Whitfield – Northumberland
Stratospheric pheasants may not be everyone's bag, says Mike Barnes, but if you do want to be tested by birds at the very limit of a shotgun's range, then Whitfield in Northumberland would be a good place to start.
"On that particular drive, none of the birds would have been under 50 metres.” Stuart Maughan, the Whitfield headkeeper was confirming what most of us had thought.
The pheasants were leaking out over the sky above us at the top of a deep valley, the sides of which were thick with oaks, beeches and conifers, resplendent in their autumn colours. It was a grey day, breezy but not the gales of the previous afternoon. With the ongoing debate over the rights and wrongs of ‘out of range' partridges and pheasants, Marcus and myself were only too happy to return to the scene of our report that had appeared in Fieldsports seven years earlier. Since that time, despite the criticisms of high bird shooting and the use of heavy ammunition, it is a fact that cartridge manufacturers report on a rising demand for bigger loads, if not 42g and 50g then certainly 32g and 34g of No. 4s.
The team on this occasion offered a perfect example. Not a single side-by-side in the line, and barrel length ranges from 32 to 34". Such a combination is becoming commonplace at most of the well-known high bird shoots and, of course, much of the missing is down to pilot error. But when shooting birds at extreme ranges, it is the big loads that hold a better pattern and deliver greater impact, and therefore, are much more likely to achieve a clean kill. Providing, of course, you can meet the challenge and shoot straight.
We visited Whitfield in Northumberland on October 15, early, you might think for pheasant shooting, but the birds are released as poults three months earlier into the woods that give such a picturesque lining to the Allendale river. So, come the new season, they are fully feathered, tailed and ready. The seven of us (not quite magnificent!) were taken to our first drive of the day. “A little one to start with,” said our host. An hour or so later we were sleeving our guns. There were to be three drives for the day – two before lunch. The line of Guns was strung out on open ground across a grass field at the foot of the steepest slope. In front there were barely any trees and no cover crops, just a few bushes and scrub. Nothing like the setting we will see later. But the birds, when they came in dribs, drabs and small flushes, were the real deal, climbing from their launchpad and gliding over us, curling mysteriously and more difficult to hit than could be imagined. The presentation was classic. And this was only the hors d'oeuvres.
Marcus and myself were to alternate the shooting with camera duties. I opened the batting at Ouston Quarry – the cricket analogy is somewhat appropriate as there was quite a lot of playing and missing going on. Some of the pheasants were clearly out of range, others in comparison, seemed borderline. These were the ones I went for. My first successful shot was of a high crossing hen, followed by a redleg which folded and fell like the proverbial stone from what, to me, seemed a great height. It was mentioned by no one, so I guess it was ordinary. However, I was not unhappy at how I shot, with six for the drive. I was using a game load of Express Supreme 28g No. 4s and a 31" Perazzi choked ½ and ½, a combination which I haven't previously felt lacking. Indeed, from time to time it has sprung a surprise or two. I have to be careful of recoil, and this is fine, but there is little doubt that a bigger load is going to complete the job emphatically. The drive yielded 49 head so we were on par or thereabouts. And quite a lot of cartridges had been fired, a fact revealed by the 7:1 average.
Time for sloe gin and a quick chocolate stop, then onto the riverbank in the woods where water was powering through the bottom of the valley – the setting was quite breathtaking. Without firing a cartridge, Andrew Pritchard added to the ‘various' in his bag, finding a 10lb spent salmon laying quite dead next to his peg. A sad end to a mission so nearly accomplished. We followed the path which skirts the river with Stuart dropping each Gun off at what would have been the most advantageous point, given the wind direction high above us. Guns loaded, a nice level spot to stand and some words of encouragement from our loader Ken Wilson, a hugely likeable Geordie who was once a top international trap shooter. It had been 30 years since I last saw him. We were fortunate indeed to have him there to point us in the right direction, for we were on the Craghead drive, a favourite with the high bird specialists. Though, interestingly, as we were to see later, while pulling off very good shots is what it's about, it is also the quantity of cartridges expended that plays a key role for some in terms of customer satisfaction.
