Temple Shoot – Wiltshire

In the previous issue of Fieldsports,Lord James Percy argued that the primary cause for the decline in Britain's songbirds over the past century has been the intensification of agriculture. The common farming practices of removing hedgerows and rough corners, draining out of wet spots and bogs, increasing livestock numbers, planting crops in ever greater blocks and the widespread use of pesticides and herbicides, has, in the past, rendered huge tracts of countryside more or less devoid of native flora and fauna.

The good news though, is that the damage is reversible. With the right approach and commitment from enlightened landowners and managers, wildlife and commercial agriculture can coexist in harmony. The formula is simple: create the right habitat, provide the right food and control predator and vermin numbers, and the wildlife will bounce back. 

And if ever there was a shining example of a man who has long recognised these principles and put them to good use, it is Count Konrad Goess-Saurau, the most recent winner of the Purdey Gold Award for Game and Conservation. In creating a first class pheasant and partridge shoot from a blank canvas, he and his management team have transformed 2,000 acres of intensively farmed monoculture in Wiltshire's Marlborough Downs into a true wildlife haven. 

What was once wall to wall wheat, barley and pasture, now supports a plethora of wildlife alongside a mainstream, commercially viable farm.

Year 1984

Year 2014

I visited Temple Shoot in mid-January, on their penultimate driven day of the season, and it wasn't long before I was given an insight into the dedication, determination and commitment that has gone into creating what is now a wonderful driven shoot. On the second drive of the day, known aptly as KGS, I found myself stood beside Konrad who had positioned himself as a back Gun so that he could mop up any pricked birds. “When I bought the land, it was like a prairie, there was barely a tree on the place,” he said before pulling down an extravagantly tall partridge that had managed to evade the Guns in front. Poignantly, the pheasants and red-legged partridges that were pouring over the line were being driven from an extensive copse of mature hazel, beech, oak, yew, ash and laurel – habitat that wouldn't exist if it wasn't for Konrad's dream of creating a premier league shoot from scratch.

A long-term vision

After purchasing Temple Estate in 1985, one of the first things Konrad did was contact the Game Conservancy (now the GWCT) to ask for advice. After much consultation, and with a great deal of help from Ian McCall, a blueprint was created for the new shoot. The main priorities included establishing game cover, the planting of trees and hedgerows, the introduction of a new cropping system to ensure that sufficient food and cover would be provided through winter, and the implementation of a rigorous predator and vermin control regime. Lord James Percy would have approved.

So, did Konrad stick to the plan? Perhaps the best way to answer that question is to look at the figures. Since 1985, Konrad and his team have planted in excess of one million trees (think about that for a second), established over 23 miles of hedgerows and removed an average of 800 head of vermin every year. The latter includes rats, foxes, rabbits, corvids, weasels, stoats and grey squirrels. In addition, they have created nine traditional, clay-lined dew ponds for wildfowl. In a nutshell, the property has been transformed and, as a consequence, the wildlife has well and truly bounced back. 

As estate manager Chris Musgrave, who also independently manages three neighbouring estates, putting a total of 7,500 acres under his watch, explains: “This landscape management of the area really has had a profound effect on the wildlife. Lapwings, barn owls, short-eared owls, buntings, skylarks, linnets – none of these species were here when I arrived in 1983 and they're here in abundance now. And of course deer numbers have also increased.

“Without the habitat, food and cover that we have provided, none of it would be here,” continues Chris. “But water really is the key here on the Downs. Chalk is free draining, so if you can connect the water source to the wildlife corridors, you will really start to see the wildlife flourishing. And what is crucial, is the fact that we have created a wildlife haven in conjunction with a commercially viable farm.”

Recognition of Temple Estate's remarkable transformation came in 2010 when it was chosen to launch Natural England's South West Farmland Bird Initiative, because all of the key biodiversity species that the initiative was concerned with are now present in good numbers on the estate. These include breeding populations of corn bunting, yellowhammer, lapwing, tree sparrow and skylark, to mention but a few. “The biodiversity that we now have on the Downs is unquestionably testament to the work that has gone into creating this wildlife haven,” added Konrad.

Further recognition came in 2012 when, along with 41 other farms on the Marlborough Downs, the estate was listed as one of 12 Nature Improvement Areas in the country (a Natural England initiative with funding from Defra). Granted through a competitive tender process with 76 organisations such as the RSPB initially applying, the Marlborough Downs is the only farmer-led NIA in England. 

And of course in November 2013 came the Purdey Gold Award for Game and Conservation. Commenting on Temple Farm's success, Richard Purdey said: “This is a most impressive entry by any standard. Count Goess-Saurau wins our Gold Award not only for the leading role he has played with 41 other farms involved in this Nature Improvement Area, but also for actively encouraging visits from local schools and the Royal Agricultural University in Cirencester to see, first hand, how this exemplary estate manages its farming, conservation and shoot.”

