The Spanish love British shooting parties and a new venture, started by an Englishman, has made their driven partridges more affordable, as Jonathan Young discovers
Shooting in Spain has entranced the English for decades. But smaller days, with worthy quarry and scaled down bags, offers this opportunity at a moderate price. Jonathan Young visits a Spanish partridge shoot that has achieved just that in Matarrubia, Guadalajara – an hour’s drive from Madrid.
For more on sport abroad, perhaps it is a wild boar hunt on your bucket list rather than Spanish partridge. If so, practice and research are essential before booking your fights. Read all about the wild boar for everything you could ever need to know.
We’d partied hard but with eggs and bacon triumphing over retreating Rioja, tails were bushy, eyes reasonably bright as a beater’s flag cracked the morning’s stillness. I shifted my feet again, trying to find a flat spot in a field better suited to growing boulders than wheat, the desiccated stubble a reminder of the hardship of farming on soil more appropriate for wild thyme than cereals. But this blend of scrub and patchy arable is ideal country for Perdiz roja, the Spanish red-legged partridge, a bird famed for providing some of the most testing shooting in the world. Perhaps too testing on occasions.
“Signor, signor!” hissed Jorge Delgado, my secretario, as the first bird fizzed out of musty-green junipers smothering the hill. No more than 20 yards up, it was an easy shot had I picked my quarry earlier but I hadn’t and the partridge was gone before I’d had a chance to fire a second, forlorn barrel.
Jorge’s brother, Ignacio, handed me the second gun. Deep breath and start again. Over to my left, a flurry of coveys, mostly 40 yards up, were breaking over the line, singles and pairs plummeting down before the muffled pops reached our end of the line.
My neighbour, Tom Payne, an experienced shot, ignored the spectacle, concentrating on his slice of hill. A pair arrowed directly at him and he killed the first well in front before turning and shooting the other low behind. Another hiss from Jorge and this time I spotted a singleton breaking back over a beater armed with the Spanish flag. A longish shot, curling with the wind but this time I had its measure and the bird folded to the evident relief of the Delgado brothers. Perhaps they weren’t lumbered with a complete lemon after all.
After 30 minutes the horn sounded and Jorge scattered off to collect our bag. “Fourteen,” he announced, seemingly pleased. They’d been typical Spanish redlegs shown Spanish style and shot the Spanish way. No waiting here for high birds. That’s not the game. The test is to shoot safely everything from every angle and height, whether they’re coming like grouse, wild English greys or Exmoor barnstormers.
Carried out under the warmth of the Spanish sun, it’s a form of sport that has entranced British guns since the exploratory work of Tom Gullick, a famed naturalist (with 9,000 bird species spotted personally), who realised the potential of native redlegs back in the 1970s. Gullick then offered truly wild bird shooting and whilst a handful of such shoots have survived on the peninsular, the majority of Spanish birds, as with most of our lowland quarry, are now reared, often in great quantity to meet the demand for large bags.
These have been a tradition in Spain, with double and sometimes treble gunning the norm (which explains why some Spaniards are so lethally quick on grouse). But to meet this market, some shoots have taken shortcuts. The easiest way to show large numbers of birds regularly and cheaply is reduce loss by wandering and predation to the minimum, and that has lead to topping up and, in some cases, releasing birds from cages on the day of the shoot. In the past I’ve shot limp partridges in Spain that had their feet caked in feathers and faeces.
If, however, the bags were scaled down and there was sufficient holding ground, birds could be released well before shooting commenced, giving them time to acclimatise and become a worthy quarry. Smaller days would also give British guns the chance to experience the thrill of Spanish partridge shooting without paying the princely sums demanded for 600-plus back-to-back days that are usual on many Iberian shoots.
SHOOT NEAR MADRID
Providing this type of shoot, on which a team could enjoy a 250-bird day at moderate cost, became the dream of Ashley Butler, an Old Etonian arborist with a passion for shooting. And it’s one that’s been realised at the 3,500-hectare estate in Matarrubia, Guadalajara, an hour’s drive from Madrid.
“I’ve shot since I was a boy,” said Ashley, “and now run a small, private shoot for friends in Cheriton Bishop, Devon. We usually shoot 40 or so head a day and it’s great fun. But I’d heard about the joy of shooting Spanish partridges and somehow got it into my head that I could start something that could be enjoyed and afforded by my sort of friends – normal boys and girls who love their sport but want it done the right way and not cost a fortune.”
With the backing of his wife, Bex, Ashley started touring Spain looking for the right piece of ground. “At first I thought I could rent some of the outside pieces from the established partridge shoots but they weren’t interested. But word travelled that I was seeking somewhere and one day I received a call from Jose Pazos y Solier – “Pepe” to his friends – a passionate hunter who’s hunted game throughout the world. He thought Matarrubia might be just the place. Though it’s only an hour from Madrid, the area is sparsely populated and sits in the Serrania foothills. With a little arable farming mixed with wild areas of juniper and cork trees, it seemed a perfect place for a shoot, so I went to meet him in 2015.”
