Auch­nafree proves per­fect for the Twelfth

Open­ing the sea­son at a dif­fer­ent es­tate is a big step – but one that this team of guns took in its stride, en­joy­ing a truly glo­ri­ous day

The Field - - CONTENT - writ­ten BY pa­trick gal­braith pho­tog­ra­phy BY si­mon jauncey

New sea­son, new es­tate – would it be a suc­cess? By Pa­trick Gal­braith

The road north to Auch­nafree winds through that part of Scot­land where arable coun­try rolls out into scraggy glen and Perthshire be­comes the High­lands. It was to be the first time the five­strong team, led by Marco Com­pagnoni, a lawyer from Lon­don, had shot at the es­tate.

“We usu­ally go farther north for the Twelfth,” Com­pagnoni’s god­son, Daniel Hullsief, ex­plains over a cup of cof­fee in a large tin shed, the walls of which are adorned with antlers and taxi­dermy. “We’ve been go­ing to the same es­tate since I was about 14, which is al­most a decade ago I sup­pose. It sounds silly but in some ways the de­par­ture is a bit emo­tional. We had some great days there, some­times shoot­ing well over 50 brace.”

Across the ta­ble, a large man in es­tate tweeds is lis­ten­ing in; this will be Colin Dey’s 22nd sea­son as keeper at Auch­nafree. “What sort of num­bers can we ex­pect to­day?” an­other gun asks him. Af­ter a short pause he comes back with a charm­ingly cryp­tic: “You never can tell. There’s lit­tle point in count­ing them – but the bil­ber­ries are plen­ti­ful.”

Dey’s older brother, Sandy, is rather more spe­cific when a smiley Swede, off to shoot grouse over his point­ers on an­other part of the moor, asks him “if the rain might clear”.

“Com­ing from the north­west,” Sandy Dey replies with com­mand­ing cer­tainty. “It’ll only get wet­ter as the day goes on.”


As we trun­dle up the switch­backs through the fog, the River Al­mond fades out of view be­neath us. On up the road, higher and higher, and the drum of rain­drops on the wind­screen grows fainter. Even­tu­ally, the sun breaks through the clouds. Sandy Dey sits in the front seat look­ing out of the win­dow. It’s a tes­ta­ment to the mer­cu­rial na­ture of the Scot­tish weather that even a man who has spent his life on the hill can be wrong about its vi­cis­si­tudes.

Re­flect­ing on his time at the es­tate, Colin Dey re­calls that in 1998 they “drove 30

days at Auch­nafree”. He ad­mits that was pos­si­bly “over­do­ing it” but good man­age­ment, se­lec­tive shoot­ing and stick­ing to walked-up days has seen the grouse pop­u­la­tion re­cover. If it ap­pears that num­bers are healthy over the next cou­ple of weeks, he hopes to “put on a few driven days later on in the sea­son”.

Mean­while, in the back of the truck, Al­lie Mack­in­tosh is talk­ing dogs. Af­ter many years of tri­alling labradors he’s moved on to spaniels. “For a change as much as any­thing else and they’re per­fect for walked-up days like to­day.” He pauses then adds, “It’s sim­ply the best form of shoot­ing. The el­e­ments of sur­prise and speed make it truly spe­cial.”

Then the cars stop, doors are pushed open and hats go fly­ing. “The birds will ei­ther be bloody easy if they’re hang­ing in this wind,” Com­pagnoni’s part­ner, Bruce San­som, sug­gests with a wry smile, “or bloody im­pos­si­ble if it’s be­hind them.” San­som was once a prin­ci­pal dancer with The Royal Bal­let but, dis­ap­point­ingly, he wades through the heather and clam­bers over the slag in much the same pro­saic way as the rest of the guns. There is noth­ing dis­cernibly arabesque about it.

Off the top out of the wind it’s re­mark­ably still. There is no con­ver­sa­tion, just the heavy breath­ing of a spaniel strain­ing on its lead. No­body wants to be caught off-guard when the first covey breaks. Meadow pip­its flit dain­tily across the moor and sud­denly a large moun­tain hare bolts from its seat just ahead of Hull-sief. He watches as it makes its way up the hill, the dew spray­ing up be­hind its pow­er­ful back legs. “I wouldn’t want to carry that all morn­ing,” he says, be­fore adding, “and it just seems wrong to shoot some­thing so grace­ful.”


