Lees Court Estate – Kent
With a passion-driven aim and a dedicated team, the Countess Sondes has steered Lees Court Estate into the top-tier, says Patrick Tillard.
Whoever said that running a shoot was a 365-day job could not have been more right.” I was sat with The Countess Sondes of Lees Court Estate and headkeeper Shayne Dean at the end of a brilliant day, discussing their application to last year's Purdey Awards. In front of me, the coffee table groaned under the weight of the 500-page folder submitted to the judging panel – such is the extent of past, present and proposed conservation work on the estate. Their passion and enthusiasm towards running the shoot – and the butterfly effect it has on helping ecosystems, wildlife and the community – are overwhelming.
I'm a southerner myself, born and raised in East Sussex, and have made numerous forays over the border into Kent. The night before visiting Lees, I stayed with a friend on Romney Marsh, showcasing a gradient of topography, or lack thereof, that I naively assumed spread over the entire county. On winding down the single lanes around Sheldwich village near Faversham, I realised the scale of my ignorance as I drove into a stunning chalk downland valley lined with lime trees – beautiful shooting country.
The are 18 drives over the 2,600 acres of the estate used for the shoot, ranging from classic redlegs on the flatter ground to the screaming pheasants off the valley tops – the latter coming into their own later on in the season. Some 25 days are let, with bags of 150 – 400 birds.
Mark Moncreiffe and Peter Hall have been putting a team of Guns together to shoot at Lees for a number of seasons, and while standing in the depths of the dew-laden valley on the first drive, the sun still hidden from view, it was obvious that the day had been greatly anticipated. “It's just the perfect January day,” gushed Peter. “A real season highlight. The staff and hospitality are fabulous and, well, just look where we are. What better way to start the week?”
With the beaters squeezing a wood on the brow of the hill, the first bird to test the Guns was a towering, jinking woodcock – rather like asking the Guns to wake up and sprint 100m before having had time to stretch. It crossed the valley untouched. Stunning pheasants soon followed, bursting over the trees on the horizon and either locking their wings and gliding through or digging deep and dramatically increasing the gap between themselves and the ant-sized Guns.
“Thank God there isn't any wind!” joked Mark Moncreiffe at the end of the drive. “Even harder birds is the last thing we need.” And so the quality of sporting presentation remained, from further scenic valley drives to woodland layouts. The day concluded with a bag of 110 head – 104 pheasants, five partridges and one pigeon – and nine delighted Guns.
As the team mulled over the shoot day with a cup of tea in front of a huge log fire, the words ‘full package' kept coming up in conversation. And justly so. From the moment you pull into Stringman's Farm to the moment the wattle and daub Tudor house disappears in your rear-view mirror, you are truly spoilt. Truly.
Headkeeper Shayne Dean and the Countess Sondes
Admittedly, both The Countess and Shayne were slightly disappointed with the number of birds presented. “At this late stage of the season, and with such still conditions as we had today, it's tough to control the birds,” said Shayne. “We tap one end of the estate and the birds run out the other side of it.”
But there wasn't a hint of it to be seen by the Guns. And their contentment was genuine.
Such is the friendly atmosphere of the day that Guns really are made to feel like friends rather than paying clients. The manner is relaxed. In fact, in hindsight, I'm not quite sure how we managed to fit in morning coffee, two drives, leisurely elevenses, another two drives, drinks and lunch (starter, main and cheese), another two drives and tea, all within daylight hours and without having to break into a jog from the gunbus to the pegs.
Unwavering and quirky. After the second drive, the Guns had a short, steep slug to a 16th century ice pit – a brick igloo-like structure built into the hillside with a 30m well, used to store snow for use during summer months. Here they enjoyed soup, honey-glazed sausages in a bread loaf trough, fruit cake and homemade Lees Court sloe gin, with stunning vistas extending the length of the valley.
“We want our guests to have a unique day and enjoy the whole experience,” said The Countess. “It is very important to us that the hospitality and the shooting are as memorable as each other.”
