Wrackleford - Dorset

Wrackleford shoot

Despite a great heritage, it may have taken a little while to get there but for the last 30 years Wrackleford has been widely recognised as a shoot of genuine class. Mike Barnes travelled to Dorset to find out why.

While Devon and Somerset may lay claim to having many of Britain's most famous high bird shoots, there can be none who have been to Wrackleford in deepest Dorset who would dispute its position as not only being one of the pioneers but also still amongst the very best.

Situated just north of Dorchester, Wrackleford has been in the hands of the same family for 150 years as the home of the county's famous brewing and wine shipping dynasty, the Popes. And it could not be under better nor more enthusiastic stewardship than with current incumbent 37 year old Oliver Pope, great, great grandson of Alfred Pope, the man who really made his mark on the magnificent valleys which are the shoot's hallmark. It was he who 115 years ago embarked on a tree planting scheme that saw the creation of the woods that have so transformed both the look of the place and its sporting potential.

As any visitor will note, the woods were clearly planted for the sole purpose of shooting.
The first trees were planted in 1890 and Alfred was in his seventies when the main thrust of the planting took place (he lived into his mid-nineties), and the main woods were completed in 1925. German prisoners of war were used on at least a couple of the plantations, giving rise to the drive names Prisoners of War and Great War. As a lawyer the great man could not resist the temptation of christening another Lawyer's Piece.

Intriguingly, he was a hunting man, but he would surely have been fascinated to see the sheer beauty of his endeavours, and how they have embellished what was already an immensely attractive estate. Overall some 300,000 trees have been planted here by Alfred and his descendants.

However, despite this the shoot as we know it today is little more than 30 years old. Circumstances conspired against it. Alfred's son was left to hold the reins over two wars and the Depression, and was perhaps a less enthusiastic sportsman than his father. Then on his death, his nearest and dearest paid the price of his desire to pay his dues, and were faced with an inheritance tax burden that necessitated the sale of half of the estate.

It was Oliver's father, Christopher, who made things happen. A great sportsmen and keen stalker, in the early seventies he met a Belgian, Nicky Emsens - the two were stalking together in Scotland, and Christopher was chatting about the possibilities of Wrackleford as a pheasant shoot. At that time it was little more than a rough shoot, with very modest bags. Yet he had seen what his good friend David Hitchings had done with Gurston Down, just 40 miles down the road, and knew that with the wonderful valleys, and the now long-matured woodland there were great possibilities.

If he was looking for encouragement, he found it. Nicky came down to Dorset and was taken with what he saw, pointing out drives and enthusing about its immense potential.

“This really was the beginning” said Oliver. “My father also took advice from David (Hitchings) and the shoot quickly established itself.”

Indeed by 1980 its reputation had put it firmly on the map. In 1987 Brian Martin included it in his excellent book The Great Shoots, alongside a host of historically famous grand estates. He wrote: “I had been told about Wrackleford's exceptional sport by several prominent people in the shooting world. Yet it is only in recent years that the patience and planning of the Pope family has brought this shoot as close to perfection as is ever likely in this country.” Praise indeed, and after having the great good fortune to shoot there at the end of January I could see exactly why he was so effusive.

Sadly, Christopher Pope died three years ago, at just 67, after a short battle with cancer. Oliver explained: “He was diagnosed in September and died in March, but was shooting right up to the last day of the season.” The place meant so much to him and it is evident that his passion is most definitely shared by his son.

Moreover the season just ended took another unexpected twist, the shoot having been expanded by another four drives. Most importantly Oliver has been able to buy the adjoining Langford Valley, which means that they are now able to use part of the estate which had previously been impossible. “It had always been a bit of a dream for my father, and he told me that if it ever came up for sale then I must buy it. Bearing in mind that it has changed hands on only three occasions since Henry VIII, there wasn't really a question as to whether I should buy or not. It was a big financial commitment but it has in a way completed the shoot. My father would have been thrilled.”

Two of the new drives are good - the other two are top drawer. We started on Jenny's Garden, guns line out at the bottom of a steep valley, a wood behind us - the partridges presented were exceptional, swinging out from the tops. Very high, on the edge of range but killable. Challenging but good sport. We followed with Cric's - “My father's nick name.” A new drive that has been an unqualified success. I was at the end of the line half way up the hill to cut off potential escapees out of the side. The slope to my left went down a long way with Guns spread out in an arc - all of the line had shooting of great quality. To my left at the next peg, Michael Cannon shot beautifully, bagging a dozen head, taking them all cleanly in front. Ironically Michael and his wife Sally have a shoot nearby and  two years ago he bought the Eldridge Pope chain of pubs, and has now just resold them!

Then onto Magiston Wood, a boundary drive near the SSSI Langford Water, where from a hillside wood mostly pheasants came forward and curled and climbed along the line to present some very good shooting. After a deserved (!) drinks break, we made for a valley drive called Langford Gate, again top class.

