Pheasant shooting in Minuntion, Ayrshire
The expression ‘undiscovered gem’ often makes me wonder if something has remained undiscovered for a reason, namely there is nothing to discover!
But Minuntion is now on my list of honourable exceptions.
When I spoke to its charming owner Johnny Warrender on the telephone prior to my visit he set the tone by describing the shoot, which he has personally built over a great many years, as simply “a jolly nice place to come and spend the day”.
In reality, behind that large understatement hides a 28-year long project Johnny and his wife have pursued with passion.
Johnny and Fiona Warrender had bought their farm after a long search for a property offering them access to their own fishing.
Their quest around Scotland was only concluded when a friend decreed the 25-mile south Ayrshire valley where the River Stinchar flows through small rural villages before reaching the sea at Ballantrae was where they should focus.
Minuntion was quickly discovered and the Stinchar, a spate river intersecting their ground did indeed deliver the desired fishing – but it scored zero for pheasant shooting.
“It was an absolute disaster,” Johnny laughed. “No woods were fenced, mainly because the cattle over-wintered there. There were no hedges and no-one had thought about stocking or managing the woods.”
A mighty challenge from the sound of it, but having a practical approach Johnny rolled up his sleeves and began work.
The passion driving their dream didn’t mean pitching straight into major changes to get pheasant shooting at any cost, but as a painter specialising in rural scenes he set about designing a landscape that would appeal to his artist’s eye as much as game.
“I’ve always enjoyed the company of keepers so I had an idea of what was needed,” he explained.
“We wanted to design the place with some sympathy. After all you don’t want to lose what attracted you in the first place.”
The first bird of the day was bagged at The Mill.
Working with Scottish Woodlands the crucial planting began with simple shelter belts for the farm, then a variety of trees (“nothing exotic” as Johnny puts it), including oak, rowan, whitebeam, and sycamore.
Johnny could also rely on the expert advice of Hugo Straker, the GWCT’s senior game advisor in Scotland.
“What Johnny and Fiona have created at Minuntion is truly remarkable, and justifiably gives them and visiting guests an enormous amount of sporting as well as visual enjoyment,” explained Hugo.
“The superb and challenging quality of the Minuntion pheasant today is testament to Johnny’s very special attention to detail, together with the focused efforts of Douglas Faulds, his keeper.”
Those early pheasant shooting days were only shared with family and friends but as things progressed the Warrenders’ confidence to invite more guests grew – and latterly they have begun selling days.
Host on the day of my visit Keith Tulloch has known the Warrenders for years but had never shot at Minuntion before.
Headkeeper Douglas Faulds.
The relaxed family and friends atmosphere is fostered by the fact the pheasant shooting is still very much a hands-on affair for everyone, not least because Johnny gets a lot of pleasure out of it that way.
Not only will Johnny be found in the kitchen with knife in hand to prepare shoot lunches, he is just as likely to be discovered in a wood with a chainsaw or sack of feed.
On shoot days Fiona is on hand to help place the guns or can be found wielding a flag.
The real step change was when Johnny invited Douglas Faulds to join the Minuntion team as keeper in 2004.
Douglas was born in Dumfriesshire and his father was an estate worker at Earlston.
Since leaving college Douglas had been a YTS student for George Fairclough at Baligmorrie, Ayrshire, and a ghillie at Fealar near Pitlochry.
Douglas clearly shares the vision of a shoot that is “spectacular rather than flash” and in his first single-handed post he has built what the Warrender family affectionately refer to as “Douglas’ Army” of beaters and pickers-up as the number of birds put down have steadily increased.
Fiona Warrender passes a few minutes with host Keith Tulloch.
Now devoting all of his energies to keepering, Douglas has turned a few drives around and developed one more with canary grass.
The 2,000 acres now have nine main drives and surrounding game friendly corners enable him to deliver a dozen driven days a season, interspersed with half a dozen mini-driven days.
Crucially, his army are all regulars.
That’s important because some of the smaller woods need well-versed stops to hold the game whilst the beaters bring in various small coverts and hedges.
Large woods might be easier to drive but the aesthetics are important to the Warrrenders, and Minuntion is also a shoot where pheasants aren’t allowed to dominate farming activities.
Whilst the farming has been contracted out since Foot and Mouth, allowing Johnny to concentrate on his artistic endeavours, he still values a healthy balance and good relations between keeper and farmer.
