By Selena Masson
Friday, 05 August 2011
Pheasant shooting: Meeting a man who enjoys pheasant shooting in his back garden.
It must be every pheasant shooting man’s dream to have a driven shoot in his back garden.
Having just enough land to watch pheasants soaring over the top of your house must be an incredible feeling.
In 2005, vice-president of Chelsea Football Club, Peter Digby, fulfilled his pheasant shooting aspirations by creating a shoot from scratch using the dense yew and juniper woodland in his Hampshire garden.
After designing and building a neo-classical house on the 100-acre plot, he set about creating a haven for game birds.
“Nothing beats the sense of pride I feel when guns are lined up in my garden. It seems incongruous to have birds driven over box hedges and ornamental water fountains but it works,” explained Peter, adding that he relishes the fact he does not have to drive anywhere when he shoots at home. “There are enough bedrooms to accommodate all the guns, so everyone can enjoy themselves.”
Peter’s main passions in life are pheasant shooting, skiing, football and motor racing. His company manufactures components for Formula One cars.
“My work tends to mean I travel around the world a great deal, so having a reliable, knowledgeable gamekeeper is essential,” Peter explained.
He recently took on a new estate manager, Billy Wealleans.
“Billy has a lifetime’s experience of keepering and spends about a third of his working day looking after the shoot. He has brought many new ideas to the table and always goes above and beyond what is expected of him when it comes to pheasant husbandry.”
Over a breakfast of bacon rolls, I asked Peter how much it costs to have a shoot in his garden.
“It is not as expensive as you might think,” he commented as coffee was offered around. “Obviously there was an initial outlay for infrastructure, but that was only the cost of erecting two release pens which totalled £3,000. Every year I spend approximately £10,000. Around £5,000 of this goes on feed and birds and the rest pays for a part-time gamekeeper. This year we are holding three 60-bird shoot days.”
The first drive of the day was an experiment, as there are currently just six drives to choose from on the estate.
“I would like to have a couple more cards up my sleeve to accommodate the weather and changing wind direction,” explained Billy. “Despite the shoot being compact it still produces respectable bags. We tend to beat each drive both ways. When space is limited it just means you have to be a little more inventive,” he added.
A classical start
With their backs against the house, the guns lined up along Peter’s immaculate driveway.
The early morning mist had lifted to reveal a clear sky with very little wind. The shoot incorporates undulating natural topography which lends itself perfectly to the sport.
Michael Pitts raises his gun to one of the first pheasants of the day.
For this drive, the beating team pushed the birds from the bottom of a valley back up towards the house. Billy explained to me that he is always keen to try one experimental drive on each shoot day.
“It is always a risk, but it is the only way you learn,” he shrugged.
On this occasion the drive did not produce enough birds to warrant it being repeated another day.
Billy added: “I always follow an experimental drive with our failsafe signature drive - the Ski Slope. When the weather is bad, this drive always produces brilliant results as the cover is so thick. Half the shoot feeders are inside this wood, which always helps hold the birds. You have to be a good shot to bring down the birds, but it is the right level of difficulty to leave most guns smiling.”
As the guns meandered to the next drive, Peter explained that the guns are placed along a ride cut into woodland on one side of a steep valley.
Gun Charlotte Heath-Bullock and her friend, Katherine Watters, were placed half-way down the slope.
“This drive is infamous for sorting the wheat from the chaff,” said Charlotte as she dry-mounted her Beretta Silver Pigeon.
“It requires the quickest of snap pheasant shooting: blink and you will miss the birds - they are that speedy.”
So how did Charlotte get into pheasant shooting?
“I used to shoot at university because I quickly realised that with few girls on the team, there would be little competition for the boys! But it was only recently that I joined a syndicate in West Sussex. I have properly got the pheasant shooting bug now.”
Flanked by host Peter and Christopher Tate on her left, Charlotte was keen to contribute to the bag early on.
After 15 minutes waiting, Charlotte’s concentration was rewarded as the birds started to pour over the top of the yew trees.
With ease she felled a racing hen bird, causing it to crash into the woods behind her.
