Coates Hall – Lincolnshire
It was the usual between-drives natter, but it took an unexpected twist. Moving from cover crop headaches, to the price of wheat, unpredictable weather, big bag pheasant shooting and that it was a better year for wild English partridges. "How have yours done?" seemed an innocent sort of question. "Very good" came the reply. "Our September count was 1,700".
Graham Rowles Nicholson and his gamekeeper Paul Wykes had two years earlier won the Jas Martin Lincolnshire Silver Partridge Award, his Coates Hall farm showing a big year on year increase in both spring and autumn counts. But 1,700 was something else. I had to find out more!
I was to discover that this wasn't someone who was given to blowing his own trumpet - if he hadn't been asked the question he would have never shared this remarkable figure with anyone. Instead he would have simply listened to others. A farmer and director of various agricultural businesses in England, Ireland and South Africa, he breeds racehorses in England and Ireland. A steward at three race courses, he is also a member of the Jockey Club and director of Jockey Club Estates. He has various local interests and for good measure is Vice Lord-Lieutenant of Lincolnshire. Charming and understated in equal measure, he is good company in both boardroom and shooting field.
At Coates he has a first class gamekeeper in 44 year old Paul, whose father Desmond has for 43 years worked on the nearby shoot at Willoughton (where Graham and his wife Caroline live). It is a family affair for the Wykes', as bridging the gap between the two farms is Glentworth, where the farm foreman is Paul's brother Tim, who runs the shoot there. Having three members of the same family alongside one another is a good arrangement but bad news for poachers and thieves!
But back to their partridges... there is some ideal greys territory around Lincoln with belts of heathland which is much to their liking, so I had assumed that Coates Hall was a prime example. Wrong! In fact the 4,000 acre farm is nesrly 100 percent clay.
Coates is about 10 miles north of Lincoln and has been a Rowles and Nicholson property for many years. "From the 40s the shooting was run by Tom Saul and Michael Worth" its owner explained,"two very keen shooting men. One shoot was partridges, the other pheasants. They each had their own keepers and modus operandi.
"In the early 80s the farming was taken back in hand and the shooting rights came with it. But we didn't want that much shooting and reduced the number of days. We also went down to one keeper who retired before Paul joined us at the beginning of 2006."
Graham's own shooting career started at the age of 12. "My father was a good shot, who always encouraged us, and my grandfather Tom Rowles, who lived in Oxfordshire was a very good shot - I still have one of his old guns, a 16 bore Armstrong. I shot when possible in my teens and I was lucky enough to have some very kind friends and family, who encouraged youngsters." When opportunities arose, they were seized gratefully.
He took on the Willoughton shoot from his father in the early 80s. "We have been very fortunate in that a super syndicate, mainly from the Sheffield area, have shot there for over 40 years. In some instances, three generations of the same family - great fun.
"At Coates we share the days out with the syndicate, and have a few days for business related guests and friends. Twin sons Tom and James (26) are both keen shots so the shoot and philosophy is in good hands. Daughters Emily and Jessie are champion loaders, and wife Caroline's legendary lunches are always another reliable drive and keep guests coming back every year. The twins have served a good apprenticeship from beating every weekend to standing in the line with their father, then loading and eventually getting one or two opportunities. "It's a private farm shoot and we don't do any let days." He laughs: "The stress of that would have me pulling my hair out."
Though it is largely a reared bird shoot of pheasants and redleg partridges, and much is done to encourage wild game, as is evident from the partridge counts.
The partridge success stepped up a gear with the appointment of Paul as gamekeeper on February 2, 2006. The two enjoy an ideal working relationship and clearly have respect for one another. "I couldn't wish for a better boss" said Paul. "And I am also fortunate in that I have a really good understanding with the farm manager." He learned his keepering skills from his father and for 22 years was the keeper on the adjacent Glentworth estate.
A methodical but enthusiastic keeper, he sees counts as vital to measuring the success (or otherwise) of his efforts with grey partridges. He has counted spring pairs and autumn broods religiously since coming to Coates. Admittedly, he started with a stock of 71 pairs, but over a big area and the floods of 2007 meant that he was pegged back the following spring to 68.
The autumn count was down to 214 birds. But 2009 autumn saw 727 birds from just 77 pairs. In 2010 the figures shot up to 152 pairs and autumn bird total of 1,194, then last year 220 pairs for 1,665 birds. Spring 2012 promised a spectacular season with a pairs count of 299. But the prolonged cold, wet weather put paid to that. Young chicks didn't stand a chance - cold, wet and no insects, the worst possible scenario.
It should be added that he doesn't release any grey partridges, except in small numbers where there is a low density of wild birds. So what's his success down to? What is the secret? Paul shrugged: "Vermin and farming. The worst predators are sparrowhawks - all corvids and ground vermin present their own problems but we can't do anything about sparrowhawks. However we do provide lots of cover which gives protection to the birds, and of course the insects that they need." The farm also went into ELS last year which makes a big difference.
Hedges aren't cut every year and every field has at least a two-metre margin with lots of four or six metre strips. "It's wonderful to hear English partridges calling in the early morning or at dusk" they both agreed.
Paul's appetite for the job and all it entails (from trapping to feeding and worrying!) is shared by sons Matt (14) and Jenson (8). "His wife Jo keeps a happy home for them to return to as well as feeding hungry Guns."
The bald fact is that partridges need protection from vermin and a habitat that provides food and cover. And someone who is prepared to not only set a lot of traps but also check them on a daily basis. In the right hands it seems simple enough but it demands dedication. With dedication comes rewards.
The total number of greys shot last season was just 75 brace. Paul explains: "People simply aren't used to shooting English partridges. Plus there are areas with a good stock which we haven't yet been near. In areas where there are not many we ask the Guns not to shoot them.
His return on released birds has improved every year - last season it was 51.5% on pheasants and 47.6% on redlegs. In both instances with reduced numbers released. Most drives are on flat land, but on the day of our visit despite bright sunshine and no wind, the pheasants flew beautifully making for some great sport. "With good cover and vermin control we get quite a few wild birds, which can really fly. I also get fresh stock (regular ringnecks) every year, which always helps. And we shoot mixed drives throughout, starting in November."
As a shoot it is a model of best practice and a credit to both owner and gamekeeper. And as for the greys... 2012 may have been a disappointment but there is still a good stock and next year holds the possibility of being really special.