“This lucky bugger’s going to Spain in a few week’s time, partridge shooting!” A heavy hand patted my back. It was the end of season meal at my local shoot, and I was much the envy of those with whom I shared a table. “Balmy 20 degrees”, “Rioja in the sun”, “It’s alright for some!” they teased.
I’d be popping my Spanish sporting cherry. And to be honest, I too first envisaged sun-baked sandy soils, deep valleys, shirt sleeve order, cured meats and cold beer in catch-a-tan conditions. The reality was a little different: snow, single-figure temperatures and redlegs that appeared to have been taking flying lessons from Highland red grouse – this was partridge shooting like I’d never seen or heard of before... And by Jove was it good.
A fortnight later and I was rattling down a bare earth track in the middle of nowhere with an excitable Claire Zambuni trying to convince a bewildered and increasingly concerned-looking taxi driver to have faith, ignore his sat-nav, and head for the only source of light in the night sky – a glowing doorway in the distance.
I’ve always enjoyed arriving somewhere in the dark for the added anticipation that comes with awaking to unknown surroundings. Plus the fact that a warm welcome is, at such a time, more likely to be accompanied by a much needed G&T. And so it played out in this instance when we were met by Ashley Butler, our host and the man whose vision has played a large part in creating something different in this part of the world. “Welcome to Matarrubia, Will,” he smiled, pressing an ice-cold glass into my hand as I stepped into the entrance hall.
The lodge is everything you’d imagine a century-old building to be, and yet it’s only existed for a few years. Oozing character and Español charm, its interior is enough to make even the giddiest team of Guns stop and take note. Whole walls covered in the heads of medal-class roebucks, boar tusks, wolf pelts, wildlife taxidermy in glass cases... Throw in a faint aroma of woodsmoke and a melange of entrancing smells pouring from the kitchen, and you’ve got a mood-setting HQ.
Philosophy and ethics
The philosophy behind Butler del Prado is clear. “We wanted to create something here for all those who relish the values which surround a ‘proper’ shoot day,” Ashley explained. “I’ve seen the way some shoots have evolved back in the UK, focusing on volume and numbers and offering an experience more akin to corporate entertainment than what many of us have grown up with. They’re moving away from what the sport is all about.”
Butler del Prado represents the opposite – but in a country where sport of this sort is arguably far more difficult to find than it is back home in Blighty. Ashley had noticed the growing contingent who, like him, were looking for something a little more real. “I had this vision that if there is such a demand for authentic, affordable shooting in the UK, then surely there’d be an appetite for it in Spain where Guns can enjoy so many of the additional joys which come with shooting in a place with different customs, culture and traditions.
“The atmosphere, the unique character of a place, the people, the food – the experience as a whole. That’s what I’ve always dreamt of offering,” continued Ashley. “Where the shooting element to the day, which is just one element of it, is about sporting birds – produced, presented and processed in a sustainable and ethical manner.” We’re talking about birds reared ethically and released prior to the season, rather than at (very) regular intervals during it.
This was a vision that required some air miles and research, though. Back in 2015, Ashley would make the hour and a half flight from Heathrow to Madrid numerous times over a period of several months to visit an array of shoots in search of natives who would buy into his philosophy. The well-known names were his first port of call, to no avail. In fact, the challenge of realising his ambition was just beginning to dawn on Ashley when a passionate and likeminded hunter caught wind of his idea. Enter estate owner Jose Pazos y Solier, or “Pepe” to many – a gentleman of the highest order who was brought up on a shooting finca, part of the furniture in local beating lines by the age of eight and has travelled the world with a rifle and shotgun – much of the taxidermy in the lodge (think Noah’s Ark) his own.
Anyway, a visit was arranged, Ashley fell in love with the area, and the duo, joined and supported by Pepe’s girlfriend Diana and Ashley’s other half Bex, have thrown everything at the idea since. And so Butler del Prado was born.
The morning after our arrival, blood thinned somewhat by the dangerously drinkable Rioja, I opened the wooden shutters in my bedroom to reveal the surrounding vista for the first time. Situated in the province of Guadalajara, Castile-La Mancha, and just a 45-minute drive from Madrid airport, Matarrubia is a beautiful part of the world – think spaghetti western and you’re nearly there. A ground frost glistened in the early sun. I slipped on an extra thermal layer.
