We take a look at what is involved in delivering a late season day’s pheasant shooting in January at Holylee Estate, one of Scotland’s premier sporting estates
January pheasant shooting is a very different sport to doing it before Christmas in the early season. Birds are fewer in number and much more canny in their knowledge of where to go and, as importantly, where not to.
Generally speaking, bag numbers will be less in January both because there are simply fewer birds around, but also because conditions can be much more extreme in the depths of winter which makes getting birds over the guns a whole lot more difficult. The added issue for estates is that the cost of putting on a 150 bird day in January can be the same or higher than a 250 bird day in November. Having said that, if like us you prefer a smaller quantity of really challenging birds, then it is difficult to beat a late season day.
We arrived and met Graham White, the head keeper at Holylee, to find out what he had in mind for the day. The weather was relatively settled after a very cold day the day before so Graham’s plans didn’t need to be changed as he knew the birds would have looked for shelter overnight following the -7°C temperatures and would therefore be where he expected and needed them to be.
Late in the season, with a regular team of beaters and pickers up, everyone knows the drives and where they need to be so the need for a detailed briefing is less than it would be early in November. Thus everyone could have a relaxed cup of coffee and a catch up whilst waiting for the guns to be welcomed in the main house and for them to have their safety briefing before the day began.
Just before 9.30 the radio crackled to life to let us know that the guns were on their way to the first drive so we loaded up into the beaters truck with a variety of argo cats, quad bikes and Polaris to get us up the hill.
Two testing drives followed with the first proving the more successful of the two as the second drive was further up the hill with the wood being more exposed to the prevailing west wind and therefore holding fewer birds. Elevenses were had by the guns whilst the beaters blanked in the next drive with warm pheasant sausages and a glass of something therapeutic keeping the guns energy levels up.
The third drive after elevenses was a cracker with a mix of pheasant and seriously quick and challenging partridge adding to the challenge for the 8 guns all of whom had plenty of opportunities and kept the pickers up busy. The added advantage for Graham was that this was an experienced team of guns so there were few birds pricked and wounded and the picker ups were mainly dealing with dead birds rather than runners all of which helps to keep the day running to time.
Lunch was had after the third drive allowing the beaters and pickers up to recharge their energy with a pie and a sandwich in the shoot room. The ground at Holylee is steep to say the least so the beaters and pickers up cover a lot of territory especially late in the season when the birds have spread out. Obviously the guns need to get back to the main house for a pre-lunch refreshment followed by a great two course lunch and coffee and cheese so there is plenty of time to relax whilst they do so.
All out for the last drive which was Holylee’s Skia wood, one of their signature drives that never fails to deliver. High but shootable birds, sliding across the wind and coming from differing directions make for a real test of the gun’s abilities as they stand at their pegs dug into the side of the steep hill. Beaters on the skyline blanking in huge swaths of bracken and gorse and picker ups miles behind the guns, as sheer physics determines that any bird hit is going to fall at the bottom of the hill, all make for a truly spectacular finish to a great day out for all concerned.
Last drive over and it was back to the shoot room to get the final tally for the day once all the picker ups had returned after a clean sweep. All the birds are hung in a game room awaiting collection by the game dealer and that is after the guns had had their brace or more each to take home. Graham, having been down to the house to give the guns their birds, could then return home and put his feet up after another successful day with the guns getting more than their required bag.
We spent the first two drives with the beat and the last two with the pickers up – you can read more about the detail of what they do to produce a successful day here.