Game on: A Suffolk field sports special

PUBLISHED: 12:01 19 October 2011 | UPDATED: 20:09 20 February 2013

Ollie Beckerlegge and houds at The Essex and Suffolk Hunt kennels in Lower Layham

Ollie Beckerlegge and houds at The Essex and Suffolk Hunt kennels in Lower Layham

Hunting and shooting are popular pastimes and play an important role in the local economy. Julie Holden visits three different centres to celebrate our county's field sports

Hunting and shooting are popular pastimes and play an important role in the local economy. Julie Holden visits three different centres to celebrate our county's field sports

We put our lives into trying to achieve a perfect hunt," said Ollie, huntsman for the Essex and Suffolk Hunt: "Its a way of life, not a job, hard work but rewarding."

This deep commitment is echoed by Nigel, the under gamekeeper, at the Mallard Barn Game shoot: "Look at whats surrounding me," he waves an arm across the undulating countryside, "Open air, peace and quiet. Its a lovely way of life with different challenges every day."

Its also not a soft option. Fiona Clark, joint master of the East Anglian Blood Hounds laughs as she describes her job as "Prisoner to a pack of hounds". "The thing that keeps me going is others enthusiasm. Whilst others derive such an enormous amount of enjoyment from what we do it is worth it," she says.

I was curious to see how accessible these sports are, whats involved and who takes part. Are they the preserve of the wealthy privileged few charging about the countryside like Edwardian country squires?

My first visit was to the Essex and Suffolk hunt in Layham. Glancing at the list of people I was meeting it read like a character list from one of Jilly Coopers novels: Ollie, Jake, Hamish and Dan.

However, the guys I met were impressive; young, and disciplined about their work. It was obvious they were a strong team with respect for each other.

Ollie is the huntsman, "the boss in charge of managing the day to day aspects of the kennel-life, the hounds and fallen stock". He has four professional staff: Jake the 2nd whipper-in, looking after the hounds and supporting Ollie out in the field when hunting. Dan the kennel-man/birdman they have recently acquired a European Eagle Owl and Laura, the groom. Hamish is an "amateur" on a gap year and helps out wherever he is needed.

The hunt covers an enormous area: From Monks Eleigh to Mersea Island and Bures to the coast. It provides great variety. They have 150 subscribers a year and five hunt masters. At a typical meet there are 70 to 100 people taking part, sometimes more. "There is never less than 50 even when we are hunting three days a week" says Ollie.

Those who hunt represent a cross section of people: "We do have a number of wealthy people who hunt: doctors, lawyers, bankers and we are close enough to London for people to travel up. But, we also have a lot of country people." The gender split is 50:50.

They make a big effort to involve children. "We have Pony Club hunts and we have days when the children can come up we can have four or five children with us all day," says Ollie.

I ask Ollie to explain how they hunt since the implementation of the ban in 2005. "There are three legal ways that we can hunt. Using a full pack of hounds to flush out a fox which is then killed by a bird of prey. Using a full pack of hounds to trail hunt (where a synthetic trail is laid and no fox is hunted), and finally using two hounds to flush out a fox to a line of guns where it is shot. We do the first two."

Buster, a three year old European Eagle Owl, is a creature of beauty with golden feathers, huge amber eyes and a beak and talons like tungsten steel. Dan, who joined seven weeks ago, handles him confidently.

Buster perches on Dans gauntlet and eyes us with speculation. He looks enormous but he only weighs 3lb 13oz. "We have to weigh him twice a day," says Dan, "he is all feathers so is hard to judge how heavy he really is." He has to be kept at his optimum weight so that he has the stamina and appetite to work.

The hounds flush out the fox, Dan brings Buster along by quad bike and then he is released. "The fox is killed by shock on impact," says Ollie, "his talons are like ratchets. They exert a huge amount of force". Its not for the faint-hearted.

The hunt also provides a free fallen stock service as a thank you to farmers over whose land they hunt. "We pick up and destroy animals that are injured. The hounds are fed on raw meat".

The fox hounds are let out. They surge forward in a rush, tongues lolling, several give me a lick.

