The magic of Scottish partridges

01_PartridgeNovarCR20285_resultAlastair Robertson enjoys a change of pace at Novar, where the wind turbines are causing a stir

I went the other day to Novar, which is across the Cromarty Firth near Evanton and where over the years, but particularly during the last seven or so, they have developed a very nifty operation with the partridges, not to mention the duck, woodcock and pheasant.

I can’t think why I should have been surprised to discover the head keeper, Roland, is Dutch. But there you go. We are all European now, as we have to tell my wife when she complains there is too much un-British cheering and jeering at Wimbledon.

But it only goes to show you don’t have to be called Munro or Mackenzie to be a Highland keeper. (Roland arrived in Ross-shire as a teenager to visit his uncle and has been there ever since, more or less.)

“There had always been shoots at Novar – grouse on the hill plus pheasant and everything else on the lower ground”

There had always been shoots at Novar – grouse on the hill, although not in any great profusion, plus pheasant and everything else on the lower ground. But eight years ago or so, a friend came from Northumberland to stay with the Munro Fergusons, whose gaff it is, and the friend said, as friends do: “Splendid spot for a partridge shoot.” And everyone said: “Righty ho” and now they’ve got a terrific shoot which can produce up to 250 birds a day.

The advantage of red-legged or French partridge is that they can be reared and released halfway up a hill, whereas the charming indigenous grey partridge like to live in lowland hedgerows and stubble, and so struggle to keep up in spite of the best efforts of the Game and Wildlife Conservation Trust, sympathetic estates and farmers.

So if you have a not terribly good grouse moor with some good scrubby bits of cover round the fringes and nice, deep ravines and rivers for the birds to fly over, you have the makings of a very good red leg partridge shoot. As, indeed, they now do at Novar.

“Red-legs have proved rather the saving grace of grouse moor owners”

There Roland is producing 250-bird days, although the day I went the guests, not I think for want of cash, had elected to have fewer but more testing birds.

Red-legs have proved rather the saving grace of grouse moor owners. I fancy they were pioneered on high ground in Scotland at Cawdor (as in ‘Thane of’) because, like a lot of places, the estate would sign up expensive people to shoot the grouse but when the grouse failed, as they frequently do, bang went several thousand pounds and the keepers still had to be paid. And so they introduced red-legs. So although grouse will always be top of the game bird league, red-legs up in the hills and steep valleys will do very nicely, thank you. There can, of course, be unforeseen problems attached to releasing red-legs, as there always will be when you tinker with the balance of things.

Red-legs offer the guns some sporting shooting in case the grouse fail – they certainly provide challenging shots for the clients

Red-legs offer the guns some sporting shooting in case the grouse fail – they certainly provide challenging shots for the clients

A couple of years ago the red-legs at Invercauld over by Balmoral all took to gathering on a crag, which had been declared a Site of Special Scientific Interest. The reason it was an SSSI, which no man nor beast may disturb, was that being limestone, and therefore rare on Deeside, it supported some peculiarly fascinating lichens and mosses.

Alas, the Invercauld birds took to gathering on this crag in huge profusion and gradually covered it in nitrogen-rich guano, which threatened to kill off the lime-loving flora and upset Scottish Natural Heritage no end. But there you go. The law of unintended consequences again.

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Posted in Driven Game

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