Shoot report: Huntly Cot
Dutchman Peter de Vink has turned a barren hill farm in Midlothian into a prolific sporting moor producing hard-flying birds
Sir Johnny Scott explains how a barren hill farm in Midlothian has been turned into a sporting moor
In 1979, Peter de Vink, a Dutchman working for the Edinburgh fund managers Ivory and Sime, took a 27-year sporting lease over 12,000 acres of the Arniston estate, which lies along the Moorfoot Hills 11 miles from Edinburgh. Since coming to Scotland in the 1960s, de Vink had always cherished the dream of creating his own sporting estate from scratch. The opportunity came in 1987 when Simon Stodart of Smiths Gore, the managing agents for Arniston, advised him that a small, outlying, 800-acre hill farm was for sale. Huntly Cot was a typical Moorfoot stock farm, with 460 acres of low ground round the farmhouse and steading, rising steeply up the face of Huntly Cot Hill to 340 acres of overgrazed heather moorland. Apart from a scattering of old hardwoods round the farmhouse, it was bare of cover; so bare, in fact, that when de Vink drove Malcolm Rifkind, a friend from Edinburgh University, round his new acquisition, Rifkind queried the wisdom of buying this wasteland.
De Vink was convinced that Huntly Cot could be transformed and, as a starting point, sent maps of the estate to six shooting friends – Humphrey Spurway, Simon Stodart, David Laird, Jamie Bruce, Charles Fraser and Richard Van Oss, then chief executive of the Game Conservancy Trust – asking them to suggest where to plant woods. The outcome led to the planting of 350,000 trees, mainly Scots spruce with Norway on the outside for warmth, to create five drives up the steep lower slopes of Huntly Cot Hill and four on the low ground. This mammoth undertaking coincided with the planting of several miles of hedging, the repair of thousands of yards of drystone walling, building access roads, draining bogs and digging two flight ponds. The farmhouse was enlarged to accommodate shooting
guests and farm buildings converted into a keeper’s cottage, game larder, workshop and garages.
As work progressed, the sheep were kept off the hill for the first five years to allow the heather to regenerate. In August 1992, de Vink had his first walked-up day on the moor and in late October, the first driven day on the low ground. Since 1992, Huntly Cot has gone from strength to strength, with the moor providing eight walked-up days and in the early part of the pheasant season, a couple of drives to create an exciting mixed day. The low-ground shoot developed into 16 driven days and has justifiably earned a reputation for notoriously hard-flying, challenging birds, particularly over the past nine years under the expertise of Gareth Jones, the keeper. Jones started as underkeeper at Llangybi Castle for his late father, Roy, a highly respected figure in the keepering world. Then, he spent four seasons at Combe in Devon, coming to Huntly Cot from Milden in Angus and five seasons as senior beat keeper on a 4,000-acre driven pheasant shoot in Quebec, Canada.
The guns, who met in the billiard room at nine on 29 October last year, included: de Vink’s grandson, Robbie Duff, and his father, Tom; Mark Laird; David Macrobert; John Clark; Gina Wilson; Fred Macaulay, comedian and broadcaster; Gregor Rolfe; and Kenny Wilson, the former head keeper of the Marquis of Linlithgow’s Leadhills grouse moors and a foremost expert on moorland management. They were joined by Laird’s wife, Louisa; Gerrit Oudakker, a friend of de Vink’s from Holland who would be joining the flankers, and three loaders: Jim Houliston, loading for Gina Wilson (who only started shooting three years ago); Jackie Dunn, who has looked after Robbie since he started shooting as a nine-year-old; and Ronnie Grigor, who always loads for de Vink.
The day started with a grouse drive on the moor, reached by a terrifying ascent up the face of Huntly Cot Hill with a breathtaking view across the Gladhouse reservoir to Edinburgh, the Firth of Forth and the distant Paps of Fife. De Vink had recently sold the moor to two friends, Paul Chapman and Stuart Lang, coming to a highly satisfactory sharing arrangement on mixed days, with Jones continuing to keeper the moor. Guns had a short climb up to a line of hurdle butts lined with gravel-impregnated rubber, with Dunn carrying a large, plastic, baker’s bread basket for Robbie Duff to stand on – Robbie was an old hand at driven grouse, having shot his first three weeks previously – and were in position by just after 10 o’clock.
It was a typical sunny, late October day but chilly at 1,900ft with a thin, swirling mist rising and falling across the moor. Jones and Joe Thomas, his right-hand man, had 15 beaters in the line plus six pickers-up and six flankers. We had only been in position for 10 minutes when a high, single grouse came whizzing over the end butt, giving de Vink the first bird in the bag. Then the drive
These late-season grouse were fast, sporting birds, skimming the butts
really picked up with a succession of single birds followed by two coveys and a small, well-spread-out pack keeping the flankers busy and giving shooting all along the line. These late-season grouse were fast, sporting birds, hugging the contours of the moor and skimming over the butts with a brisk southwesterly wind behind them. There was a pause when grouse could be seen pitching in about 50yd short of the butts muttering and grumbling, then the beaters appeared over the skyline, the drive started again in earnest and in the final flurry before the first safety horn, Gregor Rolfe shot his first grouse.
