Traditional country pursuits reimagined for a modern world
Sport on the high tops, where the terrain is as unforgiving as the quarry is unpredictable
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Wild and remote places do something to us. They capture our imaginations even before the mention of any type of hunting. Perhaps it’s the escapism they offer; perhaps it’s the sense of perspective they provide...
The fact is, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find such places, particularly on our small and crowded island. So when Mark Osborne of William Powell Sporting kindly extended an invitation to shoot ptarmigan at Phoines estate in the Scottish Highlands last season, I jumped at the chance. Regardless of the sport on offer, I was confident the 800-mile round trip from Lincolnshire to this 25,000-acre sporting Mecca in the west of the Cairngorms National Park would be worth it.
The day’s shooting started as so many of the best do – a team of like-minded sportsmen packed into an ATV with slipped guns and keen dogs. On this ‘ride out’, however, we’d have to hold on tight; the vehicle pointed steeply uphill, destined for the milky-aired abyss of the high tops. Ptarmigan territory.
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to describe the environment at 3,000ft-plus as the most hostile to be found in the British Isles. And therein lies a large part of the challenge and allure of pursuing these most intriguing of solitary galliforms; you have to work for your chance at them.
The environment is as unpredictable as the bird itself; after completing the final leg of the ascent on foot, the fog en-cloaked our party as it formed a line. Each breath was visible in the early December air. Our hands slowed down in the cold.
It was quiet up there, so far away from the hustle and bustle of civilisation. Just the crunch and scuff of boots on the lichen-laced scree and rank tufts of old penny-coloured heather. Then, every now and again, the windy silence would be punctuated by the unfamiliar creaking call of Lagopus mutus, the master of camouflage.
We stumbled upon the first bird soon after setting off under the instruction of Jim McKeracher, Phoines estate’s headkeeper. Dressed in full winter plumage, the bird waddled a hundred paces ahead amongst the lumps of snow-covered rocks, before crouching and sitting still. “Be ready, he may fly straight back towards us,” Jim warned as the line edged ever closer to where the bird was last spotted.
The ptarmigan jumped and another, previously unseen, joined the escape effort, both flying at chest height and away from us. Shots rang out and as one of the pair fell to the ground, the second bird, quite surprisingly, arced round and headed straight back towards us. I’d never seen anything quite like it.
The British Trust for Ornithology estimate there to be 8,500 pairs of rock ptarmigan in Britain, and it quickly became apparent why shooting activity has little effect on these numbers. Milder weather patterns and untidy tourists – the rubbish left behind by the latter attracting unnatural numbers of nest-raiding corvids – are thought to be significant factors, but to shoot ptarmigan is an infrequent affair. We were, in fact, the first people to pursue the bird in this part of the Monadhliath mountain range for a few years.
The truth is, ptarmigan are not used to seeing humans. Whether it’s curiosity or a lack of ingrained fear, they don’t always act like a wild bird. That first encounter conjured images of town centre feral pigeons – their behaviour, on this day at least, in stark contrast to the wild nature of the rugged and windswept high tops.
Indeed, what the quarry lacks in hazard perception is more than made up for by the physical challenges posed by the environment it calls home. Rocks that have laid still for centuries shift and slide underfoot; fields of slippery granite boulders intersperse the route; gulleys and ravines do their best to break the line as soupy mist swallows those within it. And then a ptarmigan jumps and in the few seconds between flush and ‘too far’, one must find their footing, ensure the shot is safe, mount and shoot. All this with numbed fingers and half an eye on the positioning of dogs and fellow Guns, who, not surprisingly, were happy to keep on the move in the inclement weather.
Might it be the most unforgiving gamebird shooting to be enjoyed on our shores? I suppose foreshore wildfowling falls into a similar category. Ptarmigan shooting parties are generally small, numbering 2 to 5 Guns, and the shooting itself is usually put on hold until late October when the stag season has drawn to a close and those estates with a healthy grouse shooting schedule – just like Phoines – have had the last of their driven days.
The ptarmigan is very similar in structure to its better-known cousin of the lower ground, but slightly smaller in size. They moult thrice yearly – their body plumage turns a brown colour with fine black and white barring around April time, progressing to grey in the autumn, before gradually switching to a pristine white in October in preparation for winter. Males retain their red comb throughout the year.
Despite their successful inhabitation of the arctic-alpine terrain, helped somewhat by feathered feet and a penchant for digging, ptarmigan prefer to be out of the wind and are therefore typically found on the lee-side of hills or shallow depressions in the snow. Heather, bilberry, crowberry, catkins and berries comprise the bulk of their diet.
We flushed three more of the beguiling little birds later that morning; several of our party did not spend a cartridge.
But as we stopped to sate hunger and thirst, and the fog lifted to unveil the Monadhliath mountains about us, it didn’t matter, for we were in ptarmigan territory, far from the madding crowd.
A thank-you must go to William Powell Sporting who arranged and hosted the experience. For further information on sporting opportunities at the Phoines Estate, contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Traditional country persuits reimagined for the modern world
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