Urra Estate – North Yorkshire
After a day of gale-force winds and unseasonably warm temperatures at Urra Estate in North Yorkshire, Dave Carrie considers the key role that weather conditions play on a shoot day.
(Photography: Jonathan McGee)
It was October 22, just a few weeks into the pheasant shooting season, and the anticipation of shooting at Urra Estate – a wonderful little sporting area in North Yorkshire – tugged at my gut. I knew what the team there are capable of showing the Guns...
I picked up my old friend and loader Des Mills at 8am sharp. Des is like a Sergeant Major – one minute late and I get a ‘what time do you call this’ scowl. I was meeting my partner in crime (well-known photographer and film-maker Jonathan McGee) at the roundabout between the A19 and the village of Thirsk, as the estate isn’t the easiest to find.
Urra is a family-owned estate situated on the northern edge of the North York Moors National Park, some 14 miles from Helmsley, the Mecca of the game shooting world. The shoot is very much a family affair, set amongst 3,500 acres, with the emphasis on a relaxed and sporting day. They have five signature drives: Big Mac; Whingroves; Cold Moor Edge; Bomb Hole and High Cringle.
The headkeeper is 44-year-old Sean Mason, a very experienced individual who knows his game and is very much a man’s man. Sean is always in the background ensuring things run as smoothly as possible. Helping him throughout the day and the four seasons are underkeepers Gavin Wilson and Craig Ring – both in their 20s.
When you approach the Urra Estate from the main road you are conscious of the dramatic landscape, for it is here that grouse moor meets pheasant country. On the left is prime pheasant and partridge country with tall, green pine forest atop rugged hills, whilst on the right the blackness of the moors vanishes amidst rocky escarpments. Dramatic to say the least.
We were greeted by our hosts and the owners of the estate, the Reeve family – John, Patrick, James and Dominic – at a very neatly set-out farmstead. And, after the initial introductions, the conversation quickly switched to the weather conditions. Patrick was clearly nervous (probably due to the experience of the team of Guns), whilst James and Dominic were a bit more laid-back, and John – the head of the family – is definitely the calming influence. A very quietly spoken man, John asked only one thing; that everybody enjoyed themselves. I know from past visits that this is the primary concern for the Reeve family, but Mother Nature did not want any of it and was determined to spoil the day.
I was speaking to Patrick on the first drive, Bennison’s Wood, a drive I know can produce spectacular birds. He voiced his concern about the gale-force winds and the fact that it was unusually warm and sunny for the time of year.
As Patrick had predicted, the birds came off the hilltops and went sideways and downwards at speed, trying to fly under the wind. We watched as they struggled to remain aloft. There were a few that made sporting birds on this first drive, but nothing like I have seen before. I know that Urra needs little help from the wind for the birds to fly. Compounded with the bright sunshine and unseasonal warmth, it was going to be a very difficult day.
I have shot all over the UK and every keeper that I have met on a high bird shoot, without exception, prays for the right weather conditions. He wants the sun gods to stay away, the rain god to exercise his power elsewhere, and he generally needs the lightest of breezes to show his finest birds. I used to pooh-pooh the excuses shoot managers and keepers give for birds not performing, so to speak, but now I’m not so quick to do so. Many of you reading this will have heard the following excuses mentioned before:
• Low or high pressure – birds won’t fly, depending on which estate you’re on;
• Dull, warm and drizzly – birds won’t fly well;
• Too much wind – birds duck underneath the wind (although strong wind can help on flat land);
• Not enough wind – too still;
• Too sunny – birds dive;
• Too mild and warm – affects flying ability;
• Snow – birds can’t see where they are going, and this can stop shooting too;
• Foggy – stops play altogether;
• Very wet – can sometimes stop shooting if persistent and birds are too wet.
Of course, there are days when the conditions are ideal (as listed below), and the keeper knows he is going to give you a kicking.
“I thought you could shoot?” he will ask you with a wink at the end of the drive. This is generally the only time you will catch a keeper grinning!
• Nice stiff breeze, overcast and nippy – means stratospheric birds which are very difficult. You won’t hit many (keeper starts smiling);
• A gentle breeze, overcast and nippy – means very high, demanding shooting. You might get the bag (keeper is still smiling);
• Stiff breeze, sunny but cold – also means very high, demanding shooting. You might get the bag (keeper is grinning);
• Very windy (but not gale-force, and in the right direction), sunny or overcast and cold, makes it very difficult. Birds twist, curl and turn, and you definitely won’t get the bag (keeper starts jumping about, laughing).
I have learned over the years that weather is the greatest determining factor on a shoot day and can literally ruin days on the best of shoots. Some shoots, especially high bird shoots, require little wind, if any, to show their best birds. On the other hand, strong wind on an otherwise mediocre shoot can transform it and produce some fantastic shooting.
Anyway, back to Urra where the gale-force winds had Patrick and James concerned that the team were not getting the usual Urra quality. Of course, there is sod-all anyone can do about it. On every drive the wind seemed to get stronger, and it was a struggle to stand up at times. On one particular drive, Big Mac, the birds are flown over some large pine trees on top of a very steep embankment, and make their way over the Guns who are lined out in the narrow valley below. In this instance, the birds came off beautifully tall and small – they were very high – but as soon as they hit the wind it just blew them back over the pines and very few reached us at a respectable height as a result. Those that battled through the wind slipped underneath it. The only saving grace was some really cracking long crossers that had been pushed far out across the pines on top of the hill.
This was a very strong team of Guns, all of whom had shot at Urra before. Each knew what the estate was capable of producing. Indeed, when I acquired the day, all of the pegs were sold within the hour. As Patrick quite rightly remarked, “If the team had been a bit more ordinary and less selective, they would still have had a good day.” It just so happened that this day was taken by a team of largely unforgiving souls who spend their hard-earned cash on the very best of high bird shoots.
Many shoots now find themselves having to cater for the increasing demand for high birds. Guns in this day and age want the best, and estates which have the terrain to present high birds should use it to their advantage and give the customer what he wants, or expect the Guns to go elsewhere. You cannot be a fuddy duddy when the simple fact is that 75 per cent of game shooting is a commercial enterprise – it is a simple case of supply and demand. In my view, whoever steps up to meet the demand will survive.
Urra is one such estate paying attention to every small detail and meeting the demand for quality. The food is also second to none; elevenses that are too tasty to describe and a lunch akin to that found in a top London restaurant.
I have turned this piece into a rant about the importance of weather, having watched this family-run business do battle with the elements to provide a good day’s shooting for a pernickety team. And I take my hat off to the Reeve family for persevering with the adverse conditions and doing their utmost to give us a good day.
I hope this article will serve as a reminder that keepers and shoot organisers are not gods and do not control the weather. Please remember that these hardworking people – protectors of the countryside’s flora and fauna – do not want you to have a bad day. They pray for good weather so that they can see paying customers go home with a smile on their faces, in the knowledge that they are likely to return.
What a difference a day makes
I was back at Urra again in November, shooting with the Canadian Team which included Tony Biker who was part of the Hurricane Andrew day on October 22. The difference in weather and how the birds flew was quite remarkable – it was an amazing day with some of the most testing birds I have ever shot. The film of the day will be released soon and will show the true potential of this wonderful sporting estate.