Warter Priory - Yorkshire
Mike Barnes visits one of Yorkshire's greatest pheasant shoots which has experienced a complete transformation in recent years. This is the story of Warter Priory's revival.
The attendance was very poor today, many of the children being absent bushbeating and watching the shooting." The Warter Village School diary of November 27, 1895, told its own story. Warter Priory was one of the truly great shoots - all of the top Shots of the day were invited. And the owner, shipping magnate and Hull MP, Charles Wilson had the power to hire and fire teachers! So beaters were not in short supply.
He had bought the estate, ancestral home of the Warter family, in 1878, and turned it into the kind of shoot where invitations were highly sought after.
Situated in Yorkshire's East Riding near Pocklington, the attractive Wolds countryside is dissected by valleys, enabling the presentation of prodigious numbers of quality pheasants, culminating in a record day of 3,824 in the year 1906 in which Wilson was created the 1st Baron Nunburnholme. In what was a golden period for the estate, the birds were appropriately shot on the Golden Valley beat.
The shoot was to have two more sympathetic owners before sliding into near oblivion.
The Hon. George Vestey bought the 14,000 acre estate in 1929 and seized the huge potential of the valleys - some of his predecessor's big drives were on the less challenging land in the park.
He maintained a big keepering team until the outbreak of war in 1939 but afterwards, it became a wild bird shoot until 1969 when the estate was bought by Lord Normandy and the Guinness Trust. But as he already had a shoot at Mulgrave Castle, he decided to let Warter. Worse still, a new farm director set about modernising the place, ripping out 30 miles of hedgerows. And the old house was demolished.
But just a year later in 1970, another rich shipping magnate Stavros Niarchos took on the shoot and appointed Kit Egerton as shoot manager. There had been no rearing since 1939 but the wonderful old shoot responded quickly and pretty soon it was back in its stride. Under Kit's eye, better use was made of the valleys and once again there were good birds in big numbers.
All shooting was by invitation but still it didn't always come cheap, such was the scale of the bags on January mopping-up days that Guns found themselves paying big tips and hefty cartridge bills.
However, no sooner was it started than it finished and the shoot contract was terminated after just four years, the resident agent blaming crop damage on pheasants. Some time later it was shown that in fact the cause was a resident population of 30,000 rabbits (in the 30s rabbit bags were approaching 50,000 pa).
From this point the shoot went steadily downhill until 1995 when the shooting was let, and three years later sold to its present owner Hygena Kitchen founder Malcolm Healey. And happily, this is where the story begins all over again.
A Dutch syndicate had some shooting rights on the estate, and invited the new owner to shoot. Not having great experience in the sport, he visited one or two other shoots in the area, knowing that Golden Valley and High Cliff were two of shooting's most famous beats. Malcolm could see that the shooting on his own estate, a place with a considerable shooting history, didn't compare with what he had seen elsewhere and resolved to do something about it.
The immediate task was to find an exceptional gamekeeper. Enter Frank Croft. His appointment as head keeper came in 2002 - vastly experienced he had started his career in 1976 at Setterington with Geoff Appleyard. Frank is quick to give credit to his old boss: "People sometimes found him difficult, but he was an amazing keeper and both my brother Richard and I learned all of the old traditional keeping skills from him - partridges under the Euston system, and snaring - there was no lamping in those days. He could think like a partridge or a pheasant. It was a very good shoot and a real education."
From there he went to South Dalton, a wild bird shoot. It was very successful with bags of 300-350. "The headkeeper would say he was not the best gamekeeper, but he liked to have fun. I found an interest in hunting while I was there. We have both the Holderness and North Pennine here at Warter - they are made very welcome."
Next stop: Farndale. Frank was there for 15 years, building it up to become one of Yorkshire's finest, with a signature drive called Cross Plantation.
But when the call came from Warter there was no hesitation. He knew the history, the ground and one meeting with the owner decided him. "He has been very supportive, and none of us could fault him in any way. I count myself as very fortunate."
It was clear however, that his role would be both gamekeeper and shoot manager. On shoot days Frank is the man who makes it tick with the Guns. "I needed someone in the beating line, so I called my brother Richard, who was at Kepwick, and it works perfectly." There are six under-keepers. They rear all of their own game, except a few partridges each year for a fresh bloodline. Rearing pens are in situ across the estate by mid-February.
"In our first season we had 10 days' shooting, five of the Guns were the Dutch syndicate and five were Malcolm's guests. The next year it was 20 days, and now we have a full programme."
There are 50 drives, eight of them major. "I could see the potential of some of the valleys which had become nearly filled with trees - birds were skimming across. So I asked if I could clear some of the trees at Williams. When Malcolm saw it, I think it came as a shock. 'What have you done?' he said. 'You have ruined it!' To be fair, the stumps were all still there and it didn't look great. But on the first day we shot it, it worked brilliantly - the pheasants were right up there." Moreover, now fully grassed it is hard to see where the trees were.
When developing drives, Frank uses shoot days as pointers. He will find out from his beaters where the good birds fly from and works at it. He will use 25 beaters and is in constant radio contact, while Richard organises the other end of the line.
In addition to woodland at valley tops, he makes good use of sweet clover and stubbles as holding cover.
"I like to think we have a nice shoot", he says. "It's all down to teamwork. In a way I see my role as a combination of my first two keepering positions - making sure it's right but also that it's enjoyable for everyone. With all of the drives, we try to put on a day that everyone will enjoy - birds for everyone."
True to his word, on the day of my visit the first 'warm-up' drive, Ludhill, saw good shooting all along the line, birds sliding in the wind, and some arc angels too. The grass had been cut and rolled - presentation is everything.
Drinks and a few laughs to follow. All of the Guns are regulars, and though from far and wide they seem to know one another. "When you've been to Warter", more than one confided in me, "the only people who don't come back are those who aren't invited!" They were all huge fans, and having shot widely were in a good position to offer an opinion.
It was indeed a hugely enjoyable day, great atmosphere and stunning birds. With Frank you clearly have a man who knows his game in every sense. I should add that the day had started with a full breakfast in the lodge. "It gets them here on time", explained Frank, somewhat wryly.
The second and third drives were The Plump and Punchbowl. Plump at High Cliff stepped it up a gear. The first pheasants out were gliding at great height, angling over Brendan Hudson, who brought down one or two corkers. I stood next to John Yeoman who in turn started off brilliantly, and had an exceptional drive.
After lunch, it was explained, it would move up another gear still. Like the morning's drive there would be a lot of game - both pheasants and partridges - but I would see some truly big birds. And I did! Terrific. Beautifully orchestrated too. We were on the Golden Valley beat at Angels. A brand new drive created only last year. Frank looked up at the sky, and smiled: "They're trying..." and laughed.
This time I stood with Victor Butters who handled some testing birds with great aplomb. Dave Carrie, as throughout the day, was pulling odd ones down from the heavens, as the drive built to a crescendo with a huge, magnificent flush to finish.
It was a fabulous end to the day. But not quite. Having already served us a full-on breakfast, and delicious lunch, Sue Megginson and her girls were handing round scones, jam and cream.
The Guns at Warter Priory are not only back in Golden Valley, a new golden era is unfolding. All involved are to be congratulated.
The Guns were:
Peter Brown, Karen Halsall, Marc Sims, Brendan Hudson, Henry Thirsk, Steve Halsall, Alan Ditchburn, Dave and Rachel Carrie, Victor Butters, John Yeoman and John McCarthy.