The weather had been kind - breezy, mostly overcast and perfect for our sport.

After a good and convivial lunch (taken in the fascinating shooting box, more of which elsewhere) we took in two of old Alfred's woodland masterpieces - Prisoners of War and Lawyer's Piece. Both were good, but a swirling mist came in to wreak its worst and particularly frustrate head keeper Mark Valder, who had planned a grand finale. But it mattered little - we had had a wonderful day, and could retire happy to the shooting box for tea, cake and the kind of chat that only comes through shared experience.

Whilst they let days, this is first and foremost a family shoot. It has the feel of someone at the helm who genuinely cares. Oliver readily admits that like his father before him: “I had a lovely childhood here. I had a spaniel and ferrets - there were always lots of rabbits and as a youngster would stay in the shooting box for a couple of nights, living off what we shot. Goodness knows if it was edible” he laughs.

Oliver and Katie have three children - George (8), Tom (7) and Alice (4). The two boys are already budding young sportsmen, and when possible come out either beating or helping the game cart. “Running the shoot has also been a big change for Katie who looks after shoot lunches and all the hospitality, but she has done brilliantly and really enjoys it. I suppose it helps with her father having his own farm shoot near Salisbury - she knew what to expect.”

Oliver worked initially for the family brewery before moving to Marstons in the Midlands where he ran a chain of pubs for them.  “Most recently I had small chain of ten pubs of my own, which I sold just before Christmas. We moved back here three years ago and the priority was to get the shoot, estate and river in order, and then this coming year I will probably look at another business venture as well.

“While the shooting is a mixture of let and family days, the let days are all sold a year in advance with only the odd one changing due to circumstances. Nicky Emsens is now 85 and still comes, but also the next generation of his Belgian friends. So though these too are let days, they are like private family days, which is great, as I want to keep it personal and not fall into any sort of commercial trap. I appreciate it's a fine balance, but with having people visit on an annual basis over a period of time we have been very fortunate.”

The shoot head keeper is 41 year old Mark Valder, aided by Harry Warr - they are a good team. “Mark has been with us for 25 years, since joining on a YTS scheme. I have known him all my life, and he's a joy to work with. This has been a huge season, with taking on Langford Valley and creating the new drives, plus they also look after the river keepering.”

Wrackleford releases 2/3 partridges, 1/3 pheasants, rearing the partridges from day olds, while the pheasants are reared locally and taken in at eight weeks. “We release both very early - I personally hate seeing tail-less pheasants coming over on a shoot day, even if we are shooting partridges.” Shoot day bags are typically around 300-350. If only Alfred could see it now - he would have been delighted.

Wrackleford shootFor cover they use a mixture of cover crops and gorse, which grows readily on the chalky ground. “We find that gorse is excellent for holding birds - it provides very good cover, from both predators and weather.” On the top of one side of the new ground are the remains of an old iron age village. And an old roman road cuts right across the estate.

It really is a shoot with a history - and clearly, a great future.

 Fishing too  

Three miles of trout stream also run through Wrackleford - not just any old water, but the river Frome and Sydling brook, rated by many as the best fishing in Dorset.

Oliver explained:  “The river has been leased out for the last eight years, but last season  the estate took it back in hand. It seemed to make sense with having two fulltime keepers - one who is very experienced with river keepering, and the other a very keen fisherman who wants  to become an experienced river keeper!

“Being a keen fisherman myself I felt that now I was living on the estate it would have been wrong to continue leasing out the river. It is divided into seven beats, six of which are on the main river Frome, and the other on Sydling Brook. We let to a small number of season rods and also by day ticket. There is a preferred catch and release policy, however if a fisherman is desperate to take a fish home for supper then they are welcome to do so , provided it is a stock fish.

“The first season went really well and we are now looking at improving several sections, and providing new fishing huts.”
For details: www.wrackleford.co.uk

The famous shooting box

Wrackleford has what must rank as one of the country's most fascinating shooting boxes. Its predecessor was well known, perched amongst fir trees on the top of a hill as you enter the shoot proper.

This newer incarnation, built 15 years ago, is just the most perfect retreat. There's a kit and gun room, an ante-room, kitchen and the main room, which is circular and has views over the Dorset countryside, with a long disused stone barn in the near distance that was the setting of Hardy's short story The Three Strangers.

In the corner of the room is a turret/tower and well seat beneath it. “The whole design” Oliver explained “is a collection of dreams. My father travelled a lot and wherever he went in the world he came back with all sorts of ideas. The tower steps and turret was inspired by something similar belonging to an Ecuadorian admiral.” There is a wrought iron candelabra bedecked with antlers and sporting around 60 candles (which were lit for lunch). “The antlers mostly came from Glen Coe where father used to stalk with Nicky (Emsens)”.

The horse shoe-shaped table is made from elms that were lost to the disease that accounted for so many trees in the UK. Similarly so is much of the flooring, planks having been cut and stored for later use.

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