THE BEATERS’ DAY
A shooting tradition, this joyous end-of-season get-together is the one time in the year that keepers and beaters can really let their hair down...
The last day of the season at Portmore sees beaters take up their guns
‘ On this one day of the year, the guests of honour were the beaters themselves’
It was just past 9am when the last car pulled up to the stone bothy and the final beater opened his boot, unleashing four springers who rushed to join the pack of dogs already milling about the yard. Restrained excitement was unmistakable in the crisp morning air of Portmore estate near Peebles, an itch that suggested this, the last day of the season, would be the best. With greetings exchanged, trailers attached and waterproofs on, the group of twenty or so beaters gathered in a huddle, cups of tea in hand, waiting to be briefed as to what the day had in store. Any onlooker would think they were preparing for the imminent arrival of tweed-clad guests, keen to be welcomed to their day of shooting, but nobody else
arrived. For on this one day of the year, the guests of honour were the beaters themselves.
Portmore’s Beaters’ Day sees the tables turned, with beaters able to pick up a gun and demonstrate their shooting prowess with a shot at the estate’s remaining pheasants; the shooting equivalent of an end-of-term sports day. Organised by the estate’s gamekeepers, father and son team Alec and Kyle Hogg, the beaters were joined by three keepers from the west coast. Divided into two groups, they took turns about, beating and shooting, with everyone able to have a shot at a pheasant.
The echo of gunshot
Kyle’s safety briefing finished on the note ‘we’ll need to just see what’s left in the woods,’ to manage expectations at the end of what has been a relatively ‘ open season’. Portmore’s pheasants, like others across the country, have been affected by the mild winter and abundance of natural food available in the woods. Pheasants have been less reliant on the gamekeepers for sustenance and, as a result, have spread out over a greater distance, away from the feeding sites. Despite the uncertainty, there was little that could dampen the buoyant chatter of the beaters as they loaded themselves, and their dogs, into wagons and set off.
Lined up across the field, guns were poised as the clamour of the beating line’s shouts, claps and cracks drew closer at deceptive speed, at odds with their uphill slog. The beaters’ chorus was quickly punctuated by the echo of gunshot ringing across the hill, Alec himself downing the first bird. For others who had not picked up a gun all season, it was a slower start but by the final drive of the morning everybody had found their stride, taking turns to shoot, pick-up and join the beating line led by Kyle.
In recent years, since Alec has become more involved with the Scottish Gamekeepers Association, Kyle has taken on more of the work on the 5,000-acre estate, which stretches from Leadburn near West Linton to Eddleston in the
‘ My first payment was 10 shillings. I can remember smelling the note and thinking: this is fantastic’
Borders. Between them, they run around ten shoots per season, averaging about 150-200 birds in the early months, dwindling to 70-120 per day in January.
The importance of Beaters’ Day to Kyle is clear, as he treats it as if it was a family or paid shoot, seamlessly setting up each drive, ensuring everyone has had a shot at a pheasant and playing host over lunch along with Alec. He also took time to voice his gratitude to his team for their hard work over the last three months. ‘These are the guys that come every Saturday throughout the shooting season, which, for me, is the beginning of November to the end of January,’ said Kyle. ‘We organise a Beaters’ Day to give something back to them and to keep the social side of things going.’
And the day didn’t end after the last drive. Everyone headed back to the bothy where the success of the season was toasted with a wellstocked bar and entertainment organised by Alec. ‘The party normally goes on until about three or four in the morning,’ laughs Alec. ‘You need to have a bit of stamina because bothy drams are a lot bigger than pub drams – they’re not quarter gills, that’s for sure.’
The beating team at Portmore is a cosmopolitan bunch which includes a pensioner, an electrician, a doctor and a dentist. But come Saturday mornings during the pheasant season when they pull up to the bothy, they become beaters and take their role in the shoot seriously.
When it comes to the significance of the beating community, perhaps nobody is better placed to comment than Alec himself, who fondly remembers the early days of his career and receiving his first payment for a day of beating. ‘It was 10 shillings in old money and it was a note,’ he says. ‘I can remember smelling it and thinking “this is fantastic”.
‘Beating on commercial shoots is a great earner and it gives you a sense of being part of something. You learn to take orders, to be part of a team and you go away being proud. And I’ve seen it changing a lot of guys, being able to get jobs because they can discipline themselves.’
The sense of community amongst their beating team is evident. From the light-hearted competitive banter of the first drive to the more colourful jokes shared as the day draws to a close, age and background seem inconsequential, as do people’s reasons for being there. Long-serving beater Bert Smith turns 82 this year and was introduced to field sports at just five-years-old when his father took him shooting and fishing with farmers known to the family. He took a job as an electrical engineer, and shooting was sidelined to a hobby which saw him forming a syndicate and taking on the rent at an estate where he undertook maintenance as well as running shoots. Now retired, he stays involved in the shooting community by working for the Hoggs, still able to match the younger beaters in stamina and pace, both on the beating line and in the bothy afterwards.
Bert’s lifetime of shooting certainly brings experience to the Hoggs’ beating team but there are men who’ve entered the sport more recently. Steve Hawkins, a general manager for a lighting design company, met Kyle during a taekwondo training session five years ago when he had recently acquired a Weimaraner puppy, Oscar. Despite never having seen a pheasant shoot before, Steve was invited to bring Oscar
‘ Everyone has had a shot at a pheasant’
along to a shoot and was instantly hooked. At seven months old, Oscar was just the right age to begin training in the Hoggs’ beating line and has been flushing and picking up regularly since, although Steve admits he didn’t pick the dog with working him in mind, ‘If you ask any one of the guys here they’ll say spaniels are better but Oscar will cover distance more than any other dog and bringing him to a shoot is the best way to tire him out.’ For Steve, his job beating encouraged him to get his own shotgun and firearm certificates which has led to more work on the estate.
Despite the majority of beaters picking up a gun during the season’s last hurrah, one man chose to stick to the beating line. Darren Davies took up beating in November last year when he was invited along to a shoot by a friend. ‘I’m not from a shooting background; I got invited for one day and luckily enough, I got asked back,’ he says. Not wishing to take part in the killing of the birds, his enjoyment of the day comes from the physical aspect of the job. ‘There’s more for me in coming here than shooting pheasants. Being in the team is good banter and the energy you get off everything to do with the hills is my main reason for coming.’
The final count of the day was an accomplished 69 pheasants and one rogue jay, but the feeling of success appeared unrelated to the tally. The beaters attributed their haul to luck and agreed that the satisfaction of the day stemmed from simply being amongst friends and sharing their passion for shooting, something that Alec has seen throughout his long career.
‘If you shoot a pheasant, or a stag or catch a trout, you’ll remember it for the rest of your life,’ says Alec, ‘yet you see a film, go on foreign holidays and forget a whole heap of stuff. It goes into your psyche, and for me, that must mean something.’
Left: Alec Hogg, the head keeper at Portmore. Above: The 25-strong Portmore shooting party. Right: Fraser Anderson takes a rest from organising, to have a shot.
Top left: Stuart Rankine takes aim. Top right: A labrador impresses with a great retrieve. Above: Alec Hogg marks the end of a drive. Below left: The awesome foursome.
Above: Teamwork is the key to a good day’s shooting.