A re­vi­talised moor with a pas­sion­ate owner who’s sym­pa­thetic to the needs of the loyal team be­hind him.

Shooting Gazette - - Welcome - WORDS AND PHO­TOG­RA­PHY: ADRIAN BLUN­DELL

Ican’t think why but Urlar Es­tate in Aber­feldy, Perthshire, had dropped off my radar, de­spite the fact I’d en­joyed a few mixed walked-up days there many moons ago.

But when heather beetle struck the Grampian moor I was due to visit and its birds left, I quickly rang around friends in the know. Too many fin­gers pointed at Urlar for me to ig­nore it. But grouse? I kept hear­ing that as I’d some­how moved on – so had Urlar. New laird, new game­keeper and a suc­cess story re­ally worth telling.

Urlar’s new owner, Don­ald Ogilvy Wat­son, bought the place in late 2005. He now owned a moor but had few grouse. They man­aged two or three walked-up days a year but those weren’t al­ways good. For any­one with am­bi­tion that meant a big chal­lenge lay ahead. As a mod­est man, Don­ald took a lit­tle per­suad­ing but even­tu­ally agreed to me telling the story of a re­mark­able resur­gence.

With 7,000 acres of heather and 500 of low ground it had been run as the pheas­ant and duck shoot I’d re­mem­bered. It had the po­ten­tial to fo­cus on grouse – but tinker­ing and mak­ing a few mi­nor changes just wasn’t go­ing to cut it.

“I took ad­vice and de­cided that it was ev­ery­thing or noth­ing,” ex­plains Don­ald. “Although I’d been look­ing for a moor be­cause grouse are my par­tic­u­lar pas­sion, it needed to be more pro­duc­tive. Sav­ills pre­dicted five to seven years to get over the dread­ful loup­ing ill here, so it wasn’t go­ing to be easy or cheap. But I took the cru­cial de­ci­sion that this was go­ing to be

my baby and I’d man­age it my­self – even though I’m cur­rently liv­ing in Ire­land. That meant reg­u­lar vis­its be­cause it’s im­por­tant that there’s a real con­nec­tion be­tween a moor, its owner and the team.”

That de­ci­sion be­gan a round of ac­tiv­ity fa­mil­iar to those in the turn­around busi­ness. In­ten­sive tick mop­ping was re­quired, heather burn­ing was needed and the sheep re­quired much bet­ter man­age­ment. There was a road across the moor but ad­di­tional work was es­sen­tial to im­prove ac­cess so the keep­ers could do their jobs ef­fec­tively.

As part of the turn­around re­search, a day was or­gan­ised in Septem­ber 2011 to try and har­vest enough birds for test­ing by the GWCT. With a hand­picked team of friends the bag yielded 45 brace of birds – and only just over the vi­tal 20 brace of young needed to test for loup­ing ill. When Paul An­der­son, the new head­keeper, ar­rived later that year, his ad­vice was un­equiv­o­cal: don’t shoot next year. Don­ald swal­lowed hard but agreed.

Paul and another rel­a­tively new ar­rival, shep­herd Peter Lam­bie, in­stantly formed a good work­ing re­la­tion­ship and Don­ald even­tu­ally agreed to three un­der­keep­ers join­ing the team. A heather-burn­ing pro­gramme was quickly put in place, with more than 800 fires in the first year to im­prove habi­tat. Cru­cial dip­ping was done re­li­giously and the med­i­cated grit put out. Roads were also put in.

Af­ter a year spent let­ting stocks build, the next foray was in Septem­ber 2013, giv­ing young birds a chance to come on. It was an “amaz­ing day” given re­cent his­tory, ac­cord­ing to Don­ald. Paul had Don­ald’s com­plete back­ing

but knew that a re­sult was re­quired and a huge area of hill was pushed up to­wards one of the lines of ex­per­i­men­tal butts. “I knew that we’d suc­ceeded when we heard the shoot­ing start,” says Paul.

A light­ning storm in the afternoon was so bad one gun packed up but Don­ald in the next butt was hav­ing none of it, shout­ing, “Lord, if you want to take me now, do so!” and kept shoot­ing. The re­sult was 100-plus brace in the larder. What’s more, a day a month later yielded a sim­i­lar bag.

The next level

The 2014 sea­son took things to a new level. Not al­low­ing him­self to be tempted to beat the 2,000-brace record of 1934, with 1,768 brace in the bag Paul mem­o­rably told Don­ald: “Now you’ve got a grouse moor, sir.” In it for the long haul, how­ever, they stopped shoot­ing early to keep a good stock. With hind­sight, it was a wise move. A mem­o­rable snow­fall in early 2015 caused havoc, at times lay­ing two feet deep and crust­ing. De­spite this, they still man­aged 1,200 brace, car­ried over by their stocks when most neigh­bours were can­celling.

