WHEN Gary Salmon came to Ashby St Ledgers in the spring of 1998, his brief was to develop a commercial shoot on this Warks farming estate and expand other sporting opportunities, such as fishing and working dog events.
A keepers son, he came to Ashby St Ledgers from Desmond Hall, Essex, where he worked singlehanded. "I built the shooting up there from seven to 20 days," says Gary (41). In his new post he has had to resurrect and develop a shoot that had been unkeepered for a couple of years.
Ashby St Ledgers Farms is owned by the Baker family. "It was originally a corporate shoot for our sister company Midland Meat Packers, but at the end of the 1995/96 season we had to close the shoot due to BSE and its implications for our business. However, following a reappraisal of all the estate operations, we felt confident to relaunch the shoot," says director Ken Barfoot.
The 1200ha (2965 acre) estate grows 800ha (1977 acres) of arable crops and has two dairy herds, one of which is organic, a substantial beef finishing business and 400ha (988 acres) of forage grassland and maize. Part of the estate is run organically and Gary has to manage some of his game crops there.
In his first months Gary spent time really getting to know the shoot, planning cover crops and potential flushing points. The shoot has numerous small spinneys and ponds and a 5.6ha (14 acre) lake in the middle of a 12ha (30 acre) wood. The whole estate is committed to the Countryside Stewardship Scheme with 28,000m of arable margins being established and 2500m of hedge planting and restoration underway. Three new ponds and wetland scrapes have also been added. "Garys contribution to these improvements has been significant," says Mr Barfoot.
It is not an easy shoot to manage. The village is in the middle of the estate and public footpaths radiate from this. "Everything seems just one field away from the boundary. There is no real nucleus, but we can show a lot of variation," Gary explains. "One end of the shoot is particularly difficult and we are trying to address this by leasing more land."
* Vermin problem
Another difficulty is vermin from a huge refuse tip that borders the estate. "The shoot was alive with carrion crows when I arrived here and the magpie numbers were horrendous. They took every chick going. We are an island amidst unkeepered land," he says. His Larsen traps are certainly kept busy.
The tip brings in foxes literally by the hundred. "The Pytchley Hunt meets here and I leave the foxes alone from Christmas to the end of March but once the last hoof has gone I am hard on them."
His vermin control efforts are paying off. "We see much more diversity of wildlife now than we have for 10 years," says Mr Barfoot.
Historically Ashby St Ledgers has been a pheasant shoot but Gary introduced partridge and duck, buying in all the birds as day old chicks. In his first full season 12 days shooting were let and eight kept for the family.
After a successful first year pointed to expansion, an underkeeper was taken on to assist him. "However, to continue rearing we really needed to invest in a lot of new equipment but eventually decided to go for poults instead," says Gary.
Now 5800 partridge come in at 10 weeks in early August. "The pens are dismantled and out of the way by September to get them out as soon as possible. There are no disease problems out of the pen." With partridge a new consideration for the farm staff, Gary has had to gain their co-operation by explaining how their work and the timing of it might impact on birds.
* Partridge preferred
"I like the partridge best," says Gary, who gets a 46% return. "We are trying to introduce greys, too, but we wont be shooting the greys."
Pheasants, which are bought at 6-7 weeks, show a 48% return on 6800 released. Even before the end of last season the shoot was fully let for the 28 days now offered and is showing a profit.
He has also been developing the lake. It has been netted and restocked with carp to provide coarse fishing in a tranquil setting. The fishing syndicate is almost full and the water is producing some specimen fish. Released duck are kept as wild as possible – "I scare them every time I am near" – and this water and other ponds on the estate are drawing in wild geese, teal, and widgeon. Scota, merganser and grebe nest here now.
"The corn I give our duck feeds an enormous amount of wildfowl. In the evening there is nothing I like better than to see the duck come in naturally – its better than watching the telly," says Gary.
A Game Conser-vancy fun day for dogs is run in June and field trials and agility days are being planned but perhaps the most significant new project will be a game processing plant which will add value to shot game. "Gary has already developed good relationships with exclusive farm shop outlets and we intend to brand our own game next season," says Mr Barfoot.
He is very pleased with Garys effect on the shoot. "He presents first class birds to our clients and the overall improvement to all our wildlife habitats has accelerated since re-introducing the shoot," says Mr Barfoot. "The balance that has been achieved between our farming, shooting and conservation management is clear for all to experience."