On Mike Hockin's Brownstone Shoot the guns are gathering for their last day of the pheasant season. Unsurprisingly rain threatens. It has been threatening (or falling) virtually since the season started on October 1 and even on this shoot, which has managed, over the 20 years it has been running, to avoid wet shoot days, the weather has had an effect.
It has not, however, spoilt the shooting to any great extent or – crucially – prevented Mr Hocking and gamekeeper Neil Rogers from managing the mixture of woodland, pasture, arable fields and water features for the benefit of wildlife as well as game birds. In wet years the benefits that managing a shoot brings for other wildlife is particularly important. This season, while nuts, seeds and other plant life that sustains animals and birds have been in short supply, the grain put out, primarily to feed pheasants, has provided a lifeline to many species of wild bird too.
The guns that gathered on an overcast day last week, with rain threatening, were focussed on the shooting, however. Although there have been proposals that the pheasant season be extended through February, long-standing game laws dictate that, as things stand, February 1 is the last day. As late winter turns to spring work for the benefit of wildlife on the Brownstone Shoot will be stepped up. For now, however, it is all about making the most of the last day of the season for the guns. (Beater's Day, the last day of all, took place last Friday, February 1) and putting some birds in the game bag.
All the shot game at Brownstone that is not eaten on the estate or given to the guns or beaters is bought by the Glassblowing House, the Barbican-side restaurant in Plymouth, and served to diners there. The pressure was on to ensure plenty of pheasants for the increasing band of game meat eaters. With heavy rain forecast for the afternoon shoot owner Mike Hockin proposed 'shooting through' and taking lunch in mid-afternoon.
Main Drive at Brownstone is, as its name suggests, the one generally guaranteed to produce the best shooting and the largest number of birds. Even in late January it doesn't disappoint. The second drive last week, Bungalow Drive, can be equally dramatic because of the way the ground drops away to the stream – and then it was a short pick-up truck drive – after a fortifying 'snack' of soup and sausage rolls – down to the other end of the shoot for Nissen Hut, a mainly wooded drive creating variety in the shooting as well as great habitat for deer, smaller mammals and woodland birds. Creacombe Stroll is similarly wooded and some of the guns begin the drive walking with beaters and their dogs down the narrow track, making for some fast and exciting shooting. Back closer to the Manor House, guns lined up around the series of lakes and spills that flow through the centre of the estate, to shoot Lake Drive. Scores of duck, not generally shot at Brownstone, fly off the ponds before the pheasant begin flying over.
The two final drives of this seven drive day were Alston Wood, at the foot of Alston Heights, and then Coldharbour Wood, where pigeons as well as pheasants were pushed over the guns by the beating team. A couple of the woodpigeons made it into the bag, as well as more pheasants. By the end of the day the guns had shot 87 pheasants, two woodcock, three pigeons and one Canada Goose.
Brownstone works as a shoot because of the hard work of gamekeeper Neil Rogers, who splits his time between his building business and keepering duties. Beaters and pickers up – the former generally working spaniels to find and 'spring' the game, the latter with labradors to retrieve the shot birds – are also essential. All retire, along with the guns, for lunch at the Dog and Duck, Mr Hockin's private 'pub' in the grounds of his home. Lunch is cooked, excellently as usual, by farmer's wife Sandra Vallance. Today it is steak and ale pie with all the trimmings followed by home made apple crumble or lemon meringue pie with custard and cream.
As it was the last day for the guns Mr Hockin took the opportunity after lunch and with darkness falling outside, to thank the beaters and pickers up for all their efforts and to pay special tribute to his keeper, who really is the lynch pin of the shoot. "This season," Mr Hockin told those present, "has been the best we have had at Brownstone in 20 years – that is due, in large part – to all your efforts." Not that many shoots in England will be celebrating their 'best ever' season after taking stock of how things have fared in 2012-2013. The dry early months of last year gave way to a deluge at just about the time newly reared pheasants were being put into the rearing pens – large numbers will have perished. The wet weather continued through autumn and winter, making getting around extremely testing and hampering feeding and vermin control efforts. That caused a crisis for some shoots. Brownstone, which is blessed with excellent access from a number of points thanks to the country lanes that criss-cross the estate and the hard-core paths and tracks Mr Hockin has installed, came into its own last year.
A shoot is really all about the people who participate, however. A shoot day at Brownstone generally sees a mix of syndicate members, who pay an annual fee for regular shooting, and those fortunate guests invited for a day out. Businessmen (and women) and local farmers make up the majority of the shooting line. Most love it because the shooting is excellent, the topography varied and beautiful, the hospitality generous and the company generally stimulating.
It is fair bet that at some shoots, membership syndicates as well as larger commercial operations, owners and managers will be wondering if, after such a wash-out season, they can regroup and make it all happen again for 2013-2014. There are no doubts at Brownstone. It's future – and therefore the long-term success of the wildlife that exists alongside the game birds – is pretty much guaranteed. The season has flown by; the closed season will pass just as quickly and there will be plenty to do. But as the year turns it is clear that Brownstone is a year-round passion for owner Mr Hockin.
"It is not just about the shooting; it is about the wildlife, the landscape, the whole thing," he told me. "But when I came here there was none of this; the lakes the trees, none of it. It was put in to make a shoot, but it has had so many other benefits too. That's the big plus with shooting and we should all be talking about that much more. It is just as important as the shooting." Here, here.