Chairmans Regular Column in Shooting Times
We have now had our first snow and temperatures down to -8c. This has helped put an edge on our pheasants’ appetite and has pulled the birds back to some of the main coverts.
Our estate was planted over a hundred and fifty years ago and we have hundreds of mature beech trees which, when there is a good year for the beech mast, can be a problem keeping the pheasants where you want them.
There are also hundreds of pigeons coming to feast on this delicious food which lies by the barrowload on the ground. Odd ones are becom-ing dizzy with what I think is a tannin from the fruit of the tree which has even lead to the death of some of them!
When you have been in the same place for twenty eight years you could think you might become a little blase when it comes to running the shoot, but with old woods being cut down and new ones being planted, the picture is ever changing.
We have a young wood which heads up to the clouds and we had been hand feeding a few pheasants here each day, but no great weight of birds. We decided, on a day, to try and blank up a much bigger wood which lay below.
I was stood with the guns watching the beating team carry out this op-eration. The hairs on the back of my neck were rising when I saw how well this was working, with lots of birds running and flying up the strip of woodland.
The next part of the drive was truly spectacular, in one way, and very poignant in another. The guns had lined out and the beaters were ready to go when I blew the horn for the two minute silence. Roy, one of our beaters, mentioned to me that he was very touched by seeing every-body stood on the bare hillside with bowed heads.
He had lost his grandfather in the second world war and he normally headed off to pay his respects at the cenotaph in Edinburgh. But in some deep way this had been very real. And to make matters even more memorable, the drive was a total success. (As they say, every day is a school day).
Before we shot last week, I took the boss’ son stalking for a fallow buck as we needed a supply of venison sausages for shoot days. The local butcher makes them and they are absolutely delicious; just the thing to keep you going till lunch time. I have stalked most species of deer in the UK but fallow and sika are certainly the wariest in a woodland setting.
I once had a chat with a ‘hill man’ who had been a full time stalker all his life on the open hill. He had been invited to shoot a fallow on one of the big estates down south. When I spoke with him, upon his return from his trip, he was quite shocked at how difficult the fallow were within the tree cover; almost comparing them to some of the African game which are shot the same way in the bush. I had no such trouble with our fallow as they were on a field which had had no livestock for a couple of weeks. We shot two young prickets which were ideal for our sausages. All the venison that is shot on the estate is skinned and butchered for ‘the big hoose'. The front shoulders are turned into stew for shoot day lunches and the haunches go for large dinners and family meals. Back straps and fillets are turned into medallions for smaller meals.
As with every estate we are very careful when it comes to handling our game. This is the only way to be in this modern day of provenance and traceability. We have a motto in our larder simply saying ‘Would you eat this yourself?’ and if the answer is no, then it does not go into the food chain. One of our biggest strengths, I believe, is that we are participat-ing in a sport which produces food which is truly wild and delicious. We must never forget this when we are out in the shooting field.
A few years back the loch on the estate was frozen over, except for a small hole in the ice in which a swan had become stuck. It was the week before Christmas and we had a family shoot on, near the loch. One of the walkers had crawled out onto the ice to try and rescue the swan, which he had succeeded in doing without falling through and becoming most definitely drowned.
He had wrapped the swan in his jacket and was sitting on the back seat of the car. I halted them, on the way back down the loch road, to see what was happening. As I leaned in to have a word, Grant, the young keeper, came over the radio ‘Can’t that bu***r buy a turkey like every-body else at Christmas?
From December 2015: Excerpt.
How do people react in the shooting world when they ask how your day or week has been and you tell them you have been brashing trees all day, or planting trees and shrubs? You hear from the tone in their voice that they were expecting you to say that you had been attending some exotic conference on hunting animals in dangerous places, or some suchlike experience.
Nevertheless, I thought I would relate my experiences in tree brashing this past forty years. Some readers may ask: why brash a tree in the first place? When you have crawled on your hands and knees on a pheasant shoot all day long through brambles and jagged sitka spruce you will thoroughly appreciate a shoot where the keeper has tried to make paths for his beaters.
My tree brashing started as a fifteen year old underkeeper on Kelburn Estate on the west coast of Scotland. There was an outlying larch and spruce wood which I visited one day a week and took with me a game bag full of wheat and, of course, the brashing saw.
My saw at that time had to be sharpened, not like the modern sandvik saws we have today. My job, then, was to dribble wheat as I walked the edge of the wood, then spend the rest of the day brashing lanes for the beaters.
Times, and the practicalities, haven’t changed much. Hand brashing, along with a good pair of lop-pers for brambles, is absolutely vital to running a successful shoot. When you come to the flushing point in the pheasant drive, it is imperative that there is a window to allow the pheasants to fly up or out through the canopy. High brashing is very important to allow pheasants a place to aim for when they are flying over the guns.