The Butler del Prado shoot takes in 3,000 hectares, with plans to increase this in the coming years, adding to the 14 established drives and building on the options they have as the season – which runs from October 1 to the end of February – progresses. Fields of barley and sunflowers extend away from the small village of 19 inhabitants, and blocks of scrubby cork oaks, pines, juniper and dense ground cover lay in a patchwork across the landscape. Thyme, rosemary and basil grow wild – it’s a forager’s paradise. The rabbits and deer shot on the estate and destined for the lodge kitchen are said to be especially flavoursome given their herby diet.
Indeed, the fauna alone merits a visit: hundreds of song thrushes and azure-winged magpies keep Guns on their toes as they scan horizons for their quarry. All manner of birds of prey, too, from peregrine falcons and Bonelli’s eagles to the huge, circling griffon vultures that watch drives from the thermals up high. I later learned that Ashley and Pepe are exploring the idea of bird-watching and photography safaris during the close season. It would make sense in an area where the local wildlife association are keen to get involved.
Wining and dining
To overlook the culinary aspect of what’s on offer would be sacrilegious. Clam croquettes with basil gremolata, pheasant won ton, rosemary roast rabbit, Perdiz roja done every which way... And that’s just the evening meals. Fresh, seasonal and heavy on the game front, at first I suspected we might have been spoilt by the ‘guest chef’ appearance of the affable Tim Maddams, but the wild boar jamon serrano and steaming wild boar stew prepared and served by Diana at ‘tacos’ – their version of elevenses – was equally divine.
Fast and furious
The Iberian partridge, Perdiz roja is a quarry as formidable as the thought of having your shot-to-kill ratio recorded on a clipboard is daunting. If you’re after silly-high partridges which soar from one side of a valley to the other on a predictable line, this isn’t for you. But if you want to watch zipping partridges wrap up like tennis balls as you attack them out front – or behind for that matter – like a Percy on a grouse moor, this will get your ticker racing. You soon forget about the clipboard thing, and realise that the very friendly secretario is doing a fine job of recording where your dead birds are to retrieve at the end of the drive.
The company on the peg – we each had a loader and a secretario, despite shooting with single guns – is most welcome, and the language barrier is no obstacle for enthusiasm. Indeed, as the hi-vis-clad team of 17 beaters and two horse-mounted flagmen edged closer to the line of Guns on each drive, their loud calls echoing as they threw rocks into thick cover we’d normally expect a spaniel to work, the excitable chatter of our personal stuffing and picking-up teams only added to the anticipation. And I learned quite quickly how well I was doing simply by listening to the speed and tone with which my peg-partners, Havier and Carlos, talked or offered their advice.
As you stand behind the straw bale or canvas blind, waiting for the first birds of the drive to appear, be prepared to change your mindset, too: Nose over toes, commit to the shot, get stuck in – the quarry might be jinking through the tops of low cover right ahead, or flaring high and wide in open skies. Footwork is paramount.
It had been a challenge for Ashley and Pepe. The cold conditions had dispersed their birds to boundary edges and small, out-of-the-way thickets. And yet the whole team, predominantly made up of a laugh-a-minute bunch of racehorse breeders, are already planning their return.
Don’t get me wrong, this is much more than an extension to the UK season; it’s different, and yet the sound principles at its core will feel warmly familiar to those who shoot for more than just the shooting.
When you’re not shooting
The nearby Finco Rio Negro winery and vineyards offer private tastings followed by lunch or dinner, and the city of Siguenza with its medieval charm is just 45 minutes away. There is also the world heritage city of Segovia within a few hours.
Options are plentiful and are generally offered on an all-inclusive basis. Bags are typically around the 300-bird mark, and there’s even the chance to shoot walked-up partridges over pointers and setters. Prices (depending on the exchange rate) are a little over £40 per bird, all-inclusive. And other halves are more than welcome.
For those with a penchant for mixed bags, monterias are possible due the existence of wild boar, a thousand of which are thought to be on the estate. However, given their ability to produce two 14-piglet litters in a good year, with no natural predators to keep numbers in check, the burgeoning population is of increasing concern for an operation which relies on minimal disturbance.