Field & dream

Like many in the state, this 1,200-acre Sandhills farm raised tobacco as a money crop. Now it’s for the birds.
By Maury Faggart

Some call quail a gentleman’s bird. There’s no need to be in the field at break of day, so a hunt at The Webb Farm usually doesn’t begin until about 9, after a hearty breakfast for overnight guests. Then it’s back to the lodge at noon for lunch, the kind that, if this place didn’t draw such serious hunters, would have them thinking about naps rather than the afternoon’s shooting, which runs to around 5. That is, unless the dogs keep pointing up birds.

It’s a full day. One reason is there’s a lot of ground to cover on this 1,200-acre former tobacco farm, about three miles west of Ellerbe in Richmond County. Bill Webb’s family has owned the land since 1906. It’s been a hunting preserve only a year, but his daddy and uncle began managing the farm for quail in 1950. “Basically, planted millet and peas for the birds and hunted it with friends,” says Webb, 54, who practices law in Rockingham but lives in the farmhouse his grandfather built 100 years ago.

Two years ago, after tobacco subsidies ended, he decided to turn a pastime into a business. “It was my idea, but Wade pushed and aggravated me to do it now, not later. I was going to wait until I was 65 or so.” Wade Meacham, 43, is his head guide and also trains pointers and retrievers at Sun Dog Kennels on the preserve. Webb knew he had the perfect place — in the 1930s and ’40s, the Sandhills was a mecca for quail hunters — but he had to make sure the product was there for his potential customers. “Quail declined in Eastern North Carolina due to ditch-to-ditch farming, which left no cover for birds.” For more than 50 years, his family had been improving habitat. To give nature a nudge, he turned to technology.

“The Surrogator system, especially in the first half of the season, supplies us with good-flying birds.” Many preserves supplement wild quail with pen-raised birds, which are released the day of the hunt. But having lost their fear of humans, they tend not to take wing or, when they do, flutter rather than explode from the ground as wild quail do when flushed.

Webb has five of the $2,000 Surrogator boxes scattered around the farm. Each provides 125 chicks with food, water and daily-declining heat for five weeks. Then they’re released, never having seen a human during that time. Cycled three times a season, the Surrogators bolster the native quail population by nearly 2,000 birds a year. “And there is only one way you can tell them apart — the size of the coveys — because they fly just the same.” Surrogator-reared coveys range up to 30 birds, compared with the 12 to 14 found in most wild coveys. “When a ‘surrogated’ covey of, say, 30 birds gets up,” Meacham says, “even seasoned hunters are so dumbfounded they shoot at the covey, not the bird.” It’s as if the ground rises.

As to what he’s invested, Webb says he really doesn’t know. “Quail is the most expensive game to manage for.” He estimates he spends $100,000 to $125,000 a year on equipment and operating costs. A major cost has been the 3,200-square-foot, four-bedroom, four-bath lodge he built to look like a early 1900s farmhouse, but with such modern conveniences as satellite TV and DSL service. It can sleep seven.

Whether wing shooting can be the money maker tobacco was is up in the air. “I’m pleased with things so far,” Webb says, noting that the preserve was booked about 70% of the huntable days its first year during season, which for preserves runs from mid-November through March. Key, he believes, is maximizing space per face, letting only one party of two to six hunt each day. Like the prey, fees are gentlemanly: $550 a person, including lunch. Overnight accommodations, including breakfast and dinner, run $150. Hunters’ dreams come free.