The main reason we go game shooting is because it is fun.
The thought of taking a day out to enjoy the countryside in the company of friends is reason enough for most of us to don our complicated tweeds, wrestle the shotgun from the cabinet and take on hours of driving to reach some far-flung corner of our islands.
Bad weather, however, tends to take the wind out of your sails.
Or sometimes firmly put the wind in your sails and the rain down your back.
When you find any game shooting which puts a smile on your face in spite of the conditions, you know you must have found something of a gem.
The former grouse moors of the Cleggan shoot provide a variety of landscapes and sporting challenges for visiting guns.
I was reliably informed that the week before my visit last October the guns had been taking on the impressive partridges of the Cleggan shoot in their shirt sleeves.
This was cold comfort for the guns on this occasion, who found themselves bracing against the wind, and squinting through the rain in pursuit of their quarry.
In spite of this, you would be hard pressed to see a downcast face all day.
The Cleggan shoot lies in the North Antrim hills above the Glens of Antrim, facing the Mull of Kintyre. Partridge game shooting was started there in 2000, adding to the established pheasant game shooting.
The estate provides five partridge drives and nine main pheasant drives, with a further 10 drives used for smaller driven days and walked-up game shooting.
The attitude and atmosphere of the Cleggan shoot is set by Lord Rathcavan, the estate owner, and shoot manager Joe Taylor.
Shoot manager Joe Taylor (left) & Gavin Whittley discuss the morning’s drives.
Both men have a clear love of game shooting and of the countryside, and they have built up a team of like-minded people who give the game shooting its unique, welcoming feel.
Joe explains: “They’re a great bunch of lads, you won’t ever hear a cross word said between them. I think in 10 years I’ve only had two people leave – and you were probably better off without them. I think that says it all.”
This is backed up by Adam Lucas, one of Cleggan’s dedicated pickers-up who has been with the estate for six years:
“The game shooting is what brings you back, watching the game shooting and taking part by working the dogs. The teamwork here is great, it’s good fun and there’s never a bad word said. At lunchtime we get well fed and watered – it’s just an excellent day.”
Finding a balance
The guns on the day were more than happy to buy into the party spirit, it being a rare chance for a group of friends from all over Europe to get together. One of the guns, Haiko Visser, explained to me what made the journey from Switzerland to Northern Ireland to shoot worth it:
“We came for the first time in 2009, and I’ve already booked up for next year. It’s a wonderful day out. For me it’s not just the game shooting which makes the day, it’s the whole weekend with the boys. We’re spread all over Europe, making it difficult to get together regularly. Game shooting is the perfect excuse and you certainly don’t get moaned at by your wife in the same way for going out to the pub.
“I live 20 miles south of Zurich, it’s a lovely part of the world – absolutely magnificent. Switzerland is a very outdoorsy sort of lifestyle. We’re all closeted up inside most of our lives when you think about it, so any chance to get outside – even on a day like this when it’s pouring with rain – is lovely. You’re outside with the amazing landscape all around you, the air is fresh and you’re not surrounded by people and being pushed off the pavement.
Christian Ziegler goes after a partridge which challenged the whole line on the Valley.
There is a balance to game shooting – why you do it, where you shoot, the quality of the game shooting and the people you do it with. I think this place has got the balance absolutely right.”
Each of the guns is put under the care of a specific picker-up who will watch and advise throughout the day.
This is particularly important due to the terrain of the estate, which once used to hold large numbers of grouse, and presents the partridges in a similar manner. As such safety is paramount, which is reinforced in the briefing at the beginning of the day.
The nature of the terrain, being high on various hillsides and in deep valleys, offers a real variety of shooting. Guns move onto the pegs quietly and are live immediately.
The early birds do indeed burst off the hills like grouse, and the guns have to be ready to shoot them as such.
A long blast of a horn indicates the beaters are about to break the skyline, at which point the style of shooting changes and the drives become the more usual style of partridge shooting most guns will be used to.
In spite of the heavy rain the birds were extremely strong, flying hard and fast in consistent numbers interspersed with large coveys.
The birds are bought in as chicks from the first week of April, and sometimes even the last week of March, so by October they are already six months old.
This extra time obviously gives them time to adjust to the conditions on a Northern Irish hillside, as it is most unusual to see birds flying so well in such tough conditions.
Both Joe Taylor and headkeeper Steven Baird have been working on the shoot for over 10 years, and deserve great credit for creating what is a very impressive shoot.
The main property on the 1,000 acres of the Cleggan shoot, once a part of the vast O’Neill estate, is an old shooting lodge.
It was built in 1822 on the edge of what were then very extensive grouse moors.
A love of shooting has been a feature of Lord Rathcavan’s family for several generations, as he explained:
“I always shot as a boy – though I wasn’t much good at it. My grandfather was a tremendous shooting man all his life. He was the youngest son, and so bought Cleggan from his father in 1927. It remained part of the O’Neill estate in spite of the Land Act of the 1870s because shooting properties were exempt. All the shooting rights still belong to my cousin, who is the present Lord O’Neill.”
The unusual clock face offers the guns a reminder of where they are after a long lunch.
A real highlight of the day, and one of the key criteria for judging any shoot, is the food on offer.
Lord Rathcavan was the proprietor of the Brasserie St. Quentin on Knightsbridge, whose sign now hangs in the guns’ lunch room.
His son, the Hon. Francois O’Neill, now owns and runs the award-winning Brompton Bar and Grill from the same site, so clearly a passion for food runs in the blood.
“Shooting is about a lot more than just the shooting,” Lord Rathcavan explains. “The problem with being out here in Northern Ireland is we can’t hope to compete with the biggest shoots in England and Scotland, particularly the west country partridge shoots. As such we have to offer something different. One of the ways we do that is the cultivation of the special atmosphere we have here, a big part of which is our lunches.
“I buy the beef unbutchered from the local meat factory, making sure it’s all hung for 28 days. It’s so much better to see beef on the bone. I get the rib and stick it in the AGA at nine in the morning. After an hour or so I cut the skirt off, which then goes in the beater’s oven with the two big hunks of shoulder they have cooked in their oven in their shoot room.
“I take the meat out of the oven at 12 and let it rest on top for about an hour, which is the most important part. Isabel is our lunch steward, the most wonderful girl who does all the other bits of cooking. The guns get a good wine, and the meal ends with a cheese board.
“So many people come back here just because of our lunches – it’s all part of the camaraderie of the day. You can always judge how good a day people are having at lunchtime as it’s their first opportunity to mull over the shooting. I think it’s all part of the experience,” he added.
Good though the food is, the quality of shooting on offer is not to be underestimated.
Thanks to the varied terrain there is a wide range of sport on offer, from driven partridge and pheasant days to smaller boundary days and walked-up woodcock shooting.
Unusually, the partridge shooting is charged on a fixed rate at £6,000 for a day on the basis of 300 birds.
Though most guns will be used to being charged on a per-bird basis, the flat fee actually works out as extremely good value, coming in at about £20 per bird.
Considering the quality of sport on offer, even in the rain, this seems like a bargain to me.