What does beating involve? We went behind the scenes at Holylee Estate, one of Scotland’s premier sporting estates, to see just what it takes to produce a top quality day of late season pheasant shooting.
Holylee has a great group of beaters to call from and there are often the same people taking part each day. That has the great advantage of everyone knowing each other and, more importantly, everyone knowing what to do on each drive.
It takes a group of quality beaters to put a day’s pheasant shooting on at Holylee in January. By this time of year, the birds tend to roam further afield so there is more ground to beat over to get the birds pushed into the wood that they are going to ultimately be driven from. They also tend to sit tighter and can therefore easily be missed so beaters, who know what they are doing are needed to cover the ground properly during the late season.
The beaters all meet at the shoot room on the farm where they wait until the guns have had their cup of coffee and safety briefing. When Sir David, the shoot owner, radios to tell Graham, the head keeper, that the guns are ready and are getting their kit together, the beaters all mount up in to the beaters wagon, an old army truck and they set off up the hill road to the first drive.
For a lot of the drives, the team tends to split in two with half on either side of and above the wood so that all the surrounding ground is gathered in with birds being quietly pushed into the wood. At Holylee there is never any shouting or hollering but rather a steady whistling, wave of the beaters flags or tapping of a stick to keep the birds moving. A lot of the beaters have dogs all of whom are well trained to keep close at hand and not to run too far ahead. This helps to find all the birds and to flush them when needed.
Having gathered the surrounding hillside, the beaters all arrive at the top of the wood that will be where the birds flush from for that drive. There will be one either side who move slightly forward to stop the birds running out of the edge of the wood, with the rest keeping in a straight line with Graham in the middle so that he can see exactly what is what.
After 30 years of being a keeper, Graham is superb at making sure the birds flush in dribs and drabs rather than in big flushes. This means that the guns just have time to reload before the next birds take off which all adds to the excitement of the day. He is also a past master at ensuring every gun on every drive gets some shooting. Thus, slowly and surely, the line of beaters moves through the wood with Graham stopping and starting them as need be to try and get a reasonably steady amount of birds in the air at any one time.
The closer the line gets to the end of the wood, the slower it moves as birds have been pushed forward and it would be easy to rush them which would only result in the whole lot taking off at the same time defeating the purpose. Finally, the line of beaters gets to the end of the wood, the last bird takes off, Graham waits until the final shots have rung out and then blows his whistle to let everyone know that drive is finished. The team then mounts up in the beaters wagon again and moves on to the next drive to be ready well before the guns line out so that, as soon as they are in position, the next drive can begin.
Beaters can cover a lot of ground during a day’s shooting but can also spend a lot of time waiting for guns to get in place. In January, when the conditions are invariably cold, beaters can go from being nicely warm after a long hike over the hill to being potentially frozen as they stand waiting for the next drive. Good boots and layering is key with a decent jacket being an absolute must!