Ferreting doesn’t come with the usual mix of Lycra shorts and designer shades that shout extreme sport. But here we are, in conditions that warrant ice-picks and crampons, attempting to shoot bolted bunnies. “We have visitors coming from all over the world to shoot our partridges,” shouts Roy Green, the manager of Buccleuch Sporting, “But what they really talk about over dinner are the rabbits! I… said… THE… RABBITS!”
We’re being buffeted by a rainstorm, which adds to the fun of trying to stay standing on a 50-degree slope pocked
by warrens. Roy has turned out the keepering team from Queensberry, one of five sporting estates owned by the Duke of Buccleuch, and every member of it loves coney control.
Even Harry Potter. His real name’s Kieran Alison but he’s a doppelgänger for the wizarding youth. His ferret also resembles a JK Rowling creation, but this time one of the darker creatures from the Forbidden Forest. Blood is already pouring from Kieran’s left hand and the ferret’s hanging from his right. “That’s why we call that bugger Nipper,” smiles Roy, happy that another keeper’s lad is undergoing the traditional apprenticeship.
Nipper is dangerously psychotic, even for a weaselly species, striking terroir terror into the local rabbits. Five minutes after she slides into a hole there’s a blur of fur heading downhill. It’s a forlorn dash. Rab Clark, the Queensberry estate’s headkeeper, is quicker on the draw than Wyatt Earp on amphetamines. I’ve never seen a man shoot faster or straighter, and the rabbit is sent cartwheeling down the hill.
Way below, dark dots amid the rain, the Buccleuch dogmen signal to their charges. They’re standing on the flat valley bottom, at least 300yd away, and separated by a high, barbed-wire fence. A dog is selected from the line of immobile springers, cockers and labradors, soars over the fence, collects the rabbit and gallops back down the slope.
No one looks impressed. Top gundog work has been part of the Buccleuch estate since the 1830s, when the fifth Duke of Buccleuch imported one of the first labradors from Newfoundland. The present duke, Richard Buccleuch, is continuing his family’s commitment with the construction of Chapel, a state-of-the-art kennel run by David Lisett.
David’s achievements include winning the British and Irish Spaniel Championships, but the new kennel is designed to do far more than breed and house field trial champions. “We’ve built a seminar room and a huge rabbit pen so that amateur handlers can book in and have intensive training days. Although our labradors are famous, we’ve also very strong field trial lines of cockers and springers, so we can cater for most gundog enthusiasts,” says David.
What David cannot cater for, however, is Nipper. Rab has rolled over another coney and a second labrador has been despatched to retrieve. Nipper is not to be thwarted of her quarry, however, and snakes across the hill, arriving at the rabbit seconds before the lab. The “peep, peep” of the whistle is a clear enough instruction to collect and the young dog, momentarily flustered, picks up Nipper. Outraged, the ferret sinks her fangs into the lab, which learns another important lesson: never mess with a mustelid.
Mike Robinson, The Field’s cookery writer, is so transfixed by the drama that he almost misses seeing another rabbit sneak out of a burrow and head up a shale-filled gully. But he’s a handy shot with his grandfather’s damascus-barrelled Grant and another rabbit is sent spinning over.
By now the rain has almost won and with 27 rabbits in the bag we decide to edge gingerly down the hill for lunch at the Buccleuch Arms Hotel in Thornhill. “Our guests like this place because it’s a proper sporting hotel,” says Roy, ordering Buccleuch steak and chips all round. “And the food’s brilliant.”
The Buccleuch herd is naturally reared, grass-fed and their carcasses are hung for a minimum of 21 days, all of which one somehow expects. What’s surprising is the marketing, with a high percentage of sales coming from the shopping channel QVC. “What do you mean, you’ve never heard of it, Jonathan?” says Roy. “You need to stay in more.”
I can’t think how anyone could remain indoors in Dumfriesshire, though. Many years ago, before gap years were invented, I worked as an assistant gamekeeper on a nearby estate, which meant I annoyed the full-time keeper but occasionally did something useful such as bank strimming. This part of Scotland, so often bypassed on the road to the Highlands, is a sporting playground of wildfowl, enormous forest stags, grouse and big fish, two of which glare glass-eyed from the bar walls: “35lb salmon, Hedge End, Mid Nithsdale Angling, Nov 1994” reads the legend of one, next to an equally impressive 14½lb sea-trout. “I had a 10-pounder last season,” volunteers a tattooed and modestly Mohicaned punk, adding, virtuously, “and on the fly.”