The shoot

The development of the shoot has been a gradual process of trial and error. At one stage, they had a released grey partridge shoot up on the Downs, but it soon became apparent that, with surrounding estates putting down redlegs, the greys were being pushed out and outcompeted. Although the grey partridge shoot continued for five years, it was clear that they had no choice but to change to redlegs.

Nowadays, a 50/50 mix of redleg partridges and cock pheasants are put down each year, with the reared redlegs being incubated on the estate. They are then transferred to a specialist partridge rearing unit which has been developed by Konrad, while the pheasants come in as six-week-old sexed poults. In an effort to build up a population of wild birds, only cock pheasants are released and the shooting of any hen birds is strictly forbidden, as is the shooting of woodcock. “We want to supplement the released birds with a strong base of wild stock,” explained headkeeper Phil Holbrow, who has been at Temple for over 15 years. It's a policy that clearly works well as they achieve an excellent return of 57 per cent on pheasants and a 38 per cent return on partridges from a total of only 21 days of shooting per season, eight of which are let by invite to syndicates known to Konrad, while the remainder are kept in hand for family and friends.

On the day of my visit, a friends and family day, several of the team were Temple veterans, having shot with Konrad many times over the years, including well-known Shot Tony Ball. Incidentally, it was Tony who, while working for Strutt & Parker, had found Temple Estate for Konrad in 1985. “I have seen this shoot develop right from the very beginning,” he said, “and I can tell you that what Konrad and his team have achieved is quite remarkable. Aside from the creation of so much amazing habitat and the abundance of wildlife that you see everywhere, it has to be said that this is also a truly excellent shoot.” Rod Copleston, another regular at Temple, was in agreement: “This has all been created by Konrad and his team – almost every tree you see and almost every hedgerow. It was like a desert before he got here. Now look at it, it's stunning. He really has transformed the place.”

Indeed the quality of birds that are pushed from a mixture of woodland and game crops (they have experimented with dozens of mixes and combinations including artichokes, maize, barley, wheat, quinoa, kale, phacelia, buckwheat etc.) that have been strategically positioned on the tops of the rolling Downs, are spectacular by anyone's standards, particularly the hen pheasants – all of which are of course wild – which tend to head straight into the stratosphere before sailing over the Guns' heads. Sporadic laughter breaks out across the line as the Guns acknowledge that, even if they were allowed to address hen birds, they would be wasting their time. 

“Our topography is conducive to producing some seriously sporting birds,” said headkeeper Phil Holbrow. “All of our cover has been strategically planted to make the most of this, but we can provide a range of birds to suit most abilities. If we feel it is necessary, we can always move the Guns uphill slightly. But on a day like today, when we have a team who can really shoot, we position them right at the bottom of the valleys,” he added with a smile.

It's a wonderful thing to watch a team of experienced Guns who have the wherewithal to do justice to even the most challenging birds. Right across the line, there was some exceptional shooting. Tony in particular was on fine form, even by his own lofty standards. Indeed, on the third drive of the day, known as Above Temple, I watched him nonchalantly pull down some of the longest curling crossers I think I have ever seen.

A team effort

Elevenses and lunch are taken in the recently refurbished shoot lodge, an old stone barn that boasts the biggest fireplace this side of the Buck House gates. Turns out that the limestone surround, which Konrad shipped over specially from France, was originally constructed for a now derelict chateau in the Loire Valley. Remarkably, despite the lack of insulation in the barn, the roaring inferno, which you couldn't get too close to for fear of catching alight, heated the entire hall. During lunch, I was seated with my back to it and, before I had finished my main course, I began to wonder if I was at risk of bursting into flames. I can imagine how welcoming it would be on a properly cold winter's day.

After a delicious lunch and over a spot of cheese and a glass of red, Konrad reflects on the past quarter of a century. “The fun part has been seeing this all come to fruition over the years and the amazing change to the landscape and wildlife that has followed.” When asked to quantify the man-hours and funding that has gone into turning Temple Estate into such a wildlife sanctuary while retaining its commercial viability as a farm, his response was telling: “All I can say is that it has been a lifetime's achievement and it is not possible to quantify it in hours or money – this has been the creation of something quite exceptional.”

In all, five of Temple's nine named drives were shot on the day of my visit – Phil's Pond, KGS, Above Temple, Chapel and Man's Head – and, thanks to a great joint effort between headkeeper Phil, underkeeper Kathryn Hutchinson, shoot captain Trevor Tippetts and Temple's team of beaters and pickers-up, each and every drive was genuinely impressive. Not only that, but there was a wonderful atmosphere and camaraderie across the board. “The beaters and pickers-up are a very loyal local team who have all been part of the transformation of the shoot over the years,” added Phil. “They too take great pride in being associated with Temple.” 

It's not hard to see why.

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