Bowhill shoot, run by Stuart and Robert Riddell from Hawthorn Sporting, offers partridge and pheasant shooting across its 28,000 acres.
Shortly before the first drive started, a sparrowhawk emerged from the highest cluster of oak trees and twinkled her wings in the bright sunlight. Against a cloudless blue sky, the little hunter passed directly over my head at a fantastic height, pausing once to wheel and turn before vanishing behind me. It was as if the hawk had been sent as a scout, because within five minutes, pheasants were following precisely the same flightpath off a steep bank of yellowing birch and oak scrub to swing out over the River Yarrow.
These were the wiliest, strongest old cocks and they certainly knew their business. Many of the younger birds tended to drop off with the wind, but these old campaigners reared high up into the sunshine in the face of a slight westerly breeze. Guns began to crackle and boom around the river bottom, and while several fantastic birds were brought into the bag, the majority hardly even quivered their tails as the shot whizzed by. These high fliers were heading for Black Andrew, a renowned drive on the other side of the Yarrow, and judging by the steep bank of spruce and gorse standing in the shade, it was easy to see how this hillside had earned its reputation as one of the finest drives in Scotland.
Watching the beaters high above me on the young plantation, it was obvious this ground was designed for pheasant shooting. Perhaps only Devon could hope to match those steep-sided valleys, which are a hallmark of the Scottish Borders, and as the horns sounded to signal the end of the drive, I tried to take in the precipitous terrain, clothed all around in autumnal drifts of rusty bracken and yellow leaves. The surrounding heather hills were lit golden in the morning sun, given three dimensions by pockets and folds of misty blue shade where the frost still lurked.
Bowhill is one of the traditional homes of the Duke of Buccleuch, Britain’s largest landowner and proprietor of Drumlanrig Castle and Langholm Moor. Like many of the Buccleuch estates, Bowhill has an enviable sporting history, and although the 28,000-acre low ground is no longer managed by the Duke, the nature of the terrain itself is an unalterable asset that would stand any keeper or team of beaters in good stead.
The shoot’s current incarnation takes the form of Hawthorn Sporting, which consists of father and son team Stuart and Robert Riddell. Between these two, the huge acreage somehow becomes manageable, although as Stuart explained, driving around the perimeter of the shoot is a trip of almost 30 miles.
The ground we covered in early November centred on a single valley running due east from Selkirk almost to St. Mary’s Loch, where Scots pines and bare, rustling acres of moorland paint the stereotypical postcard view of the Scottish Borders. This countryside is so laden with history and legend that Robert Burns, Sir Walter Scott and William Wordsworth all explored it in poetry, song and verse.
And, in 1806, Scott wrote: “In no part of Scotland has the belief in Fairies maintained its ground with more pertinacity than in Selkirkshire”. To Scott’s generation, these were not the florid Tinkerbell fairies of Disney fame, but mysterious, threatening creatures with a penchant for abduction, theft and extreme cruelty.
The countryside has not changed so much over 200 years that the link has altogether disappeared, and on the rough, tumbling hillsides of Yarrow and the adjacent Ettrick valley, it is easy to let the mind wander onto the subject.
As we moved along the Yarrow beneath hanging boughs of oak and hazel, the river reeked of moss and roared over the rapids where salmon lurked. Each drive brought fresh challenges, none more staggering and impressive than a tall wedge of mature spruce trees coupled with an adjacent game crop. With masterful care, the birds were moved into the flushing points and then pressure was gently applied so they gradually leaked out over the line in small flushes of a dozen or less.
With the wind behind them, the birds soared downwind like hail. Standing beside Lawrence Hawley, one of the day’s hosts, I tried to keep up with the pace of the birds and the shooting. Lawrence began to get into a rhythm as the pheasants roared over his head, and I was left flailing for cartridges from my belt as the birds flashed past, forced into prodigious height by a stand of yellowing larch trees immediately in front of me.
Amidst thrilling gushes of game, a woodcock dropped vertically over this larch screen, but I hardly had time to see it before another partridge came blasting over. Pickers-up moved into position to work away once the drive was over, and they brought handfuls of birds back as we had a quick bite to eat for elevenses.
This team of guns has a long history together, and while I had been invited as a guest and complete stranger to one and all, it was easy to feel part of the gang between drives, when old jokes were dusted off. Much of the fun fell on Chris Dewbury, acting as joint host, who had made the mistake of pumping petrol into his diesel Range Rover on his way up the M6, coming to a halt on the hard shoulder and having to hire a car for the rest of the journey up.
Inevitably, he found himself at the receiving end of a considerable amount of good-natured teasing throughout the day. By way of retaliation, Chris, who is UK sales director for Hunter Boots, offered an entertaining critique of everybody’s footwear, particularly when it was manufactured by a competitor. Thankfully, I was wearing a pair of Hood Bullseye wellies (a brand owned by Hunter), and received high praise for my good taste.
Perhaps the most outstanding moment of the day was the final drive, when the guns were taken up over the hilltops and down into the Ettrick valley. As our convoy climbed over the pass, a greyhen whirred off out of the heather at the sound of the vehicles, as if to remind us there are still some black grouse strongholds in these rough hills.
Dispersed along a deep gully above Old Kirkhope farm, we waited with the sound of rushing water as the beaters organised themselves and began to press birds over us. The steep sides of the gully were lost beneath a mat of fallen bracken so deep it was only broken in continuity here and there by the occasional gaunt rowan or willow tree.
A party of half a dozen bullfinches flickered overhead, and then a single high partridge signalled the start of the drive. For a quarter of an hour, pheasants and partridges came soaring over the gully; some of them like grouse in massed coveys of 15 or 20, others singly and like meteorites. Snatched glimpses of racing silhouettes both uphill and down added another tweak of pleasure to the drive, since it is always a thrill to follow the progress of neighbouring guns and birds. Provided, of course, that poking your nose into the business of the other guns does not distract you from your own.
The burn gurgled at our feet and drowned the sound of the birds, so that when they appeared, it was without the sound of clattering wings. This made for some fantastic snap-shooting, and as the sun began to set above the village of Ettrickbridge, the guns really found a groove. There were some stunning anonymous shots down to my left, where iridescent cock pheasants folded neatly up and thumped into the bracken as if somebody had simply switched them off.
With the departure of the sun, a bitter chill descended on the hills, and we headed back over the tops to Stuart Riddell’s house at Wester Kershope for a late lunch.
There is no doubt that under its current management, Bowhill continues to offer some spectacular sport. The very nature of the ground is such that the birds can fly like rockets given a fair wind, and although our day had perhaps been a little early for some of the growing pheasants, there is no doubt these would come into their own as the season progressed.
Older birds from the previous season had shown just what sport a fit, cunning pheasant can offer over the Yarrow water, and with another jibe at Chris Dewbury’s expense still ringing in my ears, I left the guns and headed for home with the first stars rising up over those wild, rounded hills.