Hamish explains how they keep them under control. "Ollie is in charge. He uses hand signals and a hunting horn different calls mean different things. We follow up behind and keep the hounds in check". "They are my eyes and ears," says Ollie, "they make sure the hounds are safe".

We walk along a road to a field. A car drives up and Ollie holds his whip arm out: "Left, left, hold up, hold up" he calls his voice a growling burr and the pack surge on to the verge.

In the field Ollie throws treats to them and they circle round him. The whippers-in slowly stroke the snaking leather of their whips through the stubbles to signal a boundary over which the hounds may not cross. Its a masterpiece of control yet the hounds are gleeful, tails wagging, leaping on each other.

Fiona Clark, Joint Master of the Easy Anglian Blood Hounds demonstrates the same precise control and understanding of her hounds.

Blood hounds are larger with massive paws, drooping ears and shiny black and tan coats. As we approach they fling themselves at the kennel bars, a seething mass of baying. Fiona grabs a length of blue plastic tube, "Hold up," she yells and they shoot back. Within seconds she has them lined up on their bed (a raised concrete trough filled with fresh wood shavings).

Their wet noses nudge our hands and they tumble over each other to give us a friendly lick. Fiona reels off their names. How she tells them apart is amazing, they have 18 couple (36 animals hounds are counted in couples).

"You have to have a biddable pack to do as they are told they have to see you as pack leader. A friend of ours described it well, he said it was the invisible thread.

Hounds also need to be steady. This means that they will stay on the scent. Blood hounds hunt people who are their quarry. Quarry are runners who have a mile or so head-start before the hunt comes after them. Humidity, temperature and wind-speed all affect scenting conditions.

There are only 13 packs of blood hounds in the country we are lucky to have one in Suffolk. They are thorough-bred, their lineage traceable to Norman times when they were used to track wounded deer and poachers.

Quarry, Catherine and Kevin, explain what happens: "When they catch us we give them liver biscuits, they lick and slobber all over us. I love hearing their deep voices as they come running after you," says Catherine. "When they bay you run a bit quicker," laughs Kevin, "you wouldnt want it to be for real!"

The EABHs have 300 members. "We pride ourselves on making it affordable for everyone," says Fiona, "we deliberately keep our subscription down" it is 15 to be a member, 20 for hound days and 40 per hunt once the season starts.

We join them for a Hound Day at Lavenham. There are about 30 riders all getting into training for the season with a gentle hack. There are a number of new members (denoted by a yellow ribbon on their horses tail) and novices (first time out for the horse or rider green ribbon).

People also follow by foot and car to watch the hunt and to meet them when they stop to water the hounds. The atmosphere is lively, friendly and sociable.

Georgie and Karen had travelled from Newmarket to come and have a look. They were impressed, "Its lovely countryside and its so relaxed and friendly." Both ladies say they will join.

Charlotte Turner, aged 14, is out for the first time with her pony, Jazz. Shes loved it, "It is so friendly, a great atmosphere and very relaxed, she says. Judy Stevens is also there for the first time with her horse, Silver Bridge Alpha. He is an international show horse and "needs a change".

The EABHs meet on a Sunday so people can go fox-hunting too.

Why do people do it? "Its a massive adrenalin rush" says Karen. "You cant compare it to anything else and the horses love it."

Hunting and live quarry shooting are heavily regulated in the UK. All wild birds and most mammals are protected but there are three categories of animals that are not: wildfowl (which include various duck, geese, coot, moorhen, golden plover, snipe and woodcock); pest and predators (crows, magpies, some gulls, pigeons, rabbits and foxes); game (including pheasant, partridge, grouse, deer and hare).

Hunting and shooting are not just about upholding rural traditions; they also perform a role in conservation and make a substantial contribution to the economy generating both revenue and jobs.

The British Association for Shooting and Conservation reports that in 2006 shooting was worth an astonishing 1.6 billion to the UK economy (250m in the South East) with 70,000 jobs and shoot providers spending 250 million on conservation a year.

The Burns Inquiry in 2000 estimated the number of jobs associated with hunting to be in the region of 6,000-8,000 and valued them at around 15.6 million. In addition hunt followers spend was estimated at around 70m.

