On a wildly wet and windy morning last autumn, I set off in the dark from my home in Lincolnshire to the Prescombe shoot, situated on the edge of the vast Cranbourne Chase Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty on the Wiltshire/Dorset Border. I’d heard many a great story about this shoot which comprises of 3,000 acres of prime downland topography from former Fieldsports Journal editors to formidable game Shots like George Digweed MBE and Simon Ward, so I was intrigued to say the least.
Evident from the drive up the farm track to the characterful shoot lodge, even in these dank conditions one thing that absolutely rings true at Prescombe is the unrelenting presence of epic views. But the foundations of all great shoot days start with the warmest of atmospheres, and it’s one area where Prescombe instantly excels. Welcomed into the cosy shoot lodge by Shoot Proprietor Stephen Thomas, that air of going at your own pace despite being on the clock and ‘make yourself at home’ mentality was immediately present – the crispy bacon roll and cup of freshly brewed coffee just an additional bonus and somewhat needed moral boost for those of us not pulling a trigger on this day.
Indeed, after waiting for the rest of the team and partners to gather for the morning briefing – who had stayed together at a local inn the night before as many of the regular teams do here – we were ready to climb into all-weather gear and set off in 4x4 vehicles for the first drive.I gladly joined Stephen in his Land Rover to delve a little deeper into the shoot. “We’re very lucky to have grown the shoot considerably since our first ever season in 1998, when we had just 12 drives over a much smaller patch. Today, having worked with and created good relationships with the landowners and farmers who we rent the land off over those 22 years, we now have 30 quality drives which are split into three beats,” says Stephen.
It can take some driving to get from one end of the shoot to the other, but because of the work spent on the tracks, footpaths, stiles and fences over the years – which have been further improved during COVID-lockdown – Guns can drive their own vehicles to and sometimes walk between drives, reducing the need for a gunbus which is especially important this year to comply to social distancing regulations. Plus, this doesn’t effect which drives can be presented either. “We do of course use the gunbus if clients want to, and is totally down to whoever has bought the day. In fact, we pride ourselves on engineering the whole day around the client, from the bag size and difficulty of shooting to the number of drives, Guns and preference for lunch. We also encourage partners to join on the day as that adds to the atmosphere.”
And so to the first drive, Jimmy’s, which was pretty unique. Here the Guns would line up along the bottom of a steep, narrow, horse shoe shaped valley with a belt of cover crop whipping around the top. The beating team would set off from the east side, working their way right around to the west, offering complete 180-degree shooting. Essentially it was like having two drives in one. “There are very few trees on any of our drives,” admits Stephen, “but we are really fortunate to have many of these spectacular natural valleys which were created by the last Ice Age. With cover crops planted in the right place by the farmers, we can present really unique pheasants and partridges.”
What was immediately notable here was the difference of shooting between the high and low numbered pegs. Pegged 1, you were positioned at a higher elevation with a narrow valley top which required a more instinctive style of shooting as birds were quickly flushed from one side of the valley to the other. Pegged 8, 9 or 10, on the other hand, would be some 30ft of elevation below Peg 1, making for some highly testing shooting with plenty of time to think about lining up the towering pheasants as the valley opened out considerably. Even though an experienced team of Guns they were, it was by no means an easy start and plenty of birds flew on unscathed.
At the end of the drive it was really welcoming to see that the picking-up team didn’t rush to collect the birds. Instead, they’d wait patiently for the Guns with dogs to collect what they wanted and gather their gear before working their dogs and ensuring all birds were accounted for (unless there were runners, of course). This was something aired by many of the Guns, too, who’d had some bad experience sat other shoots where after slipping guns could not offer a single retrieve for their own dogs. It was later revealed that Prescombe were awarded the 2019 GunsOnPegs Picking-up Team of the Year from their annual shoot survey, which is quite the accolade.
Rowditch was the next drive, and though just a short walk away from the first was quite contrasting in that the valley opened out behind the line to rolling fields, and pegs were spaced out much further apart. Though a considerably shorter drive it may have been, there were plenty of difficult crossing, curling pheasants and speedy partridges utilising the wind and driving rain to test the team.
There was a real buzz generated after the morning’s sport, and elevenses back at the shoot lodge offered a great chance for Guns to share experiences and take some shelter. “Our catering is something we have become really renowned for here, too,” smiles Stephen as he offers out a Pyrex dish full of warm sausages with a ramekin of English mustard in one hand and marinated partridge goujons in the other. “Whether that’s game nibbles and delicious sandwiches at elevenses or our sumptuous sit-down lunch comprising of entirely locally sourced meat and veg. Our roast potatoes have even become somewhat of a local delicacy, and our wine list is also highly praised.”
Between gulps of a welcome mug of piping-hot beef consommé, reiterating Stephen’s points was Marcus Janssen, Brand Director for Schöffel, ex-Fieldsports Journal editor and Gun on this particular day: “Stephen Thomas, Nigel Brown and the rest of the team are consummate professionals who have a real knack of making every Gun and guest feel welcome and special. Prescombe certainly deserves its reputation for the outstanding shooting it provides, but what is possibly not so widely known is just how good the hospitality is – it is always excellent. What’s really special is that a day at Prescombe never feels commercial; they always feel like family shoot days with a wonderfully warm and convivial atmosphere. That’s what makes Prescombe one of my favourite shoots in the country – the people.”
At last the sun broke through the clouds for the penultimate drive of the day, The Bank, which was located in a winding valley on a different beat to the previous two drives. Watching over the line Stephen and I talked of how he rewards the hard work and effort put in week-in, week-out throughout the season by his keepers and beating team. “We put on two Beaters’ Days and a Keepers’ Day each year, which are great fun. And in addition to this we also run a Partners’ Day, which I have to admit are some of the most jolly days in the field I’ve ever had. It started off as Father & Son Days, but understanding the importance of getting more women involved in the sport we decided to include the wives and daughters of our regulars and have done this for the last four years now. The day is run pretty simply, one from each pair shoots 20 cartridges and then switches over and so on. One year, rather funnily, we caught one chap telling his wife to shoot at all the pigeon sand rooks so she’d use up her allotted cartridges quicker so he could shoot again. To make a point, we punished him by making her turn last 40 cartridges!”
Interestingly, Stephen goes on to explain that they do shoot a moderate amount of days at Prescombe. “We have a lot of SSSI (Site of Specific Scientific Interest) ground here, and many have questioned the effects of shooting on the land. However, we had a PHD research programme conducted by a GWCT scientist some years ago who proved that there were no negative impacts caused by shooting and our methods to the flora and fauna whatsoever, despite some people’s views. Additionally, we do lots for songbirds on top of gamebirds, providing seed mixes over the winter and regular predator control.”
The rain decided it would give one last attempt at dampening spirits for the final drive, Mandry’s, which it did somewhat, but with a number of towering pheasants and partridges brought down and the thought of tucking into the famed roast lunch that would follow, it was easily forgotten about.
I’d be hard pressed to find faults with this wonderful mixed shoot, and therefore it is no surprise that Prescombe ranks very highly among some of the modern era’s top Shots.