A family affair
Forget bag size, extreme-range birds and overages, for one family in south Lincolnshire it’s the company that counts.
(WORDS: WILL POCKLINGTON. PHOTOGRAPHY: MATT KIDD)
Nothing beats a family shoot day. Testing birds, arresting backdrops and lip-smacking fare are all great, but it’s those whose names sit above or below ours on the gamecard that really make the difference. Formalities are granted bail, the banter is on tap from the word go, and the ribbing often continues long after the final horn or whistle.
The family day is a nulling tonic to the business-like atmosphere that can so easily creep onto the Gunbus on let days; they are a world away from their commercial counterparts as no mention is ever made of the price per bird or the possibility of hefty overages.
Each season I join my three brothers and four or more members of another family on a small piece of heaven in the heart of the Lincolnshire Wolds for what is always the highlight of our season. We laugh at each other’s misses, congratulate one another on downed screamers, sample a selection of homemade winter warmers and revel in the dog-work. We get under a few birds if we’re lucky – it’s a pocket-full of shells and maybe a top-up at lunch kind of affair. And it’s bliss.
But if I was playing a game of family shoot day top trumps, I’d be beaten hands-down by members of a certain family a little further south in the county... On the last Saturday of the season passed, their own gathering of relatives involved an incredible 21 people – Guns, beaters, pickers-up, keepers and even caterers – all of whom share the same surname.
The precedent was set 10 years ago, when a number of brothers and cousins of the Copley family shot together on Heath Farm in Croxton Kerrial, Leicestershire. This is noteworthy in itself, but the sequel, which would see wives, cousins, sons, daughters, aunts, uncles, parents, grandparents and siblings convene for the first time since, is quite extraordinary.
“The idea to follow up Dad’s day with another this year was first suggested early on last season,” explains Stephen Copley, host of the opening drive of the day. “We wanted it to be special, so that is perhaps why we’ve waited so long. On the original day back in 2006, the whole Gun line was made up of family members. So we decided it was about time we did something similar, except with more people! Then it was just a case of fitting it in with everyone’s diaries.”
And not only was the Copley family day 2016 comprised of over a score of relatives, but each of the five drives was held on a separate farm belonging to a different member of the family.
The running of the five shoots in question is a labour of love for those concerned. “The keepering on each farm is all done ourselves,” explains Stephen. “Until Dad passed away six years ago, he loved pottering about, rearing a couple hundred birds and keeping on top of the vermin. Ever since, my wife Julie has played a huge part in looking after the poults – especially when I’m busy on the farm. Uncle Don does the keepering on David’s, Michael’s youngest lad does a lot of it on his, and Martin and Colin also look after their own birds.”
We’re talking modest farm shoots on typical arable rotations (three with cattle and sheep), where drives take in everything from spinneys, hedgerows and wild bird mix plots, to maize strips, artichokes and a few larger blocks of woodland. Each farm hosts a few days per season for friends and neighbours. “We rarely buy days because we have a good group of us locally who have shoots and enjoy getting together every few Saturdays through the winter. Invites are returned in favour,” Stephen tells me.
The big day dawned with a stiff breeze and overcast skies – textbook shooting conditions. Three generations spanning over 60 years gathered in a grainstore at Cardyke Farm for coffee, the drawing of pegs and a quick briefing.
“We started at Cardyke Farm, the second drive was at cousin David’s at Aerodrome Farm, Saltby, then we went to Michael’s at Heath Farm, Croxton Kerrial, before cousin Colin’s at Manor Farm, Sedgebrook, and then finishing up at my brother Martin’s at Rectory Farm, Elton on the Hill,” explains Stephen.
The host of each drive ran their own beating line, too, commandeering the Copley regiment in an effort to push their birds – mainly pheasants, with a smattering of partridge – over the line of Guns. “I was actually pretty relieved to get mine out of the way first,” laughs Stephen. “I think we each felt a little pressure not to let the team down. Some of the drives here, especially down on the fens where it’s all wild stuff, are a bit hit and miss. I didn’t fancy starting the day off with a blank drive!”
Wives, mothers and daughters saw to the refreshments – sausage rolls, cakes and homemade snifters for elevenses after the second drive, and then cold rolls, soup, more cakes and puddings at the end of the day. “Most people brought a main, a pudding and a drink. Everybody mucks in,” adds Julie.
As the story unfolds, no mention is made of numbers, and the foundations for the family’s enjoyment becomes clear. The Copleys represent that traditional sporting type, for whom bag size is almost irrelevant and respect for quarry is of utmost importance.
“We’re all quite similar when it comes to sport,” says Stephen. “Big numbers don’t float my boat. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been on a few 200-bird days and it’s nice to be among a few, but it’s about so much more than that. I think the sport starts to become indefensible when there are hundreds of pheasants shot on a single drive. And then you hear rumours of the birds being dumped on a roadside. It’s not doing the sport any favours at all. For me, it is all about the people you are with.”
In fact, Stephen gets as much enjoyment from little knockabout days as he does from the more formal affairs – those where the dogs get a bit of work, a few hedgerows are taken in, and if a rabbit bolts it’s a bonus. “We have such a laugh.” he continues. “One such day, on another local shoot, I remember that by lunchtime we had shot more foxes than we had pheasants! We have endless fun.”
And this traditional, few-for-the-pot-type attitude spills over to flavour a myriad of other interesting details relevant to the day. The whole of the Copley team, for example, use side-by-sides, many of which have been handed down from father to son over the years. It was with great reluctance that the spare gun – an over-under – was unsleeved for Daniel Copley after problems prevented him from using his own of the traditional orientation.
Stephen’s dogs, too, have all originated from the same liver and white springer bitch, Bella, who was born on the day of his and Julie’s wedding, 24 years ago.
He’s had three litters from Bella’s daughters since.
And then there are his gamebooks – I flicked through a few at Cardyke Farm which go back to ’84; not a single foray omitted.
These details, so rich with money-can’t-buy heritage, make it all that bit more special, but it’s the non-material things – the very presence of those with whom all the moments are shared – which make the day what it is.
A date is still to be confirmed for the next momentous Copley sporting get-together, but with a glut of enthusiasm within the ranks of the next generation, it looks certain that Stephen’s gamebook will feature many more of them yet.
36 pheasants, 4 partridges, 2 mallard, 2 woodock – all dressed and shared with neighbours.
(Left to right) Angela, Sarah, Sally, Tom, Hannah, Colin, Malita, Richard, Daniel, Ben, David, Lucy, Stephen, Julie, Harriet,Tessa, Alice, Denise, Michael, Marian & Martin Copley.