Nothing gives de Vink greater pleasure than a guest shooting his or her first grouse at Huntly Cot and his face was wreathed with smiles as Rolfe was duly blooded. Since 1992, more than 200 people have shot their first grouse at Huntly Cot, among them: opera singer Dame Kiri Te Kanawa; Sheila Ferguson of The Three Degrees; Kent Durr, when he was South Africa’s ambassador to Britain; and comedian Fred Macaulay, a frequent guest, shot his first grouse, woodcock, partridge and pheasant at Huntly Cot.
We now drove back down to the low ground and parked below a small knoll planted with rowan, Scots pine and larch, where de Vink’s favourite black labrador, Toto, is buried and where, in the fullness of time, he intends to join him. Nearby was a metal shipping container surrounded by tables and chairs, from which the beaters and flankers were already being served hot sausages and soup by Kate Dalgleish and her sister, Carol. Elevenses was a jolly affair with guns and beaters chatting together. At 11.15, de Vink handed round generous glasses of Coebergh Bessenjenever, a blackcurrantflavoured schnapps and, thus fortified, guns set off in the de Vink gun bus for the first pheasant drive.
This was appropriately named Vinkie’s Wood, a V-shaped plantation running up the slopes of Huntly Cot Hill, with a conterminous game crop of mustard, triticale and linseed. Guns were placed round the bottom and up the side of the right hand of the V, with those on the bottom where it was marshy standing on wooden platforms covered in the same gravel-impregnated rubber as the butts on the moor. Attention to detail is a striking feature of Huntly Cot; every gate hangs perfectly, every gatepost is freshly creosoted and there is not a pothole to be seen on any of the tracks. The Rylock stock fencing round woodlands and hedgerows is reversed, so the wide mesh is at the bottom, allowing pheasants to crawl through and fossick for seeds in the adjacent pastures. The usual top wire on stock fencing is left off to make it easier for retrievers on a shooting day, a consideration much appreciated by pickers-up, and paths have been cut through thick woodland to help beaters and facilitate better control of the line.
The game crop and the left side of the wood was blanked over to the right and as the beaters started taking the drive up through the wood, the first partridge appeared, and was followed by high, fast birds that had guns on their toes and giving plenty of lead. As the beat climbed higher, hard-flying pheasants appeared among the partridges and then there was non-stop shooting all along the line as the flushing point was reached and a constant stream of pheasants poured over guns, with the drive ending in a spectacular flush.
When the bag was picked we en-bussed and were transported to the next drive, Hirendean, on the Huntly Cot march. This was a short drive with the object of pushing birds across to the next but a succession
of good birds, followed by an extended flush, gave guns an exciting and challenging 10 minutes before the safety horn blew.
Back in the gun bus and refreshed with another slug of Coebergh Bessenjenever, we moved on to the last drive before lunch, Sheep Pen. There was a scatter of shots, more in hope than expectation, at an impossibly high pigeon while the beaters were blanking in an adjacent game crop and then the drive started with a flush of partridge. These were followed by a succession of high pheasants and when the beaters reached a flushing point, the sky literally filled with birds keeping de Vink and Ronnie Grigor busy mopping up behind the line. There was a pause to allow guns to recover their breath and then a succession of single birds swinging left and right gave shooting all along the line, followed by a series of controlled flushes – one of which contained a magnificent pure white cock pheasant, which flew on unscathed – before de Vink radioed Jones to bring the drive to a halt.
Everyone returned to Huntly Cot House, where guns were joined by Oudakker’s wife, Wil, and de Vink’s partner, Krystyna Szumelukowa, for lunch cooked by Kate and Carol Dalgleish, while the beaters had theirs in the beaters’ room, cooked by Jones’s partner, Linda. Apart from providing beaters’ lunches, Linda and her daughter, Milly, and son, Damian, are much involved in the dayto-day keepering at Huntly Cot, helping with the poults when they arrive, filling feed hoppers through the season and dogging in.
With lunch over by three o’clock, we drove back up the track to Huntly Cot moor for the last drive of the day, with guns in the same line of butts as on the first and beaters driving the same ground. On the face of it, driving the same beat twice in one day would scarcely prove to be successful but de Vink told me that many years ago, Kenny Wilson had assured him it would be and that there would be more grouse the second time round. Those that had been driven over butts in the morning would go no great distance and as soon as we had left the moor, would return to their own ground bringing more grouse back with them.
And so it proved to be; guns had not been in position long before a pack swung up towards the top of the line and was turned by the flankers over the top butts. These were followed by a succession of ones and twos and then a big pack through the middle. Another landed, grumbling, short of the butts as the beaters appeared on the skyline and then lifted to join a loose pack that swung down the line, giving Rolfe a left-and-right. Two more small bunches came through before the first horn and with a scattering of shots behind, the day was over for a bag of 173 pheasants, nine brace of partridges and 15 brace of grouse. But what made it a Red Letter Day for de Vink and Huntly Cot, was Gregor Rolfe shooting not only his first grouse but his first left-andright at grouse.
A flush of partridges was followed by a succession of high pheasants before the sky filled with birds
John Clark on the Sheep Pen Drive at Huntly Cot, with Mark Laird in the background; around 350,000 trees have been planted on the steep lower slopes of Huntly Cot Hill
Above: Kenny Wilson in one of the hurdle butts Right: Tommy Breckney (top), whose pointer (below) made this stylish retrieve
Far right: young Robbie Duff
Above: David Macrobert and Mark Laird, supported by his wife, Louisa
Below: Gina Wilson, ably supported by loader Jim Houliston