It’s just gone 6:30am. Craig and Alana Downie (dressed in a kilt and tweeds respectively) pull on their wellies, hurriedly gulp their tea and head out to the kennels. At the call of their names, Ruby, a black Lab and Teal, a Cocker Spaniel, come bounding to the door. The couple head to their vehicles with the dogs – Craig to his 4×4 pickup and Alana to her Polaris Ranger. They head up the farm track, stopping at the sight of Land Rover headlights up front; John Wellington, the estate underkeeper, hops out and greets them “good morning” in a whisper.
Craig and Alana are keepers at the 9,000-acre baronial estate, which is owned by shipping, investment and property magnate, Sir James Cayzer.
With pheasant, duck and partridges making the estate their home, the keepers play host to many game shooters and are up at first light to feed the birds, fill the water troughs and discuss which of the 30 drives they will be using. Today Craig and Alana are entertaining a group of six Belgian businessmen.
You could pay me all the money in the world to work in another profession and I would still turn it down and remain a gamekeeper
By 8:30am the birds have been fed and the trio make their way into the Castle courtyard, ready to brief the team of 14 beaters, six flankers, five pickers-up and 20 dogs; this doesn’t take long and soon we are making our way up to the breakfast room to meet the Belgians. I am surprised by how ‘British’ the men look. It is heart-warming to see how keenly they dress as country gentlemen when visiting Scotland for a shoot.
After two calls to confirm everything is in place and ready, it’s time to set off. On the way down I get a chance to talk to Craig about why he became a gamekeeper – something he is clearly passionate about, having been a keeper and in the game management business since he left school at age 16.
“My father is a gamekeeper,” he tells me, “so I have been brought up in the countryside and learned to appreciate this way of life from a very young age. You could pay me all the money in the world to work in another profession and I would still turn it down and remain a gamekeeper. For me there is nothing equal to this.”
Driving along a back road with the loch to our right and a hamlet of holiday cottages to our left it’s easy to see where Craig is coming from; this part of Scotland is stunning and Craig’s job sees him right on the front line, working in the countryside day in, day out.
We park up at the bottom of a lush green field and briskly make our way up the hillside – everyone is buzzing with excitement. On the way I catch up with one of the group, Marc, who admits to being “a little nervous” having “not shot pheasants for a while” but it turns out his concerns are unfounded. The pheasants are high, but not too high on this drive and Marc manages to down a few, even shooting the first partridge of the day.
Geert Dewitte shoots the most pheasants on the second drive. Looking at his determined manner and the way he holds a gun it is unsurprising that his focused attitude is matched with success.
On the third drive Craig joins the beating team as the pheasants can be difficult to control here. Grabbing a flag from the Polaris Ranger, he strides up the hill to discuss the plan of action with the flankers.
Three flankers position themselves on each side of the hill in front of the beaters with their flags raised to create a funnel effect. This should help the pheasants fly straight and on course towards the guns. Unfortunately it’s not enough; the pheasants fly high and they’re not coming towards us. I can see why Craig chose to help out the team this time round but the drive is unsuccessful and we stop for lunch, heading back to Kinpurnie where a beef stew made from the finest Black Angus meat awaits, followed by apple crumble.
Satisfied, we head out for the fourth drive and this time the birds come in their droves. The guns are happy and all the while Craig walks up and down the line, making sure everyone is enjoying themselves and offering his advice where necessary.
Drive five is also successful and it passes quickly as pheasants are downed in their dozens. As the whistle blows and the pickers-up get to work I enquire as to today’s bag. “Just over 200,” comes the reply. It’s been a good day.
The pheasants are loaded into the trailer and taken back to the castle ready for the game dealer to collect, the beaters and flankers also depart for home, or the pub, and we head back to Kinpurnie. The Belgians are thrilled with their day; the weather was glorious and the pheasants were high and plentiful. Yesterday’s shoot was rained out so it’s good that they got a full day of shooting out of their trip. When we arrive everyone kicks off their boots and ascends the carpeted steps to enjoy a well-deserved glass of malt in front of the fire. Half an hour later, their chauffeur arrives to take them back to their accommodation at Pittormie Castle in Fife.
The day isn’t over for the keepers, however. They have to complete all the usual tasks, from exercising the dogs to shooting vermin in the barn at twilight. It has been a long day but Craig and his team always come away full of enthusiasm. It’s clear that they love their work, and it rings true that to these wonderful people, “there is nothing equal to this.”
Melissa heads over to Scotland in a previous driven game shoot: http://www.ishootmag.com/features/driven-game-features/driven-wild/