Sometimes great pheasant shooting is closer than you think, as a small group of Guns in the Borders discovered when they attended the Hirsel shoot
It’s often easy to take good things for granted if you see them every day. This is particularly the case when you have somewhere stunning on your doorstep. Fortunately, there’s nothing quite like the prospect of some high-class pheasant shooting to sharpen your senses and revive your regard for what’s under your nose (especially when it includes some excellent elevenses). The six local Guns who took a day at Hirsel Estate last November found it to be just such a tonic.
The 3,000-acre estate sits on the banks of the river Tweed, where the famous waterway winds its way between England and Scotland. It is renowned for the quality of its pheasant shooting and was immortalised by former prime minister Sir Alec Douglas-Home in his book Border Reflections, whose family have been custodians of Hirsel for almost half a millennium.
With its rolling terrain, Hirsel proves that dramatic contours aren’t always necessary for splendid drives. Extensive woodlands and a perfect combination of hills and haughs (low-lying meadows) give shooting here all the gradientderived oomph you need. The estate’s most notable hill, Hirsel Law, boasts its own ancient hill fort and stands at 312 feet, while the Leet Water haughs lie at the same level as the mighty Tweed. What’s more, you get a beautiful backdrop thanks to the gorgeous Hirsel Policies.
The estate is at its most eye-wateringly glorious during the autumn months, when the trees realise the full spectrum of their colour potential and almost match the plumage of the cock pheasants for variety.
As the local Guns know, however, the autumnal weather can be as varied as the leaves, so they came prepared – and dressed – for all eventualities, eyeing the sun and clouds with equal levels of suspicion.
“I love this time of year, and Hirsel is always beautiful, but I’ve been beating and picking-up enough times to know that things can change from warm sunshine to heavy rain in no time,” said Selena Barr, who lives in nearby Coldstream, as her cocker spaniels, Archie and Damsel, waited by the Land Rover for her to don an extra layer, while a stiff breeze rearranged the clouds overhead.
There’s nothing like a bit of friendly rivalry to give drawing for a pegs a bit of extra spice: old scores need settling and last season’s eye-wipes are rarely forgotten. There was a bit of banter as the numbers were drawn, but – as Hirsel’s gamekeeper Craig Birkett explained – the shooting here tends to be pretty well spread along the line with no particular hot seats, so any differences in numbers of birds brought to the bag is really down to the Guns themselves.
With numbers allocated, the friends headed out to take their places on the first drive, known as Kincham. With their backs to Leet Water, which runs into the Tweed at Coldstream, they scanned the spaces between branches as the anticipation built for the day’s early birds. The sun had made a temporary retreat, but any danger of fingers getting cold was neutralised when the first ring-necks burst from the maize.
In another illustration of how it’s important not to take the familiar for granted, Craig likes to put down this common variety because it’s simply the best fit for purpose. “They stay at home, fly well and they’re a decent-sized table bird,” he says, as
several soar overhead – avoiding the table for a little longer.
The table looms large in the philosophy of the estate as a whole, and its ‘Field to Fork’ programme gives around 2,500 children a year a greater understanding of where their food comes from by showing them how it is grown, nurtured and harvested in a year-round cycle. Along with the arable and livestock farming carried out at Hirsel, the youngsters are also shown how game plays an important part in the life of the estate and encouraged to think of it as a tasty addition to their own plates.
Along with the quality of the shooting – and food – on offer, Hirsel has a number of claims to fame, not least the fact that it has been in the hands of the same family for more than 400 years. It is the main seat of the Earls of Home, and has been so since the mid 17th century.
As such, the estate represents an extraordinary level of continuity in land management, and is a good illustration of how such consistency can allow an estate to flourish like nothing else. It also makes it clear that stability doesn’t automatically mean being dull.
The second drive centred on one of the most ancient features – Hirsel Law. As already mentioned, this venerable hill boasts its own prehistoric fort, but birds, not Bronze Age warriors, were top of the morning’s agenda.
This drive is known for what Craig describes as a “wicked curl” in the flight of the pheasants as they come out of the kale, and it didn’t disappoint. The result was a feast for the eyes as well as a test of shooting aptitude.
In spite of the Guns’ best efforts, the real star of the drive was Archie the cocker, who performed a spectacular retrieve, adding another bird to the bag and a substantial smile to his owner Selena’s face.
It’s Labradors, however, not cockers, with which Hirsel has historical ties. The estate was the second in Scotland to import the now-ubiquitous breed of retriever from Canada. In the 1830s, the Dukes of Buccleuch brought the first Labs across the Atlantic to their own estates in the Scottish Borders at Drumlanrig, but their cousins, the Earls of Home, were hot on their heels. The early 19th century kennels, where these early examples lived, are still in existence at Craig’s house, where they are currently home to his three black Labradors.
A brief break for elevenses and post-drive analysis was conveniently accompanied by a short showing of sunshine, before drive number three, known as Hatchednize, which provides some of the highest birds that Hirsel offers as the pheasants strive to reach the safety of the trees behind the line. The sunny spell was short-lived, and its warmth had faded almost before the signal to start had sounded. Fortunately, the power of soup in a melamine mug lasted longer and the Guns gave a good account of themselves, putting themselves within striking distance of the target bag of 100.
The final drive of the day, Homebank, gave everyone a chance to appreciate Hirsel’s famous woodland at closer quarters. Representing one of the largest wooded blocks in this part of Berwickshire, most of the tree life is deciduous, but there are a few notable oddities, including two of Scotland’s oldest sycamores, and 105 more exotic specimens that were given by the Foreign Office to former prime minister and scion of Hirsel, Sir Alec Douglas Home, as a 70th birthday present, commemorating the countries he visited as foreign secretary.
The trees in the small wood where the Guns lined out may not have been quite as glamorous, but they provided the perfect setting to end the day, and to close the bag at a rather fitting 105.
The group is ready – and very well dressed – for the day
With no hot spots on the line, each Gun has an equal chance of getting his or her share of the bag
Archie the cocker spaniel performs an excellent retrieve