Standing in the winter sunshine, contemplating the misty heights of the chalk downland above us, the woodland on the steep banks and deep clefts still clinging to the last of its multi-coloured foliage, one could be forgiven for imagining the Almighty creating this ground just for game shooting.
After a good day in the firmament, obviously, but his helpful largesse becomes more obvious once the birds lift off their flushing point and head directly for that same firmament; this is high pheasant country.
When game shooting started on this ground some 65 years ago it was the idea of a small group of local tenant farmers on the 6,400 acre West Dean estate, whose individual contribution comprised one beater and one ton of grain each season.
It was very much DIY keepering.
How times have changed.
Since 2003, the 2,000 acres that comprise the bulk of the Chilgrove’s game shooting are leased from West Dean’s owners, the Edward James Foundation, by a sporting club of 22 local friends and tended carefully and with immense skill by the headkeeper, Graham Marriott.
“We are not easy to find,” said joint game shooting tenant Tom Smee breezily.
We joined him in the car park of the Fish House, a restaurant with rooms in the modern parlance, which has carved out a reputation for itself over the past two years and is what looks to be one of only three buildings in Chilgrove village.
Thereafter it was a traverse over road, lane and track until we reached the shoot room, nestling in a benign fold in the downs, on one of the few acres of flat ground on the shoot.
Our day was cold but blessed with sunshine and scudding clouds that dappled the valleys, but no obvious wind.
After the obligatory pleasantries, we set off on foot to peg out on Barn, the long, shallow serpentine valley which overlooks the shoot room.
Waiting for the first flush to emerge from the cover strip beyond the tree line on the bank ahead, co-tenant Anthony Wickins elaborated a little more on what we might expect from the day.
“We shoot over about 3,000 acres, of which 1,000 is old woodland, 200 is permanent pasture and 1,800 is cultivated to oilseed rape, sweetcorn, peas, coriander, wheat and barley. We sowed about 120 acres of cover crop, mostly maize, sorghum and wild bird mix, and this was distributed in 32 strips about the place. Everything we shoot is over chalk, most of it is steep. It gets trappy when it gets wet and the topsoil is a bit thin on the downs but, overall, it is beautiful countryside and produces well.”
Just how beautiful and how well swiftly became apparent as a steady, controlled stream of pheasant soared out over the line.
The higher peg numbers on the left found themselves in the early action but over the next 30 minutes the entire line gradually came into play.
Graham Marriot, underkeeper Chris Butcher and their team of 25 beaters passed by, looking reasonably content with the opening innings and as we motored gently across country in convoy, gun Dan Lazenby regaled us with the exploits of his chef, Simon Goodman, recently chosen as UK Pub Chef of the Year after delivering seven courses of game to assembled guests at Dan’s Duke Of Cumberland hostelry near Midhurst.
The prospect of our own lunch beckoned, but there was so much more to enjoy before that.
For their second taste of Chilgrove pheasant, the guns pegged out in the winter sunshine at Millpond Bottom, the shoot’s signature drive.
It has the archetypal layout for sporting birds, flushed off a big bank facing the guns with an equally high bank behind them, this one covered in tall timber, so any tendency for the birds to lose height is outweighed by their need to clear the woods, accelerating throughout.
The ever-attentive Tom, who was also carrying a gun but pegging round the fringes to tidy up, was quick to see that fellow gun Guy Harwood was out of the action on the right flank, so moved him to a back gun peg, where he proceeded to drop a procession of high birds, watched by wife Jan and their three black labradors.
Others on form included shoot treasurer Kevin Coppard, and Brian and Julian Baker making the most of the steady stream over them.
However, Tom was concerned that his favourite drive had not delivered to its full potential due to lack of wind.
There was no discernable sign that the guns shared his disappointment and enthusiastic conversation over mid-morning refreshments ranged from the drive just completed to the correct off-road tyres for new Range Rovers.
Tom and Anthony had gathered a talented and amusing group of friends to shoot at Chilgrove and take their hosting responsibilities seriously, as they explained.
“We have around 20 drives on our ground and this will allow game shooting between 30 and 40 days this season without overloading any of them. The bigger days are all shot on high ground and valleys and we put sufficient pheasant to wood to cope with this schedule. We buy in as poults a mixture of lighter, smaller fen birds, which are better for the lower ground and bulkier, harder flying black necks, which go better off the higher banks.
