The Glenrinnes estate?s shoot bothy was still under 1m of snow and inaccessible when I visited on 4 January. ?As the shoot is on moorland that rises up to 1,300ft, the ground often attracts the harshest weather,? explained shoot tenant Dick Bartlett, as we parked on the side of an icy track.
A narrow glen to the east of Ben Rinnes, in Moray, Glenrinnes stretches south-west from Dufftown, following the valley of Dullan Water. For the past six years, Dick has held the sporting rights on 1,500 acres of Glenrinnes, which is classified as an Area of Great Landscape Value. He also holds the sporting rights on part of the Ben Rinnes and Drummuir estates, and provides pheasant, grouse, duck, pigeon and rabbit shooting. Nine years ago, he set up the British Moorlands management project in order to tend to a number of previously unmanaged moors. Through the creation of ponds, the management of wetlands and targeted predator control, Dick has managed to run successful shooting days across the estates and plans to extend his project to other areas where grouse production has become uneconomical. Last November, his efforts were rewarded when he was made a finalist in the prestigious Purdey Awards for Game and Conservation.
A breathtaking backdrop
On the day I visited, the pheasant shoot was to consist of eight drives. ?Woodcock and grey partridges are not to be shot,? said Dick, as he addressed the five Guns, four beaters and one picker-up. Glenrinnes?s big brother, the snow-covered Ben Rinnes, provided a breathtaking backdrop to the shoot. ?At nearly 3,000ft, there are ptarmigan living near the summit,? said Gun Rinnes Brown (named after Ben Rinnes), who has a farm in the foothills of the mountain.
The heather and gorse moorland is carved up by large fields of barley and meltwater burns weaving their way down the hillsides. ?Last year?s wet summer and heavy snow meant that many fields were unharvested and machinery was abandoned,? said Rinnes. ?There are around four acres of unharvested barley on Glenrinnes. This is a mixed blessing. It supplements the gamebirds? food, but in terms of designing drives, it is a disaster, as all the birds are held in the wrong places.?
As the group set off for the first drive, Elivreid Steading, the beaters peeled off towards the horizon to push through a large block of snow-dusted Sitka spruce. The Guns lined up facing the forestry, with seasoned picker-up Anne Johnson behind them. On peg No 2 was Anne?s husband, retired property lawyer Stephen Johnson.
A need for quick reactions
Though the first dozen pheasants that flew over the line were too low to shoot safely, as the drive progressed there was sport for every Gun. Stephen targeted only the highest birds with his Beretta sporter. ?It is a clayshooting gun really, but I find it a well-balanced shotgun for unpredictable gamebirds,? he said, as he took a crossing hen bird with notable ease. Stephen?s neighbouring Gun, Tony Smith, took two cock birds in quick succession.
I spied Anne, with her two German wirehaired pointers and two black Labradors, meticulously marking every felled bird. A sporting artist, Anne acts as an informal sporting agent to a number of local estates, providing walked-up shooting over her field trial-winning dogs. ?Pointers give good sport throughout the season, starting off on the grouse moor in August and later, hunting partridges, snipe, pheasants and woodcock,? she said, as Dram, one of her Labradors, carefully delivered a dead hen to her cupped hand.
Next up was North Bank. Looking down on the Alt-Na-Beg whisky distillery and fields of blackface sheep, the Guns were placed in an arc surrounding clumps of spiky gorse. ?This drive normally holds lots of birds ? the gorse is brilliant cover for them when it snows, but I do not envy the beaters pushing it through,? said Mark Alexander, as he cleared snow from his boots. I watched him skillfully wield his Silver Pigeon, as he brought down a speeding hen. ?It is too cold for the birds to be out on the fields ? they are all sheltering in the gorse and conifer blocks trying to stay warm,? he added, as he ejected the spent cartridges from his gun.
The Moss Wood West and Moss Wood East drives saw the beaters push a sizeable block of lodge pole pine. Gillie Iain Kelly was on one of the most productive pegs. ?This is the first time I have shot on Glenrinnes estate,? he explained. Iain was diagnosed with Parkinson?s disease eight years ago. ?It does not affect how I shoot. It?s important for me to carry on with my hobbies for as long as possible,? he said. Iain must have let 20 birds fly past him before he shot two stratospheric cock birds. Then, with his weight on his front foot, he shouldered his side-by-side and reached up vertically to shoot a hen. ?I only ever shoot the skyscrapers,? he revealed, as we watched two young roe does bolt from the woodland.
Over lunch, I quizzed Dick further on his moorlands project. ?It is dedicated to habitat improvement for the benefit of wildlife, with special emphasis on gamebirds,? he said. ?When I started the project, I identified two big problems that were affecting Scottish moors. The first was the shooting industry?s failure to adjust standard moorland management practices to changing conditions in the Scottish uplands. The second was the high costs associated with grouse moor management. Labour-intensive keepering techniques can be prohibitive.?
He showed me a transmitter that he had designed to automate trap checking. ?Each transmitter has a three-mile range and sends out a signal every hour to tell keepers if there is anything in their traps,? he explained. A receiver station handles the data from up to 100 transmitters, records everything and indicates which units have caught. It has revolutionised predator control on my shoots.?
The Cairngorms National Park Authority now offers support to estate owners by funding and promoting courses that are run by Dick to demonstrate the use of modern technology in moorland management. ?Many estate owners are frightened by the idea of managing their land for grouse shooting and this leaves vast areas of our moors unmanaged and with poor biodiversity,? he told me. ?My keepering methods reduce costs by about 65 per cent and increase grouse production.?
The shoot has only two release pens, one of which was pushed out for the Elivreid/Skeleton Wood drive after lunch. ?Most keepers locate their pens so that they are out in the open, but we have so many raptors here that we have to protect the poults inside dense woodland,? said Dick, before he whistled for his springer spaniel, Teal. Rather than stand with the Guns, I helped the beaters to flush the enormous wood. Beater and Shooting Times contributor Julian Schmechel directed me to the middle of the line before we slowly walked forwards, tapping the trees. ?These next two drives will show the highest birds of the day,? enthused Julian, as shots echoed around the hills. The beating team?s keenness was infectious ? everyone was working together to make sure that every part of the woodland was covered. At the end of the drive, the Guns were beaming. ?I had some beautiful birds over me,? said Tony Smith. ?That drive never fails to deliver.?
The next drive, Triangle Wood, was an unknown entity. ?If there are any birds in this wood, it should produce some extremely well-shown ones, as the topography is ideal,? said Julian. The few continued to climb as they approached the Guns. I spotted Mark shooting a hen bird before the other Guns erupted with cheers. Tony also added a lofty magpie to the bag, which one of Anne?s young pointers retrieved.
The penultimate drive, Sach Bushes/Dead Sheep Wood, saw the Guns line out on lower, boggy ground in front of a willow plantation. Before the drive had started, four roe deer ran through the line of Guns then leaped across a burn out of sight. A wintering woodcock was also flushed, but with a shooting ban in place, the diminutive bird flitted down the line unscathed.
The last drive of the day, Favat Wood, is the shoot?s signature drive. Unlike the other forestry blocks, this wood was madeup of larch. ?Larch is a deciduous tree, so I would not expect a block of it to hold the birds, as the trees are bare at this time of the year. But the birds seem to gravitate here,? said Rinnes. Shot of the day went to Iain, who pulled a bird from the sky thatwas so high and travelling so fast that it did not seem possible to shoot it.
Dick?s passion for modern gamekeeping techniques has produced astonishing results ? three-quarters of the birds he puts down are shot. All the Guns went home with smiles on their faces and a brace for their dinner.