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...

Scottish Field - - CONTENTS - WORDS FIONA HENDRIE IMAGES AN­GUS BLACK­BURN

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.

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