Interview with Head Keeper of Whitfield Estates
Stratospheric pheasants, windswept moorland and the all important lunch
With its steep banks, dense woods and windswept moorland, Whitfield Estate in the foothills of The Pennines is a shooting utopia; a paradise of breathtakingly beautiful stream-strewn gullies, gorges and woods that will test even the most experienced of shots. Coined Little Switzerland by locals, the estate straddles both sides of a deep valley ending in the West Allen Valley Gorge, where some of the most renowned drives can be found. Offering some of the highest gamebird shooting in the UK, the ethos of the shoot is to provide challenging birds; in contrast to many shoots where quantity is the byword.
Run by owner John Blackett-Ord, the estate often holds two simultaneous shoots on the same day, such is the ability and meticulous preparation of Head Keeper Stuart Maughan and his team. With around 150 shoots each year, most days of the season are taken up with the sport, whether that’s pheasant or partridge days or grouse days on the moor. Whitfield specialises in providing challenging shooting; it’s a far cry from many shoots in the South where flat terrain and low birds make for vast bags and little real sport. ‘We don’t really do huge bags,’ Stuart tells me. ‘We’re more about quality and less about quantity. I think we’ve done a 500-bird day once or twice, normally it’s around 200 or 300-bird days. For grouse we’ve done 300-brace days because they’re wild and when they’re good you go with that.’
Having initially qualified as a teacher back in the early 1970s, Stuart found himself consistently drawn back onto the moorland which he frequented as a boy. The lure of the moors proved too much, and, after taking a gamekeeping course at Sparsholt College, Stuart joined Whitfield in 1976. He’s been there ever since, a master of his trade, helping to run the shoot and give teams of guns who come from as far as Europe and North America unfailingly good sport.
‘We charge a fixed price for the day, once you’ve paid that’s it,’ Stuart explains. ‘We also move guns around. I might see one of the guns isn’t getting any shooting so I’ll move them around during that drive. If it’s still difficult I’ll even fix his number on the next drive – it’s all about everybody getting a bit of fun. You have to be switched on, it’s no good having three guns on one side of the drive where nothing’s going to go because of a gale force wind. You’ve got to be flexible. There are no gun pegs at Whitfield, we literally place people where we think the birds are going to go.’
Those lucky enough to shoot at Whitfield have the chance to take on a stream of consistently high birds and Stuart explains that the terrain is pivotal. ‘It’s all about topography,’ he tells me. ‘We have deep river gorges and lowland valleys. Partridges fly over these valleys at some height, and at the bottom of the river the West Allen Valley Gorge is 50 to 60 metres deep so if a bird flies level it’s going to be a really good bird. Normally we plan for three drives in the morning before lunch and then one in the afternoon. It depends on the team, some teams like to have a long lunch, others are quite happy just to shoot through and have something at the end of the day; that gives you more hours of shooting.’
Keen to find out more, I quiz Stuart on what makes a great day out and for him it’s all about the company. ‘It’s not just the shooting, it’s the people; the team make the fun,’ he tells me. ‘If they’re too serious it can spoil it. They’ve got to come and be relaxed and enjoy each other’s company, having a bit of a laugh with each other is so important. I can sometimes tell when people walk through the door [at The Elk’s Head pub] in the morning whether it’s going to be a great day or just a good day. We can put good birds over them and that will help – but it’s got to be already in the team to have a nice day out. It’s supposed to be fun, that’s the key thing.’
Days vary from rough, walked-up shooting with a few dogs right up to the big driven days of 300 birds, and Stuart is keen to stress that Whitfield, despite being nationally and internationally renowned, can cater to all budgets. ‘We have everyone from beginners to very experienced shots,’ he explains. ‘The more experienced shots obviously want to do the higher and more challenging drives. Beginners love to come for walked-up days – it might be the first time out and we provide people who will go with them and make sure everything’s done safely. We cater for all walks of life, from the guy who can just afford £100 to go shooting to the guy who can afford £1000, we don’t have any preferences – shooting’s for everybody.’