A day’s shooting in Cumbria’s Lune Valley with George Digweed, Will Ashby & Co.But what keeps this team of friends returning year on year?
With a line-up that includes George Digweed and Will Ashby, it’s little wonder that even during the final drive, Wild Garden, birds that often beat the Guns were being brought down. That’s according to Phil Pease who runs Underley Shoot in Cumbria’s Lune Valley. Phil has run the 4,500-acre estate for 11 years now, taking the reins from his father back in 2008.
Phil has been involved in some form or other since he was 10 years old, which is also when he started shooting: “I was always out with the beaters or flankers and later looking after teams of Guns,” he explains. Today Phil holds around 28 let days, as well as half a dozen boundary days, “With bags that tend to reach around 50, so everyone gets some shooting.” There’s no driven duck, but there are three flight ponds that can be shot a few times during the season.
The first drive of the day, School Bank, is, Phil says, “A gentle opener, and one we frequently start with.” It’s also something of a rarity at Underley, as a number of the Guns stand in woodland, while on other drives the line is predominantly in open fields. Birds are driven over the Guns from a thin strip of woodland surrounded by a bank of rhododendrons.
A cold start left breath hanging in the air as the team prepared for the first birds of the day to make their way over the line. “It needs more wind,” Phil admits. “We’ve had lovely weather so far this season, but that doesn’t do the shooting any favours; a good wind would make things far more interesting.”
The team today are part of a roving syndicate which has been running for over 10 years. “Though many of us have been friends for far longer. I’ve known George for 25 years or so, and went to school with Joe Thompson,” explains well-known Shot Will Ashby. Indeed, using one of his pair of custom-built Zoli Z Extra 12 bores – which he matches with 34g No.4 NSI cartridges – Will was a pleasure to watch as the pheasants powered over the Guns with the wind up their tail feathers.
The syndicate is made up of 12 members, which gives it the flexibility to book around a dozen shoot days, as a full eight-man line-up can almost always be mustered, though Will does admit that it can be like ‘trying to push string’. “We have a meeting in early spring, where everyone says what they’d like to do, and then I just go ahead and book what I think will work. It seems to keep everyone happy! We aren’t a team that wants or looks for big bags. For us it is entirely about the day being fun, and having a bit of sport. That’s why Underley is a favourite – Phil makes you feel like part of the family. There are some fantastic drives, and it’s really well run, but it doesn’t feel commercial. I think Phil would feel that he’d failed if it did feel like a commercial operation.”
To add to the feeling of being part of the place and the family, the team spent the night before and after the shoot staying at Underley Grange, which Phil lets to teams during the season. “While we have managed to cater for almost all parties through the main house for the past two seasons, we are looking at developing a shoot lodge for our ‘day teams’ rather than the overnight stayers,” adds Phil. “There’s always a new idea in the pipeline!”
A new drive
The second drive of the day, Spital Hill, is relatively new, adding to the 30-odd drives at Underley. Headkeeper Charles Hartley, known to all as Joss, has been at the shoot for an astonishing 34 years, having previously worked under Gordon Chapman who was the keeper at Underley for almost three decades – long service statistics can tell you a lot about a place...
Joss was hopeful: “We’ve planted a new crop of utopia and triticale in an L-shape, and there is plenty of natural cover, too. It’s perhaps not ideal today, as the birds are flying straight into the sun, but we’ll do our best!” As the birds started to flush, Phil and Joss moved the Guns slightly. “With a new drive like this, you need to be flexible and keep experimenting until you get it right,” Phil admits. “But they’re all getting a bit of shooting, which is the main aim!”
Heading to the third drive, Stoneriggs, Joss remarked on the Guns’ good judgement: “There hasn’t been a single runner, and they’re being very selective. It’s rare to see that!” Given that both George and Will are serious Shots, it would be easy to assume that the rest of the team were as deeply involved in shooting, but, says Will, they’re not. “We’re the only two in the syndicate who do quite as much. It really is just a group of friends, with some being City slickers, and some of us spending most of our time in hedges shooting pigeons.” The rest of the team on a typical day is made up of six pickers-up and 15 beaters.
Stoneriggs is, as Phil describes it, one of Underley’s signature drives. A stand of larch offers cover to an open field, and the Guns form an L-shape around the trees. “The birds curl nicely over the line, so everyone gets a chance at them,” Phil explains. “I think it’s no bad thing that George is at the back – we’re almost guaranteed not to have runners on this one!”
Building to a crescendo
The day at Underley tends to follow a routine: four drives followed by lunch, before one final drive – though earlier in the season, when the daylight allows, there might be two. It’s something Will approves of as a Gun: “I much prefer not shooting through, and stopping for lunch while there’s still something to look forward to. The great thing about shooting here is that Phil knows how to build the pace of the day, so there’s always a good crescendo, with a gentle start and then a build up to the final few drives. I think we’re doing Hospital Wood next.” Hospital Wood, so named because a field hospital was set up here during the Great War, is what Phil describes as “a classic pheasant drive”. There’s a thin bank of hardwood at the top of the hill, with cover behind. “The birds trickle out well from here, no matter what the conditions.” And indeed they did, with the early birds of the drive concentrated over pegs one, two and three, before the pheasants hit the middle of the line.
The birds were collected and taken to the game larder, which is worth a mention in its own right: built in 1871 specifically for the purpose, it is octagonal in shape, and well aerated. You’d be forgiven for wondering whether something built nearly 150 years ago would live up to today’s stringent demands for food hygiene, but, according to Phil, “The game dealer says these are the best birds he gets, so it must work pretty efficiently!”
The team, meanwhile, headed back to the house for a delicious lunch with the prospect of one more drive to anticipate – and after speculation as to what it would bring, the Guns weren’t disappointed. Phil had decided on Wild Garden – probably the most talked about drive on the shoot. It’s along the river, with a steep cliff and a fir plantation at the top. For those who haven’t shot it before, the fact that Guns stand “almost with their noses to the cliff,” as Phil puts it, can be a bit of a surprise. “The Guns don’t get too much time to react. I’m glad George and Will are in the hot seat for this one!”
A small proportion of the estate which takes in one or two drives is signed up to HLS (Higher Level Stewardship) Scheme, although the bulk of the ground shot over is let through Farm Business Tenancies and Agricultural Holding Act Tenancies.
“We are always looking to improve our existing drives, mostly by adding more permanent native cover or additional trees.” explains Phil. “We also have a hedge laying programme which provides improved protection for the woodland understoreys from the prevailing wind and generally makes them much more inviting for game and other wildlife species.
“New drives are always in the back of my mind, and each season we hopefully try at least one or two new things – whether it be a different way of doing an existing drive, or creating an entirely new one. That is all part of the fun of running a shoot!”
The end product
All of Underley’s game goes to the local game dealer who they have supplied since he started his own business. “He actually worked for us when we were rearing our own birds some 30 years ago,” says Phil.
“We also serve game regularly to our guests – whether that be pheasant goujons for elevenses or my wife’s delicious pheasant pie for lunch, or even partridge from the neighbouring estate. We use a fair amount of game this way, and we encourage Guns to take a brace or three home at the end of the day, too. Having recently purchased a plucking machine, we will soon be providing dressed game for our guests.
“This season we became a member of The British Game Alliance, thereby hopefully helping to drive the future of game consumption across the country – something we see as being very important.
“Underley has always been run as a traditional family shoot, as to me, and my father before me, that is what a shoot should be.
“Seeing wives and children in the beating line enjoying the day with the Guns etc. is all part and parcel of the enjoyment of the day. We never want to lose that spirit!”.