The birds duly started to appear, again like at Ouston Quarry, initially in dribs and drabs and then small flushes. As we were to see, Stuart Maughan is clearly a master of his profession – he moves along the line throughout and keeps in touch with his team by radio in the woods.
I didn't think I did too badly (Marcus too) – another good partridge alongside half a dozen pheasants. While clearly not of the calibre of our colleagues, it was no disgrace (I think!).
A lot of missed birds however, but increasingly I noted that this didn't seem to deter others in the line. Indeed, that's why they come here. As Stuart explained: “It is like any sport – it's the challenge which appeals to them. They could, for the most part, hit 20 to 30 yard pheasants with their eyes closed, so taking on extreme birds gives them an opportunity to exercise their skills and, in doing so, hone them. There were indeed some outstanding shots pulled off. The drive lasted for over an hour – it had been brilliantly orchestrated.
So now it was time for lunch. There was a buzz in the air as we filed into The Elk's Head pub in Whitfield village, for what was an excellent meal – a choice of either guineafowl or fillet steak.
So, suitably refuelled, we headed out to King's Wood, a fabulous riverside drive which would occupy us for the rest of the afternoon. Very much of the same style as Craghead, it is rated by aficionados as one of the very best. It was indeed stunning. If not more than a little tantalising – the birds were incredibly difficult. Though I did manage to hit the odd bird and another partridge – I put it down to apparent flight speed of the redleg, I also started to fade, and this brought home the need for fitness and an abstemious night before the shoot day. So, if you are planning on a day here, then get fit and build those muscles!
The bag size met expectations perfectly and the team were more than happy: 198 pheasants, 12 redleg partridges and 2 various.
Whitfield offers three types of day – extreme, intermediate and high. They also have good grouse shooting and valley partridges.
Stuart explains that the extreme days grew out of demand for certain drives. “To avoid the potential problem of cost per bird compared to cartridges fired, we came up with a fixed cost which seems to work – Guns can then take or leave birds which suit them.”
But what of the question of wounding? Do critics of long-range shooting have a point? “Not really,” says Stuart. “Those who come here are kitted out with the right guns and ammunition. Most importantly, they can shoot to a very high standard. I would suggest that wounding can be more of a problem on a Saturday syndicate type of shoot where you have occasional Guns. The good Shots are also far better judges of range, which is really important. The distance at which birds are shot here on these days is 40 to 70 metres. Apart from range, another key reason for missing is the fact that the pheasants have a tendency to slide off the line”. So who are the masters – there must be some Guns, surely, who can hit the heights on a more regular basis than others?
“You could straightaway go to the well-known names who are every bit as good as their reputations suggest – George Digweed, Simon Ward, David Carrie etc. These boys really can shoot. But there are others who you don't hear about, but they nevertheless shoot to an exceptional standard – people like Peter Lonsdale, Tony Biker, Andrew Pritchard and Tom Bailey, generally shoot very well here.”
Stuart wouldn't say so, but he too can handle some pretty challenging stuff, and enjoys visiting other high bird shoots. For the record, he shoots a Miroku MK38 with 34g No. 4s.
Stuart joined Whitfield estate as an underkeeper 30 years ago. He initially qualified as a PE and history teacher, but then, feeling the irresistible pull of the grouse moor, took up a gamekeeping course at Sparsholt, joined Whitfield, and has been there ever since. His orchestration of 37 beaters – there are nine keepers on the estate – has to be witnessed. Ken Wilson has no doubts: “I have been to shoots all over England and Scotland, and he is the best. No question about it.”
What the Guns were using
Tony Biker: Perazzi HPX 34" – ¾ and Full – RC 40g No. 4s.
Paul Coates: Blaser F3 32" – Full and Full – RC 40g No. 4s.
Michael Bailey: Beretta 687EELL 20 bore 32" – Full and Full – Bornaghi 34g No. 3s
Tom Bailey: Perazzi MX8 20 bore 32" – ½ and ½ – Mirage 36g No. 3s.
Andrew Pritchard: Watson Bros 20 bore 33" – ½ and ½ – Gamebore Black Gold 34g No. 4s.
Mike Barnes: Perazzi 31" – ½ and ½ – Express Supreme 28g No. 4s.
James Baggelley: Beretta DT10 32" – ½ and ¾ – RC 40g No. 4s.