Salperton – Gloucestershire
There are many elements that make a great day's shooting memorable. In the case of this Cotswold shoot, it is those at its very backbone that make all the difference, as Patrick Tillard discovered.
With the increasing pressure mounting on commercial shoots to rise to the demands of paying Guns, the traditional atmosphere and bucolic principles of the sport can all too easily be drowned out. Quantity and quality do not always mix. Guns' anticipation substituted for expectation. Shoot captain's enjoyment for nerves. And muddy fields for egg shells.
The fabric of a shoot are those at its backbone: the owners, agents, keepers, beaters, pickers-up, housekeepers and chefs. Those for whom the hard work starts before September 1 and continues well into February – if not year-round. One chink in the armour is all it takes to dent a smooth season. Shared views on ethics, presentation and hospitality are key to ensuring we do not lose sight of why shooting is such an intrinsic part of the countryside. Shoots are not about fictitious bags and wiping your neighbour's eye, but the preservation of a long-standing agrestic custom that brings people from all walks of life together and showcases the rural way of life, and those that it employs, in all its glory.
Even at the top, there is a fine line. Many shoots are well structured and carefully run, but there are those that go the extra mile, and rather than falling into the farrago of seasons past, sit high in the memory for seasons to come.
One such shoot is Salperton.
Houghtons – Owners
The Houghton family have had ownership of Salperton for 19 years and on arrival into the village, which is part of the 4,000-acre Cotswold estate, you can't fail to notice just how immaculate the area is. Renovated stone buildings and mown grass verges, it is as beautifully kept as it is beautifully quintessential. This is England's green and pleasant land.
On the day of our visit, the Guns assembled in a snug converted two-story barn for bacon butties, coffee and a slurp of sloe gin before the briefing and stampede for wellies, tweed and shooting paraphernalia. The stunning 17th century Grade II listed house can be taken exclusively for shoot days and, post the restoration work by the Houghtons, guests can be assured of unabashed comfort, with views across the gardens and sheep-grazed parklands, and menus boasting locally-sourced produce.
Ian Coley MBE – Sporting Agent
Salperton is one of many first class shoots that sit within the Ian Coley Sporting Agency portfolio. Ian attends every day at Salperton, ensuring that the Guns are more than happy from the moment they arrive to their departure. He has an effortless hosting style, an unostentatious authoritative grip on the day's proceedings and a deep knowledge of game shooting, which adds immeasurably to the experience.
Ian is an integral cog of the Salperton wheel, escorting the Guns from drive to drive, advising, placing and moving pegs to suit the wind, whilst remaining constantly in cahoots with headkeeper Shane Cooper. He also joins in at lunch – the perfect time to interrogate him on the highs and lows of his time as GB Olympic shooting coach, a role he retired from in May 2013 – before asking all the Guns to uphold an estate tradition and sign the game book, a lovely and somewhat rare touch.
Shane & Rachel Cooper and John Pye – Keepers
“I'm the boss in the field and she's the boss at home,” joked Shane, Salperton's headkeeper for the past 21 years. He married Rachel, who already worked as a keeper at Salperton, the previous year, before leaving Stanway estate and taking over the headkeeper role from her father, aged 24. For the past eight seasons, they have also had the help of John Pye and, with the estate split into three, they each take their respective beats. “And we have a really great team of beaters and pickers-up,” Shane continued. “Without these people the shoot simply wouldn't work. They help make my job a lot easier and all the more enjoyable.” And it was noticeable. There was constant banter between drives, and no inch was left uncovered as the pickers-up unleashed their army of spaniels and labs with the host's whistle blown.
Over 150 acres of game cover, including maize, utopia, chicory and wild bird strips are strategically sown to hold game near to the profusion of natural valleys that are draped across the undulating ground. Great driven shooting country!
The birds put down are 80 per cent partridges, reared on site, arriving at the end of April. It's a year-round job, and the Coopers manage ten days' holiday between the end of season chores and the turn-around for the next batch of birds. But judging by the resounding success of the day, it's a job they clearly both thrive in.
Rachael Giggal – Housekeeper
Her name could not be more apt. Never without a smile, Rachael and her team were brilliant throughout. Elevenses of champagne, chorizo sausages flavoured with garlic and smoked paprika, sausage rolls so good they were worth burning the roof of your mouth for, and assorted sweet options ticked all the right boxes. All of them. So much so that I soon found myself undertaking clandestine missions to seize yet another square of cake.
The Guns shot through before a mighty roast with all the bells and whistles. Tender beef, Yorkshire pudding larger than my head, crispy neeps and tatties and veg gewgaw. Happy days. I'd obviously lacked the MI5 element of subtlety at elevenses, however, as at the end of the day, as the Guns received oven-ready partridges from Shane to take home, Rachael handed me a cling film-wrapped slab of the leftover cake. It was polished off before I had released the handbrake.
But, of course, all of this effort and organisation can be forlorn if you have a team of supercilious Guns who have bag expectations that not even the Argentinian doves could sate. The sporting agent's job is to sieve these out, and find syndicates and individuals who appreciate the sport in all its moods and unpredictabilities. Guns who respect their quarry and the environment in which they shoot. Cue the Bugatti Roving Syndicate...
Good friends of Ian's, the syndicate is named after the local pub in his village; The Bugatti Inn, Gretton. All the Guns, bar one, had shot Salperton before. “It never disappoints,” said Grahame Whateley who, although not a syndicate member, was a perennial visitor who bagged his first ever pheasant on the estate more than 25 years ago.
The Bugatti team travel around the country in pursuit of full-packaged shoot days, and Salperton is always a firm favourite due to the quality of sport, variety of drives and overwhelming hospitality – and it's only an hour and 45 minutes from London. The team enjoyed four drives over the course of the day, each a contrast to the last – there are 20 drives in total, all producing challenging birds within reach of the Guns and their everyday loads. And they were matched by the standard of shooting with a cartridge to head ratio better than 3:1, the Guns focusing mainly on partridges but picking out the odd exceptional pheasant, too.
Being able to shoot straight was just one of The Bugatti's attributes, they were also appreciative and respectful, raining compliments at the conclusion of each drive. There was no hint of disappointment, even if they weren't in a hot seat, armpit-deep in empty shells, and by the close of play all left genuinely content.
Perhaps the greatest hosting of shoots, and any event for that matter, is when you barely notice that you are being hosted. Where the day has a relaxed flow, blending from one highlight to the next without commotion or fuss. Where every aspect of the day is planned – excluding the last minute variants that occur when pursuing birds in open country – but executed seemingly effortlessly. And in this respect, the backbone of Salperton are a shining example.
Drives: Rabbit Hill, Limekiln, West Bank and Great Hill (one of the signature drives)
Bag: 333 – 312 redlegs & 21 pheasants
Guns: Malcolm Berry, John Bond, Chris Clark, Hugo Clark, Sam Cornes, Mike Deardon, Leo Toralballa, Julian West and Grahame Whateley