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

Sporting Shooter - - Contents - WITH THE HIRSEL ES­TATE

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

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