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Sport for all pockets

There can you go stalking, fishing, ferreting, pigeon shooting, walking-up, shooting grouse, pheasants and partridges all on the same estate and tailored to your budget? It sounds like sporting nirvana, but in fact it’s the Duke of Buccleuch’s Queensberry Estate.

Roy Green is sporting manager for Buccleuch Estates and is based at Drumlanrig Castle, in Dumfriess-shire, where his team, led by headkeeper Rab Clark, provides every kind of sport on the estate’s 100,000 acres, from £50 rabbit days to several thousands pounds-worth of the UK’s finest partridges.

“In order to get to Drumlanrig, people coming from the south have to drive past several top-notch shoots, so what we offer has to be second to none. Shooting is a customer service industry with an important spin-off: a well-managed countryside,” said Roy. “While we are a commercial shoot, we don’t have much of a corporate market. Many of our clients are travelling syndicates who understand that we run a very family-orientated shoot where wives and children are welcome. One of the directions from the duke when I first came here seven years ago was that, though it is commercial, it mustn’t have a commercial feel. He wants the Guns to feel as though it is their estate for the day.”

The sight of Buccleuch tweed up and down the line thanks to a full line-up of keepers and loaders from the estate is something that few estates can manage. And the Guns don’t just have a gun handed to them at the appropriate moment, they get the full story of Buccleuch and the estate, as well as the gossip. They are made to feel part of the set-up for the time that they are there.

“The teams like to have the local boys out,” Roy continued. “The great thing about Buccleuch keepers is that they are all shooting men, dogmen, countrymen. It’s their passion, and they get just as much buzz from running a rabbit day or a walked-up boundary day as they do on the double-gun grouse or partridge days. Fieldsports are inclusive and involve people from all backgrounds but I think it is unfortunate that, because some estates are under such pressure from the poor state of farming, shooting is pushing towards the high-end profit margins. The moment that happens, it becomes too elitist.”

This might seem a bit rich when you have 100,000 acres to play on and every type of sport on offer, plus a huge and professional team, but Buccleuch is genuinely not about money, money, money in a vulgar sense. Yes, it produces some of the highest partridges in the country, and Guns pay a huge amount of money for them, but they get what they pay for and more in some Guns’ experiences, when their requests for “only the best birds” can result in the birds being too good and the Guns being found wanting.

Rab took me round the estate; the castle and ducal woodlands at its heart, expanding out to the arable land and commercial woodland, and finally to the moorland fringe, where our first stop was Scudlaw, a double partridge drive where the Guns line the valley bottom and the birds are driven from one side and then the other. Now there are high birds and there are really seriously the highest birds you’re ever likely to see — this drive provides the latter. And, obviously, they put down more than a handful, but the whole set-up was very discreet. The feeding stations were immaculately clean and free of muck, there were plenty of dusting spots and lots of natural cover along the side of the track for the partridges to jug down. The pens are up and down in a week and the birds spend no more than 24 hours in them before they are released. They are out for a month before they are shot, flying back and forth across the valley, being chased by buzzards and getting fit and strong. We couldn’t drive far without seeing a crow cage, a tunnel or a rail trap either, and Rab explained that they have good numbers of golden plovers, curlews, ring ouzels and dippers among other species.

On one side of the hill, however, Rab pointed out some heather and gorse that is typically used for walked-up days or gundog trials. It was easy to see how even this one small area of the estate could fulfil somebody’s sporting dream in an instant — be they a novice gundog handler receiving their dog’s first retrieve or a high-bird specialist experiencing the action on Scudlaw.

“We find that the lads who came for a rabbit or walkedup day 10 years ago have now progressed in their career, earned a bit more money and now they want a 150-bird driven day,” said Roy. “If they have a good day the first time they visit and feel part of the estate, they’ll come back when they want to take the next step, and we have the scope to provide that. It’s the same with the fishing — they might start on the lochs with one of our gillies giving them a casting lesson and before you know it they’re out on the river.

“It’s important that we involve everyone from every walk of life because shooting is not just about money. It’s very important to give something back — though I understand that it’s tough to do that at the moment — and it’s not just because we operate on a large scale either,” he continued. “A walked-up boundary day costs the shoot owner nothing and will probably do him a favour by knocking the birds back. Keepers must be prepared to put on those days for the people who can’t afford the big days, but who might in the future.”

Roy and Rab and the team have worked hard to make sure that they are on good terms with the local community and that the Guns who shoot there understand their philosophy. “On a big shoot there can be 50-odd people out and so it’s important to have a good relationship with the tenant farmers because it can be an aggravation to them. We pay for gates, new tracks and much of the upkeep on the estate to help with this, and the shooters also fill the local hotels and B & Bs, which is important for the area.

“When we get to January and have hit all our targets, there are inevitably a couple of gap days. Some of the local lads then get the opportunity to put some money in a pot and come to shoot the best partridges in the UK for next to nothing.”

I was lucky enough to be taken out on the Nith for a couple of hours in the afternoon by gillie Rab Kerr, who was very patient as I caught mostly weed with a little trout rod. However, the Nith is one of the most productive rivers in Scotland with plenty of salmon and sea trout, yet you can fish it for a week for the same price as a day on the Tweed. There are also trout lochs that can be fished for less than £30. Roy has noticed an increase in demand for fishing this year, most probably because the prices are more reasonable than other Scottish salmon rivers.

On an estate this size, the sport is as varied as the weather conditions, whether it’s top-class partridges and pheasants, walked-up days, stalking or fishing, but there is much from which other estates and shoots can learn. People used to go shooting simply to shoot, but if you want to shoot some
premier partridges or pheasants at Drumlanrig then you certainly won’t be disappointed. Equally, if you want a small walked-up day with friends, you won’t be laughed at and you won’t be treated as second-rate citizens. The Buccleuch team has not lost sight of those who simply want to go shooting and provides sport to suit all interests and pockets. “Some of the best fun we’ve had was with a team of lorry drivers from Ireland,” said Roy. “They rang up and said that they wanted two 200-bird days. When they told me their budget any other commercial shoot would have put the phone down. We arranged two days for them — they ran out of cartridges on the first, so I had to give them some for the second, and I don’t think they had anything left to tip the keepers with, but they had a whale of a time. We even started them off at Muckle Wood, which is our flagship pheasant drive.”