Game shooting: Northern Ireland may not have as many opportunites for game shooting as elsewhere in the British Isles, but in Baronscourt it certainly has one of the most beautiful.
Situated in a valley at the base of the Sperrin Mountains, Baronscourt estate, all 5,000 acres of it, is something of a sporting paradise.
Not only does it cater for those in pursuit of sporting pheasants, it can also satisfy the appetite of both the deerstalker and river angler.
Combine this with a main house as majestic on the outside as it is within and you’ve pretty much met the needs of any avid sportsman.
On the morning of the shoot I was greeted with snow and bright sun.
Saddled up and ready to go after breakfast, I made my way along the remaining eight miles from my hotel to the estate.
Game shooting at Baronscourt, County Tyrone.
The scenery just got better and better as I weaved through the country lanes.
After passing through the main gates I was met by a beater who pointed me towards the main house, and soon after I grabbed a glimpse of the impressive Clock Tower and Governor’s Lodge – a building that is part of the estate’s stable yard and which dates back to 1890.
I soon arrived at Barons Court – the main house and seat of the Duke of Abercorn’s family since 1610 – to be met by my host, Jamie, the Marquess of Hamilton.
I was introduced to the rest of the guns before grabbing an opportunity to speak with Jamie about the shoot as everyone finished their breakfast.
“There has been game shooting at Baronscourt since the mid-1800s,” said Jamie.
“It is something we have always nurtured under our own management. This includes retaining, as best as possible, our own bloodline of pheasant. We’re very lucky in terms of the topography, which really lends itself to sporting birds. Sammy Pollock, our headkeeper, is assisted by his son, Stephen, and daughter, Jeanette, as well as a wealth of other locals who help on shoot days.
“Sport at Baronscourt is all about balance and this includes the number of game shooting days that are put on. In order to protect our stocks we don’t overshoot the land, and each season we will establish how many shoot days we should have so as not to upset this balance. There are three types of game shooting on the estate; client days, family days, local syndicate days and walked-up days. The shoot is mainly run for the family but we feel in order to make full use of the land, and also generate extra income to pump back into the shoot, it is wise to let out days. We have one group of guns that come here six times a year for walked-up game shooting.”
A stunning winter scene at Baronscourt.
“Conservation is also very much to the fore. Every decision is carefully thought out in terms of the impact it will have and the benefits that can be drawn from it. And this is not only in terms of game shooting – a Laurent Perrier Award for wild game conservation in relation to the management of our wild herd of Japanese sika, and the Royal Forestry Society’s Duke of Cornwall Award highlights this.All of Baroncourt’s days are managed by Jamie – a personal and knowledgeable touch which ensures everything runs smoothly. The estate is fortunate to offer a variety of game for its discerning clients.
“We are very lucky to have a number of woodcock on the estate and have devised drives whereby the guns and beaters can actually walk together along custom-made tracks cut through coniferous woods in pursuit of this sporting bird,” said Jamie. “Moderation, again, is the key here and we organise days according to the potential number of woodcock in the area.”
A call to the Byturn, the first drive, marked the end of our conversation, and it was then to the gunbus – a fine specimen adorned on the inside with framed photographs of previous shoots and family members from years gone by.
Driven along by helper Robert Freeborn we soon found ourselves in a snow-strewn landscape. I found myself behind Lord Iveagh from Elveden estate. Resplendent in his family’s Guinness tie, it wasn’t long before he was sampling some of Baronscourt’s best.
The walls of the gunbus are adorned with photographs of previous shoots and family members.
As snow clouds loomed in the distance, pheasants took flight over the line of guns, their rich colours, reflected by a glowing winter sun were stark against a darkened sky. They came in a steady trickle and the drive lasted long enough for each gun to get a good share of the sport.
Elevenses in a log cabin followed McKelvey’s Kale – a very scenic drive that backed onto one of the estate’s three lakes and the main house.
The team tucked in to sausage rolls, soup and a nip of sloe gin around the warmth of a log fire. Once suitably fortified it was on to the Spinney.
With the guns lined out in front of tall, coniferous woodland it didn’t take an expert to realise more testing birds were on their way.
Sure enough, high bird after high bird powered up over the guns and with the bright sun burning in the sky, only a few were deterred from lifting to a sporting height.
With lunch looming, there was a treat in store for the guns – a duck drive. Not only was it a great way to end the morning’s game shooting, it provided uninterrupted sport as the birds lifted in a frenzy of flight.
Headkeeper Sammy Pollock (centre) flanked by his underkeepers, son Stephen and daughter Jeanette.
The guns enjoyed a good half an hour of sport and bagged 110 head.
Over lunch I bent the ear of headkeeper Sammy Pollock.
“I’ve worked on this estate for 35 years,” he told me. “I started off in the estate’s forestry department before a position came up to join the shoot. I had always had an interest in game shooting so to become an underkeeper was a chance that I really wanted to take. Bob Godfrey was the headkeeper at the time, so I worked under him for a number of years before working under his successor, Trevor Miskelly. Then I was made headkeeper 19 years ago and have been so ever since.”
Son and daughter Stephen and Jeanette joined Sammy when they left school. And, apart from enjoying everything ‘outdoors’, Jeanette also has an interest in water colour painting, something she does on commission.
And Sammy even has his other son, David, and David’s son, Adam, helping out on shoot days too. For Sammy and his team, conservation, as with Lord James, is key, and he realises that for game shooting to work it has to be carried out in conjunction with managing the land correctly.
Echoing Jamie’s comments Sammy said: “It’s all about conservation, it has to be. Take the woodcock for example, we have created special game shooting conditions for them that hasn’t been detrimental to the woodland. Combine that with the fact we don’t overshoot them, and you see how we’re trying to create a decent environment for them. I think we’ve got it just about right here. We’ve been working on it for the past 20-odd years and everything seems to be going well.”
A working estate that is conducive to the surrounding land and community certainly seems in evidence here, and a lot of the game goes back in to the rural community too.
“Making good use of game is paramount on the estate,” said Jamie.
There is superb shooting on offer at Baronscourt but they are careful not to overshoot the land.
“As well as supplying the local trade we also supply restaurants in Belfast and Dublin. The estate also has a EU approved game processing facility, one of only two in Northern Ireland, where we can prepare oven-ready birds. Full game preparation is now very much of the business and this also includes venison – approximately 250 head of venison were prepared at the last count. Some of this produce makes its way to our cookery school at Belle Isle.”
We closed the day with Ramps. With the stunning house in the background, the guns saw good birds before retiring for a cup of tea, and for those staying the night, something a little bit stronger.
For me, it was a trip back to the airport and a head full of memories from a great day.