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.

plan­ta­tion 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

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