Some min­utes later the quiet is bro­ken as a blur of red-speck­led dark brown erupts from the heather and six birds swing left down to­wards the bot­tom of the line. Com­pagnoni gives it both bar­rels and starts the day off bril­liantly with a right-and-left. Ap­pro­pri­ately, for Scot­land, Ted the gin­ger spaniel bounds down the hill to re­trieve the first bird and is fol­lowed by Nico, an­other cocker, who gets the sec­ond.

Frus­trat­ingly for the guns, in fetch­ing the birds the dogs put up an­other covey. The grouse are sur­pris­ingly flighty for the

Twelfth, some­thing that Hull-sief puts down to the un­set­tled weather.

As we walk on a few hun­dred yards, a herd of red hinds takes off down the gul­ley in front of us and the same birds the spaniels flushed break cover again, just out of range.

At this point nerves have set­tled and snip­pets of con­ver­sa­tion can be heard in the wind. Hull-sief is “fairly con­fi­dent” about his shoot­ing af­ter a few re­cent lessons at the West Lon­don Shoot­ing School’s grouse lay­out. He then adds that, “in all hon­esty, I don’t think clays can re­ally repli­cate birds that well but it cer­tainly helps to iron out any bad habits picked up over the course of last sea­son”.

Iron­i­cally, just as Hull-sief is mid-sen­tence, two grouse spring up in front of him. Two shots are fired and both birds fly on.

Farther down the line, more grouse break and then tum­ble into the heather.

Be­hind the line, a sin­gle bird gets up. Jonathan Wood, a busi­ness part­ner of Com­pagnoni’s, turns and takes it with his first bar­rel. As his young black-and-white cocker, Drake, dashes off to re­trieve the bird, Wood looks across the moor and re­flects on his love of walked-up grouse. “You feel like you de­serve ev­ery bird. It’s hard to ex­plain but there’s a sort of spe­cial re­la­tion­ship be­tween the grouse and those who pur­sue them. Quite sim­ply, this is as wild as shoot­ing gets.”

‘Quite sim­ply,’ says Jonathan Wood, ‘this is as wild as shoot­ing gets’

Down the hill, Colin Dey shouts up at the guns to wheel round. In do­ing so the top of the line dis­turbs a large covey of birds, which curl round mag­nif­i­cently and then fly the gaunt­let above the line with the wind at their tail feath­ers. Each gun salutes the birds with both bar­rels but they fly on un­harmed and fade out of sight against the heather.


As the party moves on across the hill, the grouse start to break at reg­u­lar in­ter­vals. Af­ter a frus­trat­ing start, it seems that Hullsief, up at the top of the line, has got his eye in. He adds a num­ber of birds to the bag and any­thing that is missed makes it way down­wind to be dealt with by Com­pagnoni, who is shoot­ing re­mark­ably well.

Af­ter a num­ber of misses, Wood is get­ting frus­trated. Any at­tempts to talk to him are re­buffed as he fo­cuses fixedly on the heather in front of him. An­other op­por­tu­nity comes when a sin­gle bird breaks at his feet – this time he con­nects and it falls in a cloud of feath­ers and a flash of smart white spats

A large covey curls round mag­nif­i­cently then flies the gaunt­let above the line

20 yards on. A smile of re­lief comes over his face. “Well, that wasn’t very hard,” his 14-year-old son, Finlay, laughs. He is ig­nored and Drake is sent off to find the bird.

“The name was my idea,” an­nounces Finlay Wood proudly, rea­son­ing that “the breeder was called Francis”. This is his first time shoot­ing grouse and just be­fore lunch he bags his first bird, a sat­is­fy­ing cross­ing shot that a gun who has spent a life­time on the moor would be proud of.


Ar­riv­ing at the Land Rovers, the gun’s dig their pieces out of their pock­ets. Finlay Wood perches on a rock hold­ing his bird with the re­main­der of that morn­ing’s 20 brace at his feet. Colin Dey bloods him like some sort of make-up artist in ac­tion, while Wood takes a pic­ture. “The girls at Welling­ton will go wild for that snap when you get back to school,” Com­pagnoni shouts over. Finlay Wood looks em­bar­rassed and ig­nores him.

