Wood, King's Wood, Inkwell, Folly, Dipper, Barn, Gourte and Good Heavens.
As it is predominantly a beef and dairy farm with very little grown in the way of arable crops, the shoot, which has been run by Bettws Hall since 2005, is heavily reliant on a mixture of cover crops including maize, kale, triticale, canary reed grass and artichokes, which are planted on hilltops and woodland edges. Some wild bird mixes are also planted and six-metre margins are left uncut on many fields.
All birds, both pheasants and partridges, arrive from the Bettws Hall Game Farm as day-old chicks, and are released early, between the first week of June and the first week of July. The pheasants are Manchurian/French ring-neck crosses as they mature quickly and fly well, right from the very first day of the season.
And with such a busy rearing and shoot day schedule, it is unsurprising that there is a team of four keepers – Kevin Simpkins, Ben Darley, Nick Porter and Danny Pearce who, in his first year as a full-time keeper, looks after the partridges.
Guns meet at Bremley Farm House for coffee and to draw pegs, and return there for lunch.
Running the show
Keepering may not have been an obvious career choice for Caleb Sutton – his father was a doctor and his mother a nurse – but it was unquestionably the right one. “It was actually a water bailiff on the River Wye who planted the seed of becoming a keeper in my mind,” he explains. “He taught me a lot about the countryside and made me realise that I really wanted to work outdoors. Having said that, he did strongly advise me to never become a keeper,” he adds. “He told me that it was a dreadful occupation and that I would be poor for the rest of my life. Clearly, I didn't take all of his advice! But I am glad I didn't because keepering and shoot management has allowed me to spend my time doing what I love best.”
Upon leaving school at the age of 17, Caleb secured a year's placement as a trainee keeper working for the Duke of Marlborough at Blenheim Palace and, although he initially planned to go to Sparsholt the following year, he ended up staying on as a beat-keeper, looking after 4,500-acres of parkland for six seasons. “I've never looked back since,” he adds. From Blenheim, he then went to work for the Hon. Morris Robson at Kiddington Hall as part of a two-man team looking after a pheasant and partridge shoot for several seasons, before then going on to work under Bob Hunter at Miltons. But in 1999, Caleb made the move to Molland that would ultimately define his career.
For the first six seasons he worked for Holland & Holland – who had the shooting at Molland then – as headkeeper, but in 2005 when Gwyn Evans secured the sporting lease (along with the shooting at West Molland), Caleb was promoted toWest Country shoot manager, overseeing the running of both shoots.Since 2008, he has been running Chargot as well.
What makes Molland special?
“Probably the old-fashionedness of it. It is a piece of ground that time has left behind – the roads and gateways are narrow, the fields are small, the hedgerows have all been left as they were, the valleys are open and it is just a very natural Devon landscape. Plus it has great variety; each drive has its own individuality. And it's not too intensive.”
What are the key ingredients for a good day's shooting?
“A shoot day should feel like a family day out; it should be relaxed and laid-back. But in order for that to happen, everything has to run smoothly, which is impossible if you don't have the right keepers, beaters, loaders and pickers-up. So people are key. Obviously, you need good birds, too, but timing and communication between everyone involved is vital. It needs to be well organised, but, equally, it shouldn't feel too regimented; it's about finding the right balance.”
What are the greatest challenges of running a day at Molland?
“Getting the timings right can be tricky – making sure that everyone gets shooting but without reaching your bag too early in the day. And of course there are occasions when the birds just don't fly as you expect. If you have one bad drive, it can have a knock-on effect for the rest of the day as you try to play catch-up. Obviously, the weather can be a challenge, too, but you just have to adapt. And actually, sometimes having the wrong wind can teach you something you didn't know about a drive. Atmospheric pressure does definitely have an effect, though. Warm, muggy days are the worst. And I always know that if a cock bird crows during a drive, which generally only happens on warm days, the drive won't go well.”
Do you find that people arrive with unrealistic expectations?
“Yes, you do get the odd person who turns up and says: “I am an incredible Shot and I don't want to see any rubbish.” Generally, they tend to be the ones who can't hit a barn door. On the whole, though, most people come here with the right attitude; I would say 70 per cent of Guns understand that there is an element of unpredictability in shooting. It is always those who have little understanding of the countryside who are quick to complain when things don't go perfectly.”
Who would be in your dream team at Molland?
“We have had lots of exceptional Shots here over the years, but if I had to pick one team, they would all be people who are known for their exemplary attitudes as well as their shooting prowess. People like David Flux, Peter Lonsdale, John Mackelden, Gerwyn Jones, Will Moreton and JP Menu, my Spanish cowboy friend.”
What cartridge and load would you recommend for Molland?
32g no. 4s or 5s are ample. Sure, you can go bigger, but they will do the trick.