IT IS not given to many people to create a shoot from scratch. When Peter Walters was offered the opportunity to do just this at the Fishleigh Estate, Hatherleigh, Devon, he jumped at it and has made tremendous use of game and conservation advice, schemes and grants to produce some sporting game in a setting beneficial to wildlife.
The 163ha (402 acre) estate was bought by businessman Ian Sargent in 1998. Mostly grass, its 11.6ha (29 acres) of woodland needed some intensive management. Mr Sargent wanted to employ someone who would manage the estate and create a shoot. He turned to his old friend Peter, from Sussex, who shared his vision of what could be achieved.
Before anything was touched the Game Conservancy looked over the estate. "Oh dear," was the initial reaction. "But it will be alright in the end."
Four years on and the work needed to make the estate game-friendly has mostly been done. Woodland has been coppiced and selectively felled and thousands of new trees planted. Around 1200m of hedgerows have been reinstated in the local Devon bank style and others laid under the Countryside Steward-ship Scheme.
Meadows alongside the River Torridge have been fenced to encourage regeneration of habitat for ground nesting birds and butterflies, game crops have been planted and the pond enlarged and remodelled into a trout lake with shallow margins and other shallow pools created. "We get a lot of snipe now behind the lake," says Peter. "And just two weeks after we coppiced the woods and let the light in, we spotted three different butterflies – Wood White, Brown Hairstreak and Grizzled Skipper." The coppicing also allowed wild flowers to flourish and this spring saw woods carpeted with primroses and bluebells.
"Locally, this is a great sporting area but there is no history of shooting on this estate," says Peter, "Now we run a small friendly shoot. Two years ago we advertised for syndicate members and the 12 places were quickly filled, even though it will take me another year to get things just how I would like them."
Two guest guns can come along on each of the eight shoot days and duck flighting is included once a month.
* Pretty setting
Around 1000 pheasant, 80 partridge and 40 duck are released and the shoot has a very pretty setting – hilly in parts and bordered by the river. The land is quite wet so guns walk to the pegs, where they can find the birds testing.
Guns work in two teams for the season, shooting or beating on alternate drives. "We have 10-12 drives to pick from and do eight, averaging 40 birds/day with 60 being our best so far," says Peter who gets a 40% return on game. In addition to released birds, woodcock, snipe, wild duck and geese are taken in small numbers.
"I would like to have a few more birds and a few more walked-up days. We do two of these days at £80 each and two guns come up from Cornwall – they love it."
Vermin control is not proving arduous. "I set about half a dozen tunnel traps and I am selective about trapping, we dont want to eradicate everything. We dont have a big problem with predators," says Peter. "We lost 20 ducks to a mink but I knew where he was coming in and we got him. I snare round the pens for foxes – we have lambs and the land is too wet for the hunt to come here."
* Ingenuity counts
For avian predators a little ingenuity goes a long way. Tawny owls took 15 of his poults one night. "The next night I put a flashing light in the pen and it stopped." He uses silver balls to get the same daytime effect on buzzards. "I also chuck out any dead birds for the buzzards to fill up on," says Peter, (42) who had always helped gamekeepers in the past and took an NVQ in gamekeeping at Plumpton College but had not run a shoot before. At Fishleigh, which is in organic conversion and is being restocked following foot-and-mouth, he takes care of the livestock too.
Peter and Mr Sargent are very proud of how the estate is taking shape and are keen to show the public that farming, shooting and conservation can go hand in hand. It was entered for the Purdey Award for game and conservation last year and came second and they are both delighted at this recognition of the work done. Some of the prize money has been spent on bird-boxes.
"We are trying to get a pied flycatcher to nest here but you have to keep increasing the number of boxes until all the bluetits are satisfied," explained Peter, as, almost on cue, a bluetit with beak full of moss, flew into nest-box 47. The box tally is 90 so far, including owl boxes. Nuthatches are among the birds using them.
"I came here because I wanted to do more shooting and conservation work and I get real enjoyment from it and from producing the birds and working the dogs," he says.