“This is not the easiest ground. All the woodland is on the lower slopes, all our drives are out of game cover, but it is rewarding when you see it working properly. Of the 21 release pens, nine are on mains water but 12 are served by bowser, and there is no natural water anywhere. On the other hand, every drive has a footpath or bridleway alongside or through it. We have buzzards, the rarer hawfinches and we had the first red kite nests in West Sussex, so we are a twitchers paradise.”
German Leith is a long, curving valley with a track running through its length and young kale on both sides.
Guns peg in front of a curving hedge line with woodland behind it, faced across the valley floor by a deceptively high ridge, populated by established old firs, beyond which birds are flushed in small flurries throughout the drive, as the beaters tap along the bank.
While the five pickers-up worked efficiently amongst the woodland and undergrowth with their collection of spaniels, labs and Chesapeakes, we clambered aboard the 4x4s and made for the game shooting lodge for restoratives and lunch, over which Tom gave a little more background to the shoot.
“I ran the home beat on the Goodwood estate for 10 years. When the tenancy at Chilgrove became available back in 2003, Anthony and I formed the view that the ground was as good or better, so we took the lease, brought our friends together and we have never looked back or questioned that decision. If you want to see pheasants that equal anything Devon or the Welsh Borders have to offer then the afternoon drive may surprise you.”
It is tradition that the sole afternoon drive is taken in one of three almost identical deep clefts that, side by side, cut back and rise steeply into the chalk escarpment above.
Best known is Mount Sinai, a handy 242 metres above sea level at its crest, but we moved to the base of Middle Hill, its grassy strip running up the centre of the cleft, a track that rises about a quarter of the way up the bank and curves around the end of the valley floor, and tall coniferous and deciduous woodland that extends up the bank sides to the crest, some 170 metres above.
Headkeeper Graham Marriott and underkeeper Chris Butcher.
Four guns walked along the track and pegged out around the head of the valley while the remaining six took up position down both flanks of the grassy floor below, on the 75 metre contour, almost the highest and lowest points on the estate.
The beaters tapped around both banks and flushed the birds from the heights. What we saw then was a steady trickle of fat pheasant that rocketed off the top of the bank, clearing the highest wooded hillside, before plunging and jinking their way down over the guns.
They arrived from most points on the compass ahead of the guns so not only were they totally unpredictable in their starting points, but immensely difficult to read and follow.
The four higher guns on the track were in neck-craning mode, peering uphill through trees still with enough leaves to make things doubly difficult.
Twenty minutes later and the drive and day were done. As the guns gave cheerful thanks to the weary beaters and assisted the pickers-up with the last of the birds, Chilgrove had delivered what in anyone’s estimation was another stellar day, in every way. As Tom said on the way to the game shooting lodge:“We are lucky in several ways here. Graham Marriott is an exceptional keeper. Not showy, but totally dedicated to his birds and showing his guns the best of days, which he does, time after time. We have good relations with the farmers on the estate and the agent. Our patch is a private gem surrounded by other shoots and we have remarkable topography and enough friends to support us and make it work. What more can you ask of any shoot?”
Signature drive – Millpond Bottom
Guns peg in two lines with about 30 metres between them, along the mid-section of a wide, deep, grassy valley, rising to a natural bowl at its far end. The whole shoot is contained within the newly constituted South Downs National Park and the drive is contained within a Site of Special Scientific Interest. Guns stand with their backs to a rising bank topped with established woodland and facing a steep ridge about half a mile wide and 45 metres above the line at its crest. There is cover along its full length and a rough rectangle of low, scrubby bushes in the middle, which are contained within a pen.
Beaters start at either end of the cover strip, tapping towards each other and pausing at natural flushing points along the way to feed the early birds into the drive. When the two teams have almost merged, some drop back within the cover strip while some come over the crest and down the bank. From the guns’ standpoint, they are faced with birds at any height between 30-50 metres, accelerating to climb and clear the tree line behind, but mostly on fairly direct flight lines. Early birds arrive in small flurries but as the drive progresses, larger groups become airborne across the whole line. Finally, the beaters come right forward through the pen and flush the last birds over the centre of the line. The drive may typically last between 30-45 minutes with controlled release.
The shoot room at Chilgrove comprises a barn in local brick and flint cob, tastefully converted by Tom’s construction company three years ago to offer comfortable dining and all modern offices. A full-length glass wall provides a pastoral view, while at one end is a roaring fire on winter days and the room is dominated by a vast dining table. Catering and service is skilfully handled by Liza Reeves, an ex-airline cabin employee, who clearly knows where to buy her raw materials and how to prepare them. Main courses tend to be roasts washed down with fine wine, but Liza tries to start with interesting hors d’oeuvres and end with a varied cheese board.