The other more strenuous way of brashing is to use a lightweight chain saw. All the appropriate safety gear must be worn and we normally work in pairs, just in case something goes wrong. If your ground has lots of sitka spruce, this can be a very useful method to tackle these horrible jagged trees.
It also gives you the option to thin some of the trees near the flushing area. Brashed trees not only help your pheasant drives but they also allow the much needed sunlight into the wood which is far better for conservation and, in particular, butterflies.
Before I leave the subject of brashing I wanted to mention how important it is especially when your duties include deer stalking, particularly sika and fallow. If your deer lawns and corner rides are high brashed, your job will be much easier, allowing you or your guest to see a wee bit further into the trees, enabling a successful stalk.
Our estate rises a thousand feet plus and I have now been here twenty six years. During that time, with the help of my boss, we have planted many new woods, creating shelter belts and some spectacular pheasant drives. When you work on an estate and dedicate your life to creating new woods and managing old ones it gives you a great sense of satisfaction. We feel proud to leave some-thing for our grandchildren and their children.
From January 2016: Excerpt
To shoot or cancel was on everybody’s minds as they arrived on the morning of a family shoot between Christmas and New Year.
When a shoot starts at a thousand feet, any wind, rain or snow is amplified ten times over when com-pared to a shoot at sea level. The beaters were my first concern. If they had been on the radio telling me that trees were blowing over, we would have cancelled the shoot right away but luckily the wind wasn't at storm force.
The rain was blowing horizontal making it very difficult for the guns who were wearing glasses to see the pheasants. On the first drive I positioned the guns a little nearer to the wood and did away with numbers 1, 2, and 3. I placed them as back guns, back round on the other end of the line.
When placing guns in extreme weather conditions, sometimes you have to think completely out the box. As the drive started the first birds flew over the guns going like bullets slide slipping in the wind, making them very difficult to hit.
It never ceases to amaze me when pheasants take off into the wind, forcing their way up very high, and curling all the time. When you see the explosive strength of these fairly large game birds, and their flying ability in these wild conditions, you can understand why they gain the respect of our top game shooters.
Some of the other drives had to be completely swapped round, bringing them down over the guns which were stood in gulleys and burn bottoms. All in all, we had a pretty exciting day and, with mod-ern waterproofs, most of us were still dry at lunchtime. The beaters were all comparing the different merits of their clothing over lunch.
Everybody enjoys lunch in our bothy as the boss has kindly supplied us with a large wood burning stove and two patio heaters which were designed for a pub and can fairly blast out the heat. Changed days from the seventies when twenty soaking wet beaters would be huddled round an old calor gas heater which only had one bar working and there was a snow drift blowing under the gap in the old door.
Getting around the shoot in extreme rain can prove very challenging as the rivers and burns become very swollen, making it very difficult to either cross on foot or in a vehicle.
I remember one occasion years ago, down near Hawick, when the rivers were threatening to burst their banks after it had rained all night. The shoot used an old tractor with a sheep box connected to the three point linkage.
As many beaters and dogs as would fit were packed into the old container. In other words, we were stuffed in the box. The hardy old tractor driver took off into the river. Immediately I became aware that the water was very deep and fast flowing. The water had risen to cover the gearstick in the tractor and it was up to our waists in the back. Some of the boys scrambled onto the roof of the tractor which, by this time, was being washed down the river at an angle. I thought my best chance was to dive into the river and swim for the side. What an idiot! Have you ever tried swimming with wellies, barbour jacket and game bag? It made a pretty picture. Luckily, I was a fairly strong swimmer and, after bending the river in two places, I managed to pull myself onto the bank. When I poured the water out of my wellies it made for a very cold and soggy afternoon.
We now have all types of four wheel drive vehicles and tracked machines which makes life far easier when trying to cross ground which is absolutely waterlogged. We can now take guns and beat-ers around the shoots without making the ground look like an army tank assault course.
These vehicles have been a godsend whenever you need to drive off the hard roads, allowing the pickers up to drop off the game to be collected later and taken to the larder. They are great for trans-porting guns and beaters with all their hardware to the top of the hill without marking the ground and generally allowing the day to go a wee bit easier. Changed days from the old Massey Ferguson tractor!
Our German wire-haired pointer is due a litter of puppies in a couple of weeks and I still can’t believe working pups cannot have their tails shortened. Nine years we have had to live with this sys-tem in Scotland and, over all those years, the pain the law has inflicted on our working dogs has been horrendous.
If there was a pain jug to measure the agony that has been inflicted upon our dogs, it would be over-flowing. What a sorry state we are in. We have lost many of our breeding lines and most people who purchase a pup do so over the border because they care very deeply about the welfare of their dogs. Never has a government policy caused so much suffering.