Murton Grange - Yorkshire
Sir Tom Cowie passed the running of his Murton Grange shoot in North Yorkshire to his youngest daughter, Vicky, in 2008. She talks to Jane Pruden about her father and her role as shoot hostess.
There have been occasions when a Gun, visiting Murton Grange for the first time, has shown astonishment that a girl in her twenties is clearly in charge of one of the best pheasant shoots in the country. “I do get the odd look of disappointment,” smiles Vicky, 27. “But I like to think it doesn't last long.”
It must help that her short tweed skirt, leather boots, easy manner and the Cowie name synonymous with both shooting and business success, eases any initial misunderstanding. Vicky is the youngest of her parents' ten children (her mother, Diana, is Sir Tom's second wife) and particularly close to the father who inspired her love of the sport as she followed him around grouse moors with his dogs as a child.
The redoubtable tycoon and revered Shot built his fortune in the motor industry when in 1937 as a boy of 15, he left school in his home town of Sunderland to join his father's motorbike business. By 16 he was company secretary, albeit briefly. As World War II was announced all vehicles were commandeered for the war effort and the business collapsed. Undeterred, he spotted an opportunity to buy cast-off bikes from the army, recondition them and sell them on for a profit. He was called up in 1942 and served his country in the RAF before returning to a hard-hit Sunderland, scarred by heavy bombing and paying no less a price for the country's drained economy.
But he has never let setbacks stand in his way of progress for long. His resolve soon strengthened, fuelling his phenomenal success with Cowie Group, now Arriva, and earning him his OBE and knighthood. His friend, the television presenter and writer Denise Robertson, describes him in his biography in 2004: ‘He does not like losing or coming second, in the boardroom or in the sporting field, but he does not harbour grudges.'
Today, he fits his business interests, charitable commitments and family life around his shooting. Since his 40s, he has shot about 75 days a year with friends including the late Lord Strathmore, Kiri Te Kanawa and Wilbur Smith. At 87, he will be shooting up to three times a week this season with his over-under 20-bore Brownings.
“These days,” says Vicky, “he rarely ventures further than Murton Grange or Ruffside (another Cowie shoot, near his home in County Durham) and it is well known that if Dad is shooting, no one questions that his peg has already been picked! At his age, he needs to know that he can get to it and that his back-support for him to lean on, if he needs it, has been put in place before the rest of the Guns set off.” Andrew Gale, who assists him, is never far from his side.
He still shoots grouse from Ruffside, but memories of shooting on Lord Strathmore's grouse moors during a 14-year-lease he took from 1989 must be hard to beat. During his tenancy, shared for a time with the late Sir Joseph Nickerson, he shot regularly at Holwick and Wemmergill, shooting some prodigious annual bags, twice topping 6,000 brace.
Needless to say, the first bird Vicky shot, aged 18, with a Silver Pigeon 20-bore Beretta, which she still uses, was a grouse at Wemmergill. “I remember the night before wondering if I would be able to pull the trigger and actually kill anything, but that feeling went straight out the window when one came towards me in the butt. After beating, flanking and picking up since the age of 7, I had finally shot something.”
Sir Tom bought the North Yorkshire shoot at Murton Grange from the Guthrie family in the late 1990s. “The story goes,” recalls Vicky, “that after a really good day's shooting there, Dad glibly remarked: “God, what I wouldn't do to buy a place like this,” at which point the deal was as good as done. Under Cowie control it developed commercially over the years, but since last year Vicky and Sir Tom have reduced it to two to three days a week, which they feel is far more manageable for the land they are shooting over.
It is a family shoot again with let days and provides the opportunity for all ten children and their families to get together over two two-day back-to-back occasions and share the sport they all love.
“One of my favourite days with the family was when we hadn't seen each other for ages and the elevenses got rather out of hand. We had to retire for an early lunch and start again in the afternoon,” admits Vicky.
The Murton Grange shoot is situated on the edge of Sutton Bank, east of Helmsley. In an area of many high quality shoots, it marches with Hawnby. There is no question that it ranks among the finest, most of the shooting taking place in valleys, some with very steep sides, with woodland back and front. Cover crops are cleverly used at the tops behind the trees and well out of view of the Gun line. Famous drives in include Murton Grange, Sled Hill and Top Quinoa. But there isn't an ordinary drive on the place.
Every day's sport is reliant on a highly valued team that includes head keeper, Graham Burgess and the landowner and farmer Derek Cornforth, both of whom have helped Vicky to add three new drives this season; Stephen Richardson, the under-keeper; Andrew Gale; the beaters and pickers-up, led by Les Dixon of Mountgrace Kennels; and Davina Lovegreen, the caterer. It is a team effort and a happy one. “One of my favourite nights in the season are our ‘Pie and Peas Nights' in the local pub which gives us all a chance to catch up with each other outside working hours and just have fun,” adds Vicky.
Her new career has been a natural progression. “Dad asked me if I would take over last year when our former head keeper left and my role has really evolved from then,” explains Vicky. A keen eventer with seven horses to look after in the summer, the job fitted in well. “I was spending a lot of time at the shoot anyway during the winter, picking-up, shooting and dealing with a lot of niggles to save Dad's time. Now I hardly have time to pick up a gun at all because I prefer to concentrate on running the day.”
Many of the Guns are known to her from previous years and have been very supportive. “My best days,” she says, “are when everything has run smoothly and everyone has had some good shooting. It's also very satisfying to be able to present quality birds to really good shots like Warren Roberts, Simon Ward, Johnny Merricks and David Kempley.”
A day at Murton Grange starts with Vicky's meet and greet and the obligatory safety talk, which this season will include new health and safety rules about dealing with any anti-bloodsports protestors.
Two drives before stopping for Yorkshire-made sloe gin and nibbles allows time for the weather to be assessed. Assuming all is well, two further drives before a hearty meal, cooked by Davina Lovegreen in a cottage converted into a shoot room, will finish the day. When the last Gun has left, Vicky sorts the dogs out. One of her favourite labradors, Emma, was a gift to her from her father, which he bought from Les Dixon as a birthday present. However, she adds that another dog, Sprout, her cocker spaniel, is well known for being the worst behaved dog on the shoot!
In early summer, many shoots were reporting a 30% decrease in bookings. But Murton Grange were still confident that their days would fill, albeit with a few notoriously late bookings still to come in. “It's always worth checking to see if there are any days left at the end of the season,” says Vicky, “but we are fairly optimistic.”
With her first season under her belt, her second season should be a breeze. “I have to expect a few sharp intakes of breath from people who don't know me, but on the whole most people are unfazed,” she says.
Murton Grange is a hugely welcoming family shoot and proud to have a hostess who can more than hold her own.