Sawley - North Yorkshire
Is this the prettiest shoot in England? It is best to know something of a shoot before we arrange to feature it in the magazine. They all claim to have high birds, great food and stunning terrain - some fall short while others live up to the billing. And while Sawley doesn't actually boast of being England's prettiest shoot, I was reliably informed that it probably is. Moreover we were told it had the other aforementioned attributes in spades.
So I made contact with Liam Botham, the shoot owner and son of legendary cricketer Sir Ian. He was happy for me to bring a photographer, and in order to taste it properly at first hand, he also invited me to carry a gun. Friends insist I spend much of my time fielding shoot invitations. I won't deny that the odd invite comes my way, but very often the shoots which I want to feature are not especially hungry for publicity. Getting the story is always the priority - carrying a gun is a bonus.
So at the end of October on a glorious autumn day I found myself north of Ripon following a line of 4x4s through the gate to the Sawley shoot. The Guns had come from far and wide, all with reputations as seriously good high bird Shots.
We met the previous evening at Ian and Kathy Botham's house where we were incredibly well looked after - though Ian was in India commentating for Sky Sports on England's latest cricketing debacle. He had hoped to be home but scheduling made it impossible. Some of the party slept at the house, others at a nearby farm conversion B&B run by fellow Gun and family friend David Turnbull's charming wife Jane.
Full breakfast was followed by a short journey to the shoot, passing Studley Royal along the way. A long and winding track through a tree-lined valley eventually got us to our destination, and what a destination it was. In the proverbial middle of nowhere sits a quite beautiful lake where, from pontoons, Liam's two sons Regan (18) and James (13) were casting flies in hopes of hooking one of the big rainbows that were teasingly breaking the surface. To the right was the bothy where we would later take lunch, but for now Kathy was serving coffee. Completely idyllic. The lake was mirror calm. The trees just on the turn and all was perfect... until we came to our senses. We were there to shoot and there was barely a breath of wind, bright sunshine, and still only October. Just how would they fly? We would soon find out.
I drew peg 6 on the opening drive Calf Haugh - we were standing along the valley floor where trees had been removed for the drive's benefit. Soon enough pheasants and some partridges came gliding and powering out at heights which were both sporting and challenging with the whole line getting shooting. Despite the bright sunshine and lack of wind, this was proper bird presentation. Terrific stuff.
I managed to pull one or two down (birds that were sporting for me), and I took a sneaky look at how the experts did it - the likes of Peter Schwerdt, Jamie Lee, Simon Ward and Steve Thomas effortlessly dropping birds. And they were doing it properly - pheasants were falling from the sky like sacks of flour. From Steve Halsall's gun too and from grouse whiz Nigel Hawkins.
Lords Nab followed, along with elevenses by the lake, and the morning concluded with Bernard's Bank. Here we were told to pick our birds as there would be plenty over us, and maybe place a priority on partridge. A steep bank covered in bracken ran up from the Gun line. When the drive got underway there were birds at every height, and lots of extravagantly high partridges too. Apparently, later in November a team here fired off 1,000 cartridges for 100 pheasants.
But for now it was lunch in the bothy - the casserole and all other delicious food we enjoyed was prepared by Liam's sister Becky.
There was a great buzz as we set off for Fox Hills, another impressive drive, this time on more open ground. But we had yet to tackle what is surely Sawley's signature drive - the Artichokes. It was to be our grand finale. This is where the birds are driven over the lake, half of the Guns standing on pontoons stretching out onto the water. The drive is named after the cover crop planted behind the trees at the valley top - though maize is now the crop used, as on all drives! But the name sticks.
I stood behind a tall tree at the end of the lake - tall to me anyway! Birds flew over the top. Or to my right and to my left where David Turnbull was hitting top form with an outstanding right and left. The Botham boys meanwhile were picking off birds as back Guns.
It was terrific. Pheasants to truly match the stunning setting. Inevitably the drive came to an end - it always does! But smiles aplenty. We had experienced a drive, and a day, which was without question top drawer. Liam had every right to wear a broad grin. “Dad was supposed to have been here” he said “but he just couldn't make it. He would have loved it.”
