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
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.”
THE FOG CLEARS
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.”
THE FIRST BIRDS
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.
A NEW DECADE
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