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