Seven months later, with financial help from a family friend, Ashley and Pepe, having secured the shooting rights, built a luxurious lodge from scratch, its terracotta hues belying its age. “It sleeps a full team of guns,” Ashley explained, “and it feels like it’s been here forever.”
Much of that is due to Pepe. A natural aristocrat exuding charm and manners, he’s decorated the lodge with the help of Bex and his girlfriend, Diana Gispert, a trained opera singer with a penchant for jazz. As well as good paintings, the walls are festooned with Pepe’s trophies, including 100 roe heads, 60 of which are gold and silver medal, various glaring Cape buffalo and a pair of woodcock hanging vertically in a domed case.
“I have two real loves, apart from Diana,” said Pepe, the night we arrived. “One is hunting. The other is cleaning leather. Nothing is more relaxing. I bought these boots in London 30 years ago and they’re still as good as new. I clean them with lemon juice. I love it so much that all my friends bring their boots for me to clean when they come to stay.”
Pepe’s thing for leather was clearly evident when we were shooting. In Spain, the beating line is marshalled by mounted men, with Pepe in charge together with his head keeper, Jacobo Perales, and one of Pepe’s friends, Juan Jose Franco Suelves, great grandson of General Franco and son of Franciso Franco, famed for his prowess on the grouse moors. Clad in tall boots and leather chaps, and all expert horsemen, they created minor swooning from the girls in the party as they directed the flow of birds expertly over the line.
“My aim is to ensure everyone has a full shooting day,” said Ashley, “and we aim to put on 40 days a year, shooting 250 head between eight guns at an all-in cost of £10,000 – and that includes two nights’ accommodation, cartridges, all meals, beers and wines. If it’s done properly no one should then face a bill for overages.”
By the third drive, everyone has woken up to the demand of shooting Spanish style, with Claire Zambuni, Tom Adams and Tom Wynendaele, a young Belgian shoot promoter, polishing them off in style. Two of Ashley’s home syndicate – “Curly” Gross and Michael Brabin – are busy claiming they can’t connect but there’s always something falling down whenever I look their way. Which admittedly isn’t often, as Tom Payne and I are busy dealing with our own birds. We’ve had a lot of fun together sharing a pigeon hide and seem, somehow, to have translated that experience to the driven field, each somehow knowing when the other’s unloaded.
SHARING THE BAG
With the sun now high and three drives completed, it was time for lunch, a typical Spanish al fresco lunch of fino sherry, cold beer, Serrano ham, salami made from wild boar shot by Pepe on the estate and steaming saffron paella. As nine griffon vultures circled behind us, conversation turned, perhaps inevitably, to the British game surplus, a problem that doesn’t seem to be shared by the Spanish. “Say we shoot 800 partridges in a day,” explained Jorge, my secretario. “Well, there are usually 40 people on a shooting day – guns, beaters, dog men – so we all take home 20 birds and eat them ourselves or give them to friends and family.”
With a breeze rising, we abandoned lunch and headed for the final two drives set deep in gullies cut over centuries by flash floods. “These are our favourite drives,” said Jorge, “as the birds can come from three directions at once.”
At first, they came from in front, giving a momentary chance, ideal for those who like snap shooting. As the drive progressed, however, small coveys and singletons began following the line of the gulley running across our bows. They were rangy but perfectly possible for Tom Payne and myself, truly sporting birds that once again demonstrated that quarry does not have to be high to be challenging.
Both drives were exhilarating and all too soon it was time to sleeve guns for the last time and head up to the high ground to watch the sun set over the Serrania range, a couple of leagues of land washed with gold light to accompany our gin and tonics, a sprig of wild rosemary in each, picked within yards.
The following day some of the party had elected to shoot walked-up birds, an extra sporting foray that Ashley provides for £120 a gun, and their legs and bottoms were now regretting the decision to borrow the shoot’s horses for a canter up the hill.
But such pains seemed to disappear with the dancing. That evening, Pepe took the lead in the village bar where he bowed, grasped the hand of Anna, his head girl beater, and the pair performed an immaculate and intricate Sevillanas de Andalucia, a traditional dance learned by most Spaniards. The English, being a nation of flatfoots, waited until the evening when Ashley brought in a jazz band from Madrid and we did our usual hunt-ball shuffle. It wasn’t quite Strictly but after a fabulous day’s shooting and enough Rioja on board, who cares?
SHOOTING IN SPAIN
This season: a 250-bird day for eight guns, including cartridges, two nights’ accommodation, all meals, wine and beer, costs £10,000.
Taking guns: you’ll need a European Firearms Pass, issued by your local firearms officer – easyJet is an efficient handler. Ashley Butler can hire side-by-sides, including some elegant Grullas, and over-and-unders for ¤100 a day.