A cup of hot coffee and a sausage roll is a good way to start a shooting day, particularly on a freezing January morning. The weather forecast wasn?t wonderful, but the skies were clear when we arrived at the stable yard at Baronscourt, near Omagh in Northern Ireland. Owned by the Duke of Abercorn, the estate sits in a sheltered valley in the foothills of the Sperrin mountains and boasts not only a renowned woodcock shoot, but also a strong population of sika deer and some excellent salmon fishing on the Mourne. The day we joined was a driven pheasant shoot, taken by a syndicate.
An original shoot vehicle
The syndicate, captained by George Hamilton, shoots together at other places in Northern Ireland, but Baronscourt is its mainstay. ?We shoot here six or seven times a year,? George said, as he got ready for the off. ?The syndicate has been together for at least 45 years ? Robert Burke?s father is one of the original members, as is Peter Fitzpatrick?s father. We are a pretty tight-knit group.? With that, it was time for George to welcome the Guns, give the safety brief (?Plenty of air, please, and remember you are being watched, so look good!?) and for the pegs to be drawn. Then it was up into the bus, a former French army ambulance, converted by The Gun Bus Company and decorated with shooting pictures and cartoons. The driver, Robert Freeborn, runs the fishing at Baronscourt and does quite a bit of sika hind stalking on the estate. He also takes out clients for the stags. The venison is all processed in the brand new game larder and is sold locally.
A propitious start to the day
On the first drive, Rock House, most of the Guns lined up in a sloping field, with a few farther below in scrubby woods to the right of the line. The pickers-up dispersed among the woods behind the Guns, with only a scattering of springers among the sea of Labradors. I stood beside John McDermott and Leslie Quinn, who were running the gamecart, and waited for the off.
The first few pheasants appeared and swerved over the Guns to the right, which included Carlos Larin, a visitor from Puerto Rico. It was his first outing at pheasants and Graham Hunter was at his side. The birds passed high and escaped unscathed. The next flurry was not so lucky, as Eddie Scott took his first shot and brought a cock down. ?He?s a handy Shot,? Leslie said. ?You?ll see.? And indeed he was, picking his birds carefully and not missing a single one on the fi rst drive. Robert Burke was also picking up the pace, as was George Hamilton. Carlos, meanwhile, had got the hang of swinging through and shot his fi rst-ever pheasant cleanly.
Contrary to its name, Big Kale, the second drive was pushed through a covercrop of artichokes. As the Guns found their pegs, a large lot of duck flew down the line from the left, but no-one shot at them (the Guns had only lead cartridges). A few flakes of snow had started to drift down from the now darkening skies. Greg Berry took the first bird of the drive, a singleton that landed with a thump near one of the pickers-up. Father and son Peter and Paul Fitzpatrick, who share a Gun, stood at the peg together, with Peter taking this drive and making full use of it. The pheasants came out perfectly, in small but frequent flushes and, despite the weather, flew well.
On the third drive, Boyd?s Clump, the Guns stood along the line of a stream. A cold wind had got up, so I sheltered by one of the ATVs just beyond Stephen Fowler?s peg. We stood near the ruins of the old castle and the pens. The snow fl urries were increasing, but Stephen wasn?t dismayed. ?Last time there was 9in of snow and it was -15°C, so today isn?t too bad at all,? he said, pausing to shoot a fantastic bird. Behind us, one of the pickersup, Rosemary Fleming, was getting some great retrieves in, as Stephen Fowler, Robert Burke and Dominic Fitzpatrick showed some fine shooting.
The fourth drive was to have been The Duke?s Walk, but due to the frozen lake, it was out of bounds. ?It?s too risky for the dogs,? keeper Sammy Pollock told me, as we headed to The Ramps, instead. By this stage the snow was coming down in earnest, but the Guns were placed in a clearing in the woods, with Scots pines dividing the line from the frozen lake. Robert Burke watched as George brought a bird down at his feet. ?Is that a runner, then, George?? he said, just before bringing down a right-and-left, a neat conclusion to the morning.
While the Guns headed to the castle for lunch, I joined the beaters, sitting next to Sammy?s daughter Janette and his grandson Adam. ?Saturday is the only day he?ll get up early,? Janette told me, as we sat down. Janette is not only a fulltime keeper, but also a talented sporting artist. Sammy doesn?t pay his beaters or pickers-up, but they get a slap-up meal and an excellent beaters? day. ?They come for the love of the sport,? he said. ?For a few years, there weren?t many youngsters getting involved, but now there is a new generation joining ? it?s very mixed as far as age is concerned. This is our last big driven day of the season, but we?ve still got some rough days. We didn?t lose any driven days with the cold weather, but we only held a few days of woodcock shooting before the voluntary ban. I think it was right not to shoot them during the freeze ? they were in poor condition and had it tough.?
Sika at Baronscourt
While we waited in the stable yard for the Guns to finish their lunch, Sammy told me more about the stalking at Baronscourt. ?We take around 250 sikas a year, so the new game processing plant is constantly in use. During the rut there are five staff to take clients out. The game larder works on a one-way system the bags and carcasses come in one side of the building and progress from room to room until they end up in the chiller, with different areas for processing deer, pheasants, duck and woodcock.? Stephen runs the deerstalking operation as well as working on the pheasant and woodcock shooting. Meanwhile, the beaters lined up for a photograph, standing on either side of a vast anchor that had once belonged to a French war vessel, the 28-gun Lausan. King James II and the fourth Earl of Abercorn had left for France on her from Waterford Harbour after the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.
The Old Castle
After lunch, with their cartridge bags replenished and boots back on, Robert Freeborn started up the bus and carried the Guns to Old Castle. The drive took place below a steep wooded bank, with the lake some 40 yards behind the Guns, who waited along a path. The trees offered no shelter from the sleet that had started coming in. Paul Fitzpatrick had taken up the Gun for this drive and sportingly left a few birds to get through to Greg Berry, who was back Gun. He certainly didn?t miss any of the opportunities that came his way. The final whistle sounded and the pickers-up started collecting the birds. George Hamilton returned from his peg, delighted with another great day at Baronscourt. ?We always see good sport here, no matter what the weather,? he said.