There is nowhere quite like the Highlands in autumn. A thousand different shades of orange, yellow and red coloured the steep hills that swept down towards Loch Ness. In Fort Augustus, at the south end of the famous loch, mist hung beside the water and the locks of the Caledonian Canal before at last the sun began to peep through as we made our way to the nearby Culachy estate.
The shoot at Culachy is in its fourth season under headkeeper Scott Bremner. He has been a keeper for 17 years ? since he left school, and sometimes when he probably should have been in school ? and he worked at Invercauld before moving to Culachy. ?My friends thought I was crazy to come here as the estate hadn?t been keepered for 25 years, but I?ve had huge support from the owners in developing the shoot. They have a young family and one of my goals is to get their children involved with the shooting and stalking.?
Culachy offers stalking for 45 stags and some of the hindstalking is also let, mostly to Europeans. There are also some grouse on the estate and Scott has a few walked-up days each season. The shoot is a mix of pheasants, partridges and duck, with most drives featuring either pheasants and partridges or pheasants and duck.
?Ninety per cent of our drives are on the hill,? explained Scott, ?and we have a high density of deer, so everything we plant has to be deer fenced. It requires a lot more work than simply laying out a few pens. All the trees and gamecrops have to be fenced, for example, and we have to take the deer into consideration as well as access for the beaters and so on. Some of the terrain is pretty savage.?
Culachy operates a strict blue-sky policy on its shoot days as the terrain is so steep, which Scott highlights in his briefing to the Guns at the start of the day. There would be a zero-tolerance approach taken to offenders. It was an international team of Guns in the line at the first drive, with visitors from Holland, Spain, England and Scotland, all of whom had been brought together by Marcus Munro, who is a professional deer manager in Sutherland. Though it was only the second time this team had shot at Culachy, Marcus has initiated a dress code, which is becoming something of a tradition: all the Guns must wear kilts.
I?ve done some interesting and unusual jobs for Shooting Times over the past few years, but the prospect of shooting with a bunch of kilt-wearing stalkers, wildfowlers and Dutchmen was mildly alarming and I hoped there wasn?t too strong a wind. Thankfully, it was fairly still in the line on the first drive, when I stood with Marcus and Henry Bulmer, who were sharing a gun. It was the first time that the Hill Park had been shot this season and there were some excellent birds on this pheasant drive. It was the first of six steep drives for the beaters, and it took them a little while to bring in the birds to the skyline on the huge hill in front of the Guns.
Marcus?s uncle Charlie Macneill shot beautifully on this drive with several right-and-lefts, as did Norman Brass, who was back Gun. Charlie was a Forestry Commission ranger in Sutherland in the days when this position had the respect and support of the local community. His great passion now is fishing, and he shoots a few days each season, too. The second drive was on the hill and there was a strong wind blowing now, so I asked Charlie, who was sensibly wearing plus-fours rather than a kilt, whether I could stand with him.
Scott explained that this was a new drive and therefore a bit of an experiment. He positioned the Guns and we waited as the beaters brought in the drive. Unfortunately, the wind picked up and made it rather difficult, but this drive will undoubtedly be excellent in time. It also provided the first glimpse of the partridges, and on the strong wind they looked as though they would be fast and difficult in the drives to come.
Pegs by a precipice
After elevenses in the bothy, which is a rather understated description of the fantastic log cabin that it actually is, we headed to the Gorge. This involved walking over a precipice to the pegs, which lined the side of the Gorge.
Norman Brass was midway in the line this time, so I tagged along with him. His peg, it turned out, was about halfway down and round the corner a bit, on the edge of a steep bank. Norman lives on Orkney and, as part of his business, he operates as a goose guide. He imposes a bag limit of four, and we spoke at length about the unscrupulous guides who think nothing of shooting 100 geese in a morning flight ? an unsustainable approach, to say the least. Three of the Guns on the day had come up from Leicestershire. Devoted wildfowlers, they were heading to Orkney with Norman after the shoot and were also hoping to stop off at the Findhorn on the way home.
Starting a shoot on an estate like Culachy provides the perfect excuse for planting trees. The estate has reduced the numbers of sheep and introduced pigs to areas where it is operating big regeneration projects, which was in
evidence at the Gorge. ?We?ve burned a lot of heather,? explained Scott, ?and planted around 50,000 trees, which are mostly native.? This has been tied in with the Forestry Commission and they are making plans for the future, too.
?The idea is for the shoot to blend in with the character of the place,? Scott continued. There are only two drives with gamecrops, for which they use canary grass and some kale. The rest is sitka spruce and Scots pine, as well as birch and bracken drives.
The partridges provide added interest, which was best demonstrated on the final double drive, Glen Buck. I stood with Marcus Munro and professional stalker Ewen Ballantyne this time, beside a burn in the bottom of a narrow valley. These last two drives were mixed pheasants and partridges, and the partridges were a sight to see.
It started to rain towards the end of the penultimate drive, but it had little effect on the sport. The partridges came over with some serious height and speed, and were difficult birds. The variety was exciting and, as Robert Jan Van Rheenan put it, ?The moment you get used to the partridges, you get the pheasants!?
In the wind, the last two drives worked superbly. I was more used to seeing partridges flushed over hedgerows, but at Culachy some of them were at an eye-watering height and speed. ?Those birds were fast,? Scott remarked, at the end of the day. ?The Guns really had to concentrate when they were on the pegs.?
In pouring rain we retreated to the bothy for tea, where I chatted to Scott about the future of Culachy. ?We?re always changing things on the shoot ? always learning. Everything we?ve done has grown, but you can?t make trees grow quicker and you can?t make nature go faster.? It?s clear that Scott and his underkeeper Raymond Robertson have already achieved a great deal and that Culachy?s future is an exciting one. Thankfully, all the kilts stayed put, too.