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Portugal’s redleg realm

As you disembark from the EasyJet flight to Faro on Portugal’s southern coast you have a choice. You could, like the majority of your fellow passengers, grab your golf clubs from the luggage carousel and head to the manicured greens, the beaches and retirement apartments of the Algarve. Or you could ravel an hour inland to the wilds of the Alentejo; to a region one-and-a-half times the size of Wales blessed with scenery ranging from cereal-growing steppes to rugged mountains dotted with gnarled holm oaks and ancient cork trees, inhabited by a population of 700,000 or so, and home to spectacular partridge shooting.

Largely unknown to travelling British sportsmen and women, who historically have preferred to book partridge shooting trips to neighbouring Spain, the Alentejo is home to numerous sporting estates on which the native redleg, both wild and released, fl ourish. Given its proximity to North Africa, the landscape and climate are far drier and hotter than the UK, making it ideal for the partridge’s breeding and development, yet it is also an area in which British shooters should naturally feel at home, since the Portugese sporting ethos is markedly similar to that of British shooters. Sensitive conservation and management for sport and wildlife are conducted throughout this region, where 90 per cent of the European population of the undoubtedly impressive and seriously threatened great bustard is resident. Careful nurturing has grown their numbers from just 300 in the 1990s to more than 1,000 today and there are also plans afoot, thanks to the benefits of game management, to reintroduce the Iberian lynx.

Growing numbers of British shooters, however, is a relatively new undertaking in the Alentejo, and one estate keen to show its virtues to a different audience is that of Santa Clara, near Almodovar, the municipality’s capital. One of 1,000 or so commercial or private shooting areas in the country, the 3,500-acre estate, owned and managed by José Carlos Palma, hosts driven and walked-up days of a less intensive nature than is often the case with some of its Spanish equivalents. In January, the Santa Clara estate hosted its first group of visiting British shooters, keen to try Portugal’s take on partridge shooting. The quarry at Santa Clara is principally redlegs, with wild numbers supplemented by released birds. These are put down long before the shooting season starts in October, meaning the birds you raise your gun to are wary, hard fliers.

Having spent the previous night comfortably in a simple and typical whitewashed “rural turismo”, in the early-morning light we headed along miles of dry red earth dirt tracks, round sharp hairpin bends and blind summits in order to make the 9am meeting of Guns, beaters and secretarios (guides/loaders) due to take place at José Carlos’s newly completed restaurant-cum-shooting lodge in the village of Santa Clara itself. His cousin Ana Palma works for the local tourist board and she had tirelessly arranged every detail of our visit. She explained, as she drove along precipitous tracks flanked with cork oak trees, which plug the world’s finest wine bottles, that due to the nature of the terrain, when the World Rally Championships’ Portugese leg begins each April, these are the roads that the drivers really relish: “The rally starts in the Algarve, but the best tracks aren’t until the Alentejo. The drivers fly along and you can’t quite believe how mad some of the fans are. Many camp up the trees for days beforehand to get a good view.”

As at any friendly British shoot, large numbers of Guns, beaters and dogs arrived at the appointed hour with the typical bustle and chat. The team of experienced Portugese Guns I joined included several newcomers to the estate, but the majority were regular visitors. Peg numbers were drawn by the 11 Guns that would form the line for the day of driven sport and soon a convoy of dusty 4x4s fired up for the short trip to the shooting area.

Each Gun having been allocated his own secretario, the party picked their way through the scrub up a rock-strewn gulley to their pegs. Sun-hardened and smiling, the most experienced secretario, respectfully known to all by his surname Palma (again), had been chosen as my companion and guide. He quickly set about establishing a camouflage screen, tapping poles into the dry earth with a stone, in order to offer some cover from the birds’ approach. In the best sign language, he indicated my arcs of fire and settled in to see how the Inglês would cope with a semi-auto on a driven day.

Way off in the beating line, José Carlos blew the horn to start the drive and soon the first small coveys of birds appeared in the bright blue sky above us. Quickly it became clear that my team were capable Shots. To my left and right high and fast partridges were neatly folded out in front. My own initial efforts resulted in Senhor Palma exhorting me, again in sign language, to give the birds more lead. These partridges certainly weren’t suffering from the reputed “low-bird syndrome” allegedly dogging their British counterparts. Eventually, I resurrected my sporting reputation, bringing down several, but using many more cartridges in the process.

When at last the fluorescent yellow specks of the beaters appeared on the slope in front of us and steadily grew larger, the horn sounded once more. Secretarios up and down the line quickly scrambled up the bank behind to ollect marked fallen birds, bringing a record of numbers shot and cartridges fired on each peg to José Carlos. Such precise management is not only part of the let day process, but also a reflection of the careful way in which shooting is controlled in Portugal. João Carvalho, the secretary general of the Portugese equivalent of BASC, the Associação Nacional de Proprietários e Produtores de Caça, who was accompanying us on the day, explained that after the country’s revolution of 1974, restrictions on public hunting had largely been lifted.

“This had a severely detrimental effect,” he pointed out, “There was a boom to around 300,000 hunters in Portugal after the revolution in 1974, but subsequently restrictions have been reintroduced to prevent unchecked killing of game species. Now there are around 150,000 hunters and a much more enlightened attitude to management.”

After three drives in the arid landscape and the warm winter sun, the day’s sport closed with a final tally of 185 — a bag that allowed the Guns to enjoy plenty of shooting, but which was by no means excessive. Following the meticulous arrangement of the tableau de chasse back at José Carlos’s restaurant, the shooting day ended with a long lunch of Alentejano produce, including olives, chorizo and the traditional chickpea stew, cozido de grão, washed down with the excellent Bombeira red wine made locally in nearby Mértola. As a taste of Portugese shooting and hospitality it was exemplary. To many purists, however, walked-up sport is the best you can find and we were fortunate that José Carlos had arranged, for the next day, a morning’s walked-up shooting among the holm oak spinneys behind the village.

Walked-up sport in the olive groves

Joined by local forestry engineer Miguel Cortes and guided by three of the previous day’s secretarios and their dogs, three Guns strode out into the parched country. If there was any doubt that the hunted birds were truly wild in nature, the morning’s sport put paid to it. In Portugal, walked-up sport is known as salta, which literally means “jump”, and in this case sharp reactions were essential to put anything in the bag.

The rocky landscape was dotted with collapsed dry-stone walls, derelict farm buildings abandoned to the elements and olive groves in which wild black pigs rooted, unfazed by our presence. The sense of being in natural partridge territory grew, as did the temperature as we hiked across the ground. Miguel explained that this year, Portugal had been suffering from an unusually dry summer: “We could be in Morocco right now. Normally, this landscape should be covered in grass, but we haven’t had rain for weeks.” A secluded hollow we passed housed a hidden spring which briefly changed the muted browns and greys to greens and gave an idea of how the country could be. Even in this small patch, however, you could not mistake the location for Sussex.

After two-and-a-half hours of hunting, we had enjoyed plenty of opportunities as small coveys and pairs had burst out fast and low at our approach. We successfully put nine birds in the bag — a satisfying feat in itself, and a contrast to the more organised sport of the day before. But above all, the morning had given us the opportunity to hunt partridge on their native ground, which for any shooter must be considered a privilege.

The Alentejo offers a dramatic landscape, a warm climate and an equally warm welcome from a hospitable shooting community. That it is not better known as a shooting destination is perhaps because it lies in the shadow of its near neighbour Spain. But the next time you think of booking a holiday, leave the golf clubs in the Algarve.