Most good keepers experiment with different strains of bird over the years, but it was a first for me as Douglas and I sat down the night before the shoot to discuss how he was experimenting with various strains of pheasant in different areas of the shoot, to try to match their situation.
This year some drives have blueback crosses, others garcon noir, Mongolian or Manchurian crosses.
A terrier pitches in with the picking-up work.
Not content with this, the ducks reared from day-olds have this year been from a Danish strain held in high esteem.
The fact that the nearest pheasant shooting neighbour is eight miles away might add to his vermin control challenge, but it does help him to control the lineage of his birds nevertheless.
The shoot day
The shoot intrigued me and, as the guns gathered for coffee with car temperature gauges hovering at -6ºC, I just hoped the dark clouds threatening us would hold off, letting Minuntion show what it could deliver.
The weather may have led to cancelled shoots across Scotland and nervous queues at filling stations as panic buying set in, but Keith’s guests had all managed the drive and we set off for The Mill in high spirits.
It was to be a classic Minuntion drive with the majority of the guns spread down a bank of the Stinchar – a bank lined with young trees that would doubtless test the casting skills of future generations of fishermen.
Had it not been for the thick coating of ice we might have admired salmon busy spawning – but that distraction could have been a costly mistake.
As the first birds began to appear through the drifting snowflakes I stationed myself between Keith and his brother, Mungo, to watch the early pheasants appear as beaters brought in the high opposite bank, floating oh so quietly but with deceptive speed over the line.
It was apparently a drive that could vary between good and outstanding depending on the weather – we weren’t disappointed.
As the drive finished everyone in the line had enjoyed challenging birds and the picking-up team swung into action.
The Minuntion beaters beaters are all regulars and crucial to the shoot’s success.
Douglas likes to see every bird gathered and whilst a couple of the six pickers-up were usually to be found way back, the dogs with experience of working on the ice-covered river were in their element.
At Pinclanty we were offered a different face of the shoot, this drive featuring two main woods high on the bank facing us.
We could view much of the work of the beaters and stops in the far distance as they pushed in hedges and banks, disappearing into the first wood to begin coaxing out a trickle of birds that sped up and climbed high above us.
The beaters then briefly reappeared and moved into the next wood to commence the drive in earnest.
With the quarry in sight long enough to encourage nerves and the morning not yet in full swing I could sense this was a drive which required practise and confidence, not least because many of the beaters had a grandstand view of the gun’s efforts as they stood exposed to the cold wind.
In the event the birds were of good quality despite the weather, the flushes often calling for fast reloading – not easy given chilled hands and a continued sprinkle of snowflakes.
A break for elevenses gave the beaters time to regroup then the guns walked from the house to The Kiln.
This long, curved bank with the Stinchar way behind promised and delivered a tantalising mix of birds, some heading out straight over the gun’s heads and others hugging the edge of the wood as long, high crossers.
It was a most successful drive, although as we walked back to the house for lunch I was hoping that the weather – looking more threatening by the moment as mist swept in from the west coast – would permit afternoon sport.
In the event we were spared the worst of the forecast sleet and snow.
The keeper’s choice of duck proved a winner on Crow Wood.
This was fortunate because Crow Wood was a drive I had seen the previous evening and was looking forward to.
Set facing a number of banks that would be testing tired beaters and dogs, the L-shaped line of guns were split by the frozen Stinchar – over which several of them had to be taken by tractor and trailer.
I was treated to a great show of duck, which proved Douglas’ point that his chosen strain was indeed a good one.
The final drive as the light faded again featured a crossing of the Stinchar, this time where it was deeper and still flowing, when we all headed for Auchlewan, a long steep bank of bracken and older trees.
Having reached our expected bag but with Keith’s exhortation that his guests should carry on and enjoy this last drive ringing in our ears, I joined Johnny.
Shooting as Keith’s guest he was in a potentially embarrassing prime position as the gun walking in behind the beaters.
“Have to be selective here,” he said. “Shooting every good bird going back here could really blow the bag!”
The neighbouring guns were looking forward to seeing him in action on fast targets whipping back through the trees and they weren’t disappointed.
It was a fitting end to a cold but exciting day.
Guns head back to the warmth and dry of the house.
After tea and cake I slithered towards Glasgow, reflecting on another of Johnny’s pre-shoot comments:
“It’s a shoot that people like to come to”.
The guns agreed and so do I. Hidden away as it is in a delightful valley, for me it was well worth the journey to discover its delights.
For more information contact Johnny Warrender on 01465 841219 or alternatively email [email protected]
For more shoot features click here