Have you ever had pre lunch drinks alongside an indoor swimming pool? Neither had I. It's certainly a refreshing change from the norm – a change that adds to the experience. The full package. Lunch was taken in the adjoining wooden-panelled shoot room, both warm and inviting, with the long centre table overlooked by a pair of albino squirrels and a variety of pheasant breeds. As expected, the butternut squash soup, sweet gammon and dijon-flavoured mash, cheese and accompanying wine were table-thumpingly good. I would genuinely return for the food alone.
The shoot room
Sporting a huge cossack hat and thick floor-length fur coat, The Countess – a former New Yorker – is not your run-of-the-mill shoot host. But within minutes, nay seconds of talking to her you realise that she vociferously lives and breaths the sport. What's more, 20 years ago she had no knowledge or interest in its management. Her mission to nurture and improve the shoot is in memory of her late husband, Henry George Herbert, The 5th Earl Sondes, who died unexpectedly in 1996, and for whom the shoot was an omnipotent passion. His passion and vision have subsequently become hers.
“I'm still learning about the running of a shoot from Shayne all the time,” said The Countess, “and from others about various aspects of the estate. I can't overestimate the value of having such a great team. Anything I don't know, they do.”
The achievements of the Countess, headkeeper Shayne Dean and all those who work on Lees were recognised by the Purdey Awards judges, with one judge describing the estate as “a range of first class conservation projects under the umbrella of a premier league shoot”. Lees Court won the Bronze award in 2013 and, seeing the fruition of this hard work and dedication to habitat regeneration and the creation of such a formidable shoot, was as intriguing as it was exciting.
In 1999, the estate embarked on a five-year flagship project with the GWCT (then the Game Conservancy) called the Lees Court Estate Project, with the aim of demonstrating that a substantial reared-bird shoot can deliver important conservation biodiversity benefits in the way that shoots managed purely for wild game can. The enhancement of biodiversity through audits incorporated gamebirds, insects, songbirds, butterflies and bumble bees. Large tracts of the estate have since been designated SSSI and AONB status.
Farming practices were specifically changed to work within a considerable countryside stewardship project and the estate has also achieved international acclaim due to its leading research into the development of non-food crops. These spring-sown crops – many with names from the bottom of a scrabble bag – produce nectar-rich insect havens, which in turn create an oasis for many species of game and wildlife. And their breaking trends within agriculture gradually spread into their forestry operations as well, with 550 acres of woodland having undergone major habitat enhancement over the past two years, improving the blend of light, shade, roosting space and warmth. More recently, a pioneering pilot study has been launched on ash dieback.
Aside from the conservation, a key theme to The Countess' application is her desire to preserve a way of life and sustain employment. Safeguarding this way of life is the artery fuelling the shooting community. And in this vein, The Countess is a shining example; she as proactive as they come, regularly lecturing to the shooting and farming sectors and appearing on television, radio and in print. And Shayne is not far behind. As the NGO Educational Officer for Kent, he gives talks and tours to school children, both able and disabled, as well as visiting sporting estates over the width and breadth of the county, sharing advice on combining shoot management with conservation.
The hosting, hard work and involvement of the local community by no means grinds to a halt after February 1. Lees Court holds meets for the British Falconry Club, the Blean Beagles, and the West Street and Tickham Fox Hounds. This period is also when Shayne gets vigorous on the vermin, as is so essential to balance the levels of finite and infinite species, before the poults arrive in the summer. Records of proactive vermin control have been kept since 2000 and show that 1,000 – 4,500 head have been removed from the estate every year since.
And, pause for breath, although not part of the application, the estate is at the forefront of protecting the local socio-economic vitality and the biodiversity of the Swale Estuary, Oare Creek and Faversham Creek, and works closely with Hollowshore Fisheries on their day-to-day activities.
As is patently clear, the estate is a constant hive of activity, with an incredibly strong team at its core proving that conservation and stunning sporting presentation can go hand-in-hand. And, amazingly, all of this progress is being helmed by a lady who had little curiosity in driven shooting 20 years ago. The Countess Sondes is carrying the torch remarkably.
The estate has a fantastic website where you can find all the relevant contact details if interested in taking a day's shooting or want to know more about Lees Court: www.leescourtestate.com