Peter Rushbrook, who owns and manages the Mallard Barn Game Shoot in Wattisham, said: "People dont realise how much of our countryside is managed for conservation as a result of shooting". For the UK its two million hectares.

Peter runs a commercial shoot based from a working farm. His family have lived here for three generations and he welcomed me into his comfortable farmhouse with a broad smile.

Hes a bit of a character. His eyes dance. "I spent my youth, shooting, drinking, playing cards and chasing women. Two wives later I decided I wasnt being the best custodian of the farm and I wanted to earn some money."

He started with a shoot of 1,200 acres and now it covers 4,500 acres with about 300 people shooting each year. He also attracts people from across Europe and further afield.

Peter runs a hatchery for game birds and sells young birds to other shoots. He also has a business with his daughter selling game.

Peter takes us out in his car to show us around. Partridge and pheasant run everywhere, sprinting along then suddenly soaring into flight their brown wings beating the air. The countryside is beautiful with small woods, maze-fields and lakes perfect cover for game birds.

He talks me through a typical shoot. "We normally have a team of eight to ten guns. They come to the house for coffee and to draw numbers which decides their opening position". Its best to be near the middle of the main flight line of the birds rather than the edge. People change position during the day. "They move through the line to make it fair."

"The gamekeeper and a beating team walk through the wood and drive the birds out." Drives are planned so that birds fly out at a safe height and position to be shot. "Our job is to show the birds in as sporting way as possible," says Peter. "They need to be 30-40 yards high rather than low. We also have a couple of people picking-up. If a bird is injured and not killed theyll pick it up with their dogs."

The costs work out at about 28 per bird and typically the guns need to shoot a minimum bag of 200 birds. Each gun gets to take home a brace of birds (a pair). It is not a cheap.

"People come for the sport," explains Peter. "Its a skill and a very sociable day out." He also lays on hospitality throughout the day; sloe gin, champagne, lunch and dinner.

His clients are people who "typically shoot five or six times a season and spend 4,000-6,000 each. They are often small business owners of factories, retailers and garages. "We also have the fanatics who will shoot three times a week for the whole season and spend 50-60k".

Peter estimates women make up about eight percent. They have one ladies team who shoot regularly called "the covert girls".

Peter drives us out to the rearing-pens where partridges are kept until old and hardy enough to be released and Nigel, the under game-keeper tells us about his job.

"Personally, Im more of a pheasant-guy, they are less crazy than a partridge!" he laughs. "You can get more involved with pheasants. A pheasant wants to walk and walk and find a nice hedge. You have to walk them back and keep an eye out for pests and predators."

Peter and Nigel talk about the using humane snares and traps to catch foxes, weasels, rats and stoats. "Our feed keeps lots of little birds alive in hard weather," says Nigel, "song-birds like chaffinches, willow warblers and lots of migratory birds who find it hard."

Tim, a neighbouring gamekeeper who has set up his own shoot drives by with his terrier Ruby. The banter flies thick and fast. Tim says: "They are brilliant guys, great fun. Peters an excellent boss, hes one of the lads and mucks in. Its like a family."

Nothing seems to divide people like the debate on hunting. I asked Ollie, at the Essex and Suffolk, if they still get much trouble from protestors. "We do," says Ollie, "every week. It is stressful. We are country people who abide by the law, to be accused of breaking it is frustrating."

Oscar Wilde described hunting as "the unspeakable pursuing the uneatable" and during the hunting debate many questioned whether the 200 or so registered packs made any significant difference to the control of foxes and hares.

Shooting has less active opposition and maintains a lower profile. The main legislative impact was in 1999 regarding the banning of lead shot in England (because of the impact of ingestion by water fowl).

In 2006 80% of shot birds in the UK were sold abroad. Today, thanks to the support of celebrity chefs and farmers markets, game has a growing reputation as lean healthy meat.

Peter breeds 300,000 partridges and pheasant a year. Of that around 35% are shot and 10% die of natural causes and predators. He makes an interesting comparison "with cows, sheep or pigs, apart from breeding stock, the rest are slaughtered."

Talking to those so closely involved in hunting and shooting I am left with a true sense that they love and care for their animals and they respect their prey or quarry. They also have a close affinity with the countryside, what rural life involves and, where food actually comes from.

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