“The density of the woodland forces the birds to fly well before they hit the guns,” explained Charlotte as she reloaded.
To her left I watched Christopher almost knock himself out with a falling hen bird as it plummeted to the ground.
He is also a racing car enthusiast and organises historic motor racing festivals around Europe.
“Like Peter I am abroad a lot for work but I try to be in the UK for the pheasant shooting season,” he explained. “As long as there are people like Peter who are prepared to invest in pheasant shooting, the sport will survive. The downturn in the economy meant some large commercial shoots took a big hit - a lot of the lavish corporate days to entertain clients have been consigned to history,” he continued, adding that the blip in the economy has possibly caused private shoots to flourish. It is far cheaper and more intimate to entertain friends and business associates at home,” he speculated.
As the drive drew to a close, a smart black helicopter circled above our heads.
“That’ll be Guy Harrison - the last of the guns!” shouted Peter over the noise of the propellers.
A fighting chance
After landing his six-seater Westland Scout helicopter on Peter’s lawn, Guy greeted the guns with shots of warm beef consommé.
“By car the journey from West Sussex takes nearly two hours, but by helicopter it takes just 20 minutes,” he explained to me.
On the third drive, known as the Triangle, I stood behind Guy’s peg, which was located at the base of the Ski Slope in a new plantation of alder, wild cherry and field maple.
In 2005 Guy joined the fathers’ rights organisation, Fathers 4 Justice.
Guy Harrison made a dramatic entrance by helicopter.
At the height of our protesting, I scaled the Houses of Parliament and threw a condom filled with flour at Tony Blair,” he revealed as he unfolded his pheasant shooting stick.
Nowadays, he is a successful businessman and is married to singer James Blunt’s sister, Emily Blount.
A passionate shooter, Guy ran a shoot when he was 21 years old.
“I soon realised I was too selfish to be a shoot captain. I do not always want to put myself on the rubbish pegs,” he joked. “However, the experience gave me a new found respect for the work gamekeepers carry out.”
With his Winchester Grand European shotgun, I watched Guy expertly kill a hen and cock pheasant in quick succession.
“I would like to buy a replica of this gun so that I have a pair but I never see them advertised,” he said without moving his eyes from the woodland in front of him.
The fourth drive saw the beaters push the Ski Slope from the opposite direction. Partridge sped across the ride at an expeditious rate.
Gun Andy Brandi watched the wiser birds curling back into the wood until a young, naïve hen pheasant risked flying across the line.
In one easy movement, Andy mounted his Browning 525 Prestige and killed the bird in the air.
“My two boys Jacob and Miles are sharing their 20 bore gun today under the direction of Billy,” explained Andy, adding that they are both extremely keen shots. “It is every father’s dream to have sons that are interested in pheasant shooting. Billy is the ideal person to watch over them today and make sure they get a couple of safe shots each.”
The last drive of the day, Black Run, saw PR mogul Michael Pitts placed on a prime peg.
Relatively new to pheasant shooting, modest Michael claimed to have missed everything he had shot at so far.
“I hastened a partridge on its way, but that’s about it,” he whispered with a smile.
This drive was slow to begin, but once beater Sandra Bryant and her 15-year-old labrador, Bibi, reached the woodland edge the birds poured over Michael.
Reaching almost vertically, Michael felled two mature cocks that landed about 20 feet into the woodland to his right.
A traditional shooting scene, but in a Hampshire back garden.
Over lunch, I asked Peter if he was pleased with how the day had panned out.
“I am determined to make this season the best ever. We had problems with parasitic worms in the release pens back in the summer which meant we lost some birds, and we have a notable population of buzzards which do considerable damage. But aside from that, I think today has produced some good birds. I like to think of my shoot days as a cocktail party with pheasants - my priority is for guests to enjoy themselves.”
So what is your advice to other shooters that might like to develop their back garden into a shoot?
“Although I own 100 acres, we only actually shoot over 40 - you do not need a vast amount of land. In my opinion, the location of pens, feeders and cover crop is far more important than on bigger shoots. Be prepared to tinker with layout and try radical new ideas.”
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