Ly­ing in the heather, Sandy Dey, whose real pas­sion is stalk­ing, spies a stag across on the other side of the glen. The binoc­u­lars are passed round but it ap­pears the beast is in­vis­i­ble to the Lon­don desk-jockey eye, with only San­som, now bal­let mas­ter and as­sis­tant to the artis­tic di­rec­tor at San Fran­cisco Bal­let, spot­ting it, well hid­den against the back­drop of the hill.

The guns set off again and the first grouse of the af­ter­noon breaks at Wood’s feet. With his dog at­tached to his belt pulling him across the moor, he strug­gles to get his foot­ing and misses. The bird wheels round on the wind and is sat­is­fy­ingly dropped out of the sky by his son, who has now shot his sec­ond grouse and has well and truly wiped his fa­ther’s eye.

At this point the group hits a large patch of knee-high heather and the shoot­ing stops for a while. Com­pagnoni fills the si­lence with the ob­ser­va­tion that “ev­ery gun in the line is a 16-bore”. He ex­plains: “I’ve al­ways had one and I in­sist all my friends and col­leagues get them, too. I’m on a one-man mis­sion to keep 16-bore car­tridges avail­able and avail­able at a half-sen­si­ble price.” It’s a noble en­deav­our.

Pass­ing into greener heather, three birds flush from be­neath Hull-sief’s feet. He takes the first two mas­ter­fully with a right-and

It’s the fi­nal bird of the day and it glides down el­e­gantly be­side a lit­tle burn

-left be­fore drop­ping an­other car­tridge into his right bar­rel and promptly fold­ing the third into the heather just be­fore it flies out of range. A tri­umphant smile breaks over his face and he turns and says, “You’re very wel­come to put that in the mag­a­zine.”

The dogs are tired and the re­trieves take some time. Their ef­forts com­pli­cated by the lines of scent criss-cross­ing over each other. As the day comes to a close the sky grows grey and fat rain­drops start to fall. Two grouse spring up from be­hind San­som, protest­ing nois­ily at be­ing dis­turbed from the warmth of their heath­ery shel­ter. San­som turns on his heel and takes the first grouse as it makes off down the hill and Hull-sief con­nects with the sec­ond. It’s the fi­nal bird of the day and it glides down el­e­gantly be­side a lit­tle burn, bring­ing the bag to 30 brace.


Ten glo­ri­ous years at the same es­tate was al­ways go­ing to be a hard act to fol­low but lis­ten­ing to the guns re­count­ing their day, birds shot and birds missed, it ap­pears that Colin Dey has done it. Walk­ing down the hill, Mack­in­tosh is deep in con­ver­sa­tion, lament­ing the de­cline of ru­ral towns, with large su­per­mar­kets forc­ing the clo­sure of lit­tle shops and the ero­sion of com­mu­ni­ties.

It’s tempt­ing to sub­scribe to a ro­man­tic no­tion that life on the moor will re­main the same no mat­ter what else changes. It’s cer­tainly true there’s some­thing time­less about a love and re­spect for the birds and the land­scape, as dis­played pas­sion­ately at Auch­nafree by the guns, the pick­ers-up and es­pe­cially Colin Dey.

Yet, year af­ter year, grouse-shoot­ing faces louder and louder op­po­si­tion from the mis­in­formed and those who wish to mis­in­form oth­ers in a mind­less cru­sade of self-pro­mo­tion. “That was the best day’s shoot­ing I’ve ever had,” Finlay Wood re­flects when we’re off the hill. One can only hope that com­mon­sense pre­vails and he can still be walk­ing over the moor on the Twelfth at his fa­ther’s age, in some 30 years’ time.

Bruce San­som takes his first shot of the day at Auch­nafree, where the early sea­son birds were sur­pris­ingly flighty

Clock­wise: Jonathan Wood’s young cocker, Drake, re­trieves a bird from be­hind the line; a sat­is­fy­ing cross­ing shot in the heather; a large covey flies the gaunt­let with the wind at their tails

San­som scram­bles down the heather-clad slopes of this 12,000-acre High­land es­tate

An­ti­clock­wise: guns scan the far side of the glen for a stag, spot­ted by Sandy Dey; a fi­nal sweep be­fore lunch; Jonathan Wood eye­ing up a po­ten­tial righ­tand-left; Sandy Dey with the re­triev­ing team

Above: Colin Dey bloods young Finlay Wood Right: Colin Dey di­rects the line

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