As it transpired, this was just the beginning of what was to prove a very successful season - 48 days of syndicate, private and let - all let days being sold, never missing the bag target. There is a 5-10 per cent allowance, but he is not keen on overage. And the shots:kill ratio has gone from 2-2.5:1 to 4.5:1.
Most of next season is already fully booked.
This was Liam's third season at Sawley. Now aged 35, the former professional cricketer and rugby player has been shooting for as long as he can remember. “I was brought up in rural Yorkshire amongst farming friends - we would walk hedgerows and rough shoot. Then at 17 I was introduced to driven shooting by family friend Gilbert Fenwick. Now I am very fortunate in that I get some lovely invitations, but as shooting is my passion I always wanted my own shoot.” He toyed with a couple of other shoots, but they weren't quite right and then the opportunity came up of taking on the sporting lease at Sawley.
“I had shot here for three or four years with Jeremy Pilkington, who owns the estate. He is a shooting man and could see what I wanted to do. We both felt that it was realising only 50 per cent of its potential.
“We have a good relationship - in fact the lease has recently been extended.” Parts of the valley have already been cleared and two more drives will be created for next season. With trees removed, birds maintain their height over the valleys rather than dip. The lake however, was in good condition, though we have done some drainage work, and we will be installing some tables and chairs in front of the bothy.
Liam will be the first to admit that the idea of the pontoons came from visiting Richard Caring's Lakes shoot in Somerset, which he describes as ‘the best shoting experience ever'. “I feel privileged to have visited a lot of shoots around the country and I always try to pick up ideas which I can use at Sawley... you can't just settle for the same old/same old.”
Sawley is very much Liam's shoot. “My father's first passion is fishing, but he loves coming here and enjoys his shooting. I enjoy fishing too but my passion is shooting and always comes first.” Though it has to be fitted in with his work for Orchid and Yachtmasters, a yacht brokerage and security company.
The estate runs to 2,500 acres and though they concentrate on bags of around 300-500, they also offer 100-120 bird days on High Moor, the ground beyond the valley tops.
And as for being the prettiest shoot in England.... it's right up there, no question. And importantly, it delivers great shooting. Well-known shooting instructor and Fieldsports columnist Simon Ward tells me that he was there in December when a couple of Guns sought his advice about the best shoots in Wales and the West Country. “Let's do the drive and then talk about it” Simon responded. At the end of the drive they had already changed their minds and were booking in with Liam.
The Sawley head keeper is Charlie Bentall, who at 46 has both great energy and bags of experience.
Charlie spent 13 years at Glen Estate in Peebleshire where he looked after both grouse and pheasants. Before that he helped build the pheasant shoot at Drumlanrig. But his keepering career started at Studley Royal, next door to Sawley. So when the advertisement for a new head keeper was published in Shooting Times, Charlie had already contacted Liam, the bush telegraph having done its work.
“I believe it takes 3-5 years to get a shoot how you want it. It is like one artist will paint a picture differently to another artist,” says Charlie. “A lot of woodland needed removing and the pheasant strain needed changing.” They now have four strains - Manchurian, Kansas cross, Kansas pure and a few blacknecks. No more ringnecks.
The birds arrive as day-olds from Heart of England Farms. “We start putting them out to wood in the third week of June. It's false economy to buy late birds in order to save on feed” says Charlie, “you will never get strong mature pheasants, which is precisely what you need.”
He loves the creative aspect of it all, and draws on his grouse experience. “Guns expect more nowadays - it used to be a case of simply putting sufficient birds over the Guns for a bag of 500. Now it's a question of ensuring the birds are all sporting, and matched to the standard of the Guns.”
Charlie's enthusiasm is obvious, and though he is a keen and useful Shot, he gets his biggest satisfaction from putting on a day's shooting. “There nothing to beat it when you know it has gone well, and the feedbck that follows.”
The day's bag: 342 pheasants, 229 partridges, 1 woodcock and 1 white pheasant (courtesy of Simon Ward - £100 to charity!). Total 463