December 01, 2008
LEADHILLS, Scotland (MCT) - I doubted these hills could be traversed by any means other than on foot.
This was about a year ago, and the final shoot of the season on Leadhills Estate, in Scotland, was about to begin.
The morning was damp and cold and rain slanted from low, dark clouds. A furious Atlantic seemed to have rolled itself up in seismic undulations beginning as far away as Iceland before rampaging the Scottish countryside.
Spread among 20,000 acres of moors and deep valleys and streams that flow swiftly into other streams, the estate boasts 12,000 acres of heather, upon which its much-revered, and highly valuable, grouse depend for cover and food.
But the nine Irishmen gathered cheerfully on this day with 12-bores slung over their shoulders would not shoot grouse. The grouse season had ended and anyway the carefully managed estate had already taken its self-imposed allotment of birds.
Mountain hares would be the quarry, spry animals that can weigh up to 8 pounds and by season vary their colors from blue to brown to white.
I would shoot a few hares. But generally I would be an observer and guest of longtime friends Billy Steel Sr., the estate's retired keeper, and his son, young Billy, each of whom would be "picking up," or retrieving downed hares with their dogs.
"Three hares same as a sheep," cracked gamekeeper Steve Colmer.
The young keeper was referring to the damage that hares do to heather.
Colmer and his wife, Hannah, and their young children live in the head keeper's stone house on the estate. Hannah, like the Irishmen, was cheerful and smiling on this morning and her daughter, Libby, 5, moved about happily in a tiny slicker.
The highest village in Scotland, Leadhills, was not far away. Scotch is poured there in the hotel bar and warm rooms can be had for 25 pounds sterling. Otherwise there really are no marketplaces among the village's small gathering of homes except those at the end of long winding roads that welcome mostly small cars with floor shifters and tight suspensions.
"Jump in that truck," Billy Sr. said, waving me in the direction of a compact four-wheel-drive Toyota.
I have been to the U.K. numerous times and participated in similar shoots. But I have carried a gun only rarely because the shooting generally is too expensive, particularly for grouse. Not uncommonly eight guns can spend $15,000 and more for a day of driven grouse shooting.
In any event I am content to observe, or sometimes work, the dogs.
The many players in an estate shoot include the head keeper who cultivates the game and designs the drives; the "beaters," or helpers, who push the game toward the guns; and the dog men and their charges.
Also of course there are the guns, typically syndicates of eight or more U.K. residents who annually take two or three days of shooting together. As likely the guns can be from Europe or America. Increasingly also there is huge wealth now seen from Russia, and Russians who can afford it, like to shoot.
Some Russians with their petro dollars have even purchased entire estates.
The Toyota joined a caravan of similar vehicles and bounced up a pair of ruts that passed for a road. At the ever-higher altitudes the wind blew harder and far below the keeper's stone house appeared doll-like.
When we stopped and everyone piled out of the vehicles Colmer directed the guns along the moor's crest from which, in the distance, other moors and other moors still could be seen.
The guns were maybe 100 yards apart.
Now in the distance the faint lights of a squadron of four-wheelers became visible. The machines and their riders were perhaps a mile away, though distance was difficult to determine because of the rise and fall of the landscape.
The four-wheelers - "quads" - and their riders pushed the hares toward the guns, a convenience unseen during the more delicately conducted grouse shoots, during which beaters travel by foot.
Alongside Billy Sr. were three Labradors and a small spaniel.
Downwind and from a gun out of sight, a shot soon rang out. The strong wind muffled its blast.
Just then, through the rain in front of Billy Sr., a hare showed itself in the far distance. Silence and stillness are required of the guns and the dogs or the approaching hares will turn back into the beaters or attempt to escape from the beaters' flanks.
In minutes, more shots followed as additional hares appeared. Some of the hares hesitated as they approached. Others accelerated as if shocked, leaping and hopping amid the heather and rock, using up ground like deer.
One shot. Then another and another.
During driven grouse shoots, reloaders often stand alongside shooters to hand them one double gun while stuffing cartridges into another.
Here the Irishmen reloaded their own guns.
When the drive ended, Billy Sr. sent one of his Labradors for a long retrieve.
The dog didn't see the hare in question tumble when it was shot.
The Labrador ran 80 yards or so. Then Billy Sr. whistled him to a stop and cast him farther back, and to the left.
The dog disappeared.
Meanwhile, the beaters on their quads met up with the guns. John Savage, Errol Bailie, Maurice Blakely and the other guns from Northern Ireland had had a great time of it. This was their second and final day of hare shooting, and the weather made no difference.
This was Scotland in winter and nothing better was expected.
Thick fog suddenly enveloped the moor and Billy Sr. leaned on his staff, peering into it. When in the distance his Labrador appeared proudly bearing a brownish hare, he whistled the dog closer before excising the hare from the dog's mouth and collecting it with others into one of the estate's trucks.
Delicacies, the hares would be cleaned and sold to a game buyer and soon would grace the tables of fine restaurants in Britain and particularly Europe.
Two more drives were arranged before everyone repaired down the moor for lunch.
In a stone carriage house attached to the garage where the estate's dogs were kenneled and where the hares were laid neatly the Irishmen hung up their Barbours and wool coats and caps and gathered around a long table over hot soup and sandwiches.
The men each lived within about 30 miles of Belfast. Their trip to Leadhills, including the ferry ride, had taken five hours.
Shooting at Leadhills dates to 1899. Driven shooting also occurs in Ireland.
"But there is no driven hare shooting in Ireland," Errol Bailie said.
When the lunch was finished, the men again bounced in the trucks up into the moors. The weather had worsened and sometimes during the afternoon the hares and even the quads and beaters materialized from fog as if by magic.
Young Billy Steel and his dogs joined the entourage and some of the retrieves his dogs made were very long.
Throughout the afternoon, the dogs sat in the rain with their coasts slicked back and eyes narrowed, waiting their turns to retrieve. Between drives, the dogs ran behind four-wheelers that toted their handlers up and across and down moors that to a visitor seemed as foreign as moonscapes.
The dogs themselves carried no fat and during Britain's long shooting season, which begins for grouse Aug. 12, they might work similarly four or five days a week.
"Oh, aye," young Billy said when asked if the dogs were enjoying themselves. "They live for this."
In winter, Scotland suffers afternoon darkness early. This day was no different. Soon the guns were driving toward their Irish homes, following their vehicles' headlights over serpentine two-lane blacktop that rose and fell, and rose again.
Even now, a year later, they doubtless can recall the number of mountain hares that fell to their guns over two days.
Four hundred and seven.
© 2008, Star Tribune (Minneapolis)
Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.