In cer­tain cir­cles, Urlar is ap­par­ently known as The Ir­ish Moor. Many of the guns are Don­ald’s friends from Ire­land, part of the “keen as mus­tard gang” who shoot there to­gether. That made it nat­u­ral for me to join one of their days – although it turned into a game of two halves. It started well but as I set­tled into a butt on Leachan Re­turn with Frank O’dea and his wife, Maeve, mist be­gan to de­scend as gen­er­ous cov­eys ma­te­ri­alised over the in­creas­ingly gloomy hori­zon. None of this fazed Frank. He in­sisted that he was hang­ing on to his place in the team come hell, high wa­ter or the Scot­tish weather. “I’ve been in­volved from the be­gin­ning, in­clud­ing on the GWCT re­search day in 2011, and I’m not about to give it up for any­thing.”

The weather had other ideas about shoot­ing, how­ever, and de­spite a look at the ar­eas where we could shoot safely an early elevenses with co­pi­ous sup­plies of Lainey’s bis­cuits, man­u­fac­tured by one of the gun’s wives. This was fol­lowed by an early lunch or­gan­ised by Paul’s wife, Gill, and Flo Sin­clair in a for­tu­nately warm and com­fort­able bothy on the side of a loch only just vis­i­ble through the mist. At least a chance to sam­ple good food and Urlar wine – the New Zealand win­ery named af­ter the moor. Dispir­ited though? “We’re so­cial

“I knew that we’d suc­ceeded when we heard the shoot­ing start,” said the new head keeper Paul An­der­son.”

an­i­mals so would en­joy our­selves any­way,” said Neil Collen. One of an Ir­ish rov­ing syndicate, he’s been in­volved at Urlar since 2014.

In the event, we did man­age a cou­ple of drives af­ter lunch. Still misty, still very ‘dre­ich’ in the lo­cal par­lance. That said, the guns were more than happy with the day.

Now, on a nor­mal shoot visit that would have been it. But Urlar is less than half an hour from my house so it seemed rude not to ac­cept an in­vi­ta­tion to see what could be done in more favourable con­di­tions. Although the Ir­ish Gang weren’t avail­able, I man­aged to join another team of guns who live and breathe grouse and had taken two back-to-back days.

With mouth-wa­ter­ing re­ports from a friend who loads and pick­sup on Urlar, I was look­ing for­ward to the day. It turned out that the team was one that man­ages sev­eral days a week on its own or other top moors, so the views of the guns were go­ing to be well in­formed.

The wind was fresh in our faces as I stood with Rueben Straker, fac­ing the first drive. Good and chal­leng­ing but just a fore­taste of what was to come. If my first visit had shown what birds could be pre­sented in poor weather, the next few drives showed what Paul’s team could do in glo­ri­ous sunshine.

It was lucky that Brian Mclean had en­joyed a busy sea­son to get his eye in. “Fan­tas­tic to see so many grouse back in Perthshire,” was one of his more record­able quotes. “Be­ing able to leave home at 8am and shoot here is ideal,” he said. “It’s the best year I can re­mem­ber for 20 years...”

Af­ter lunch, Wayne Stokes was telling me that he drives up past many no­table moors to reach Perthshire, which com­pares with the best. He was in­ter­rupted by suc­ces­sion of cov­eys. “Never be lulled into a false sense of se­cu­rity,” he ad­vised. “These grouse can be straight over, sneak around or re­turn back onto the butt. Amaz­ing sport.”

All this was mu­sic to the ears of Mark Ramp­ton, the agent who’d

brought the team to Urlar. “They’re reap­ing the re­wards af­ter a huge amount of ef­fort,” he said. “Where Perthshire in gen­eral has been rel­a­tively quiet on the grouse front for some years, now it’s an area that’s re­ally per­form­ing well and Urlar is a hid­den gem.”

How many moors can of­fer guests the op­por­tu­nity to shoot 400plus brace over two back-to-back days at the end of a busy sea­son? Paul told me that when he ar­rived al­most the only grouse to be heard call­ing were those on his phone’s ring­tone. How things have changed.

Clearly the re­gen­er­a­tion has been suc­cess­ful and 2017 saw a new record bag – more than 50 per cent higher than the one set in 1934. But it’s not just that that we should ap­plaud: lap­wing have in­creased from just five birds in 2012 to more than 100 ac­tive nests recorded; curlew are thriv­ing; ring ouzels and wheatears are in ev­i­dence; and now golden plover and red­shank are ap­pear­ing for the first time.

Don­ald’s key mantra is ‘Team’ and he’s got that. “What makes a good team is they want to im­prove,” he said, so things will con­tinue to move for­ward.

The ex­pec­ta­tion is that 2018 will be another sea­son of con­sol­i­da­tion, not shoot­ing un­til stocks are as­sessed af­ter a hard win­ter and late spring. Few would be as mod­est as Don­ald, which is per­haps why one of his neigh­bours sug­gested I look at his moor rather than theirs. It all bodes well for Urlar and its team.

The moor was able to of­fer back-to­back days late in the sea­son.

Agent Mark Ramp­ton (left) talks to head­keeper Paul An­der­son.

Urlar has 7,000 acres of heather and 500 of low ground.

Moor owner Don­ald Ogilvy Wat­son (right) and Rueben Straker head for the first drive.

Guns were able to shoot 400-plus brace over two days.

Un­der­keeper Lewis Lan­bie.

The re­gen­er­a­tion has been a suc­cess, with a new record bag set in 2017.

Un­der­keeper Bar­rie Neish.

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