Partridge shooting in the sun does not have to mean big bags and Spain, Portugal offers wild birds and sunny stands
Partridges seem to embody the extremes that exist in shooting. Our native grey partridge has become an icon for conservation through efforts to restore the population, and for the past two years the Purdey Awards for Game and Conservation have been won by successful estates. On the other hand, redlegs are seen on the most industrially managed shoots around Europe.
In its native lands the redleg can inspire as much devotion as we afford our greys, and João Portugal Ramos is one of its champions. He has been shooting since he was a child and became a fanatical game-shot, a scourge of duck and snipe, besides representing Portugal on its clay-pigeon team in his twenties.
Ramos’s wife Teresa had not appreciated the degree to which shooting would take over their lives during the winter. “I thought he could just hunt around the house,” she told me. But it has become a family affair and they now often decamp en masse for driven days.
It is a well-trodden path from shooting obsessive to conservationist, and Ramos’s transition was cemented with the acquisition of shooting rights to 7,500 hectares in Pereiro, Alcoutim council. “I was a killer when I was young,” he admits, “but now I love to see the chicks. Imagine riding through here and seeing the broods.” It is a sentiment that his son João Maria regards with a wry smile in the shooting-line. When a low bird swings past his father’s hide unsaluted, he chuckles, “He doesn’t like shooting them anymore.”
Hunting wild birds, especially one’s own, does give a greater appreciation of the quarry. A plot of 2,500 hectares has been left unshot for the past few years to act as a nursery and sanctuary for the birds while the population increases. This area should be brought back into the shoot again after next season, giving the shoot 38 drives to choose from. Hare is off the game list until a large enough population is achieved, but there are 30 days of walked-up rabbit-shooting, which would make great sport for the strong limbed.
The idea is to keep naturally increasing the number of birds on the ground (and so the shootable surplus) each year for the rest of the tenancy, and, under the auspices of the keeper Carlos Alcario, to let a number of days to support the project. Along with four others, Carlos keeps a tight rein on predators such as foxes, and monitors the health of the birds. As one would expect, other birds are flourishing and impressive eagle owls fly through the guns, strictly off the game list, of course.
Early on in the project a heavy worm bur-den caused significant mortality but, on the advice of a Spanish friend, this was overcome by introducing medicated feed. But the birds are not artificially fed as a matter of course. The soil is poor but on a four-year rotation will support wheat. These birds are less dependent on insects than grey partridges at the fledgling stage. João drills 600 hectares of small feeding strips across the estate, which are left uncut.
Grants for planting pine trees are popular with some landowners. They are evident in Pereiro but João is keen to return to the most natural flora possible: wild almond and olive trees abound alongside evergreen oak. The native scrub makes excellent cover and there are wild herbs. Beaters appear after one drive with armfuls of rosemary and olive boughs.
João is disappointed by the first day. In spite of my concerns about sweltering in British shooting kit, the end of November is cool and we get up on Saturday morning to a distinct drizzle. The mildly inclement weather seems to cause consternation in the natives. My initial assumption that their talk of the whole day’s shooting being in jeopardy due to the rain is a little joke for the newcomers turns out to be misjudged. But, bravely, the decision to proceed is eventually taken and we set forth a little later than planned.
The guns assemble and draw their pegs at the lodge in Pereiro village. The former teashop now carries impressive trophies of local boar and deer. It also offers long views over the Spanish border and stunning sunsets after late shoot lunches. Rather than starting with one’s number and moving up two pegs after each drive, as we tend to do in the UK, printed cards show a grid. Sticking with the number you have drawn throughout the day, this grid gives the position at which your number should stand each drive. This, in theory, does away with guns spending hours trying to remember which number they are supposed to be, and mixes up the order so that you have a variety of neighbours. This is apparently a particular bonus if there is a notably greedy gun in the party.
Even when overcast, this landscape is ruggedly beautiful. This is not the Algarve of the Pringle tank top. No doubt there are golf courses within easy reach but we are surrounded by sandstone, scrub and scattered trees. The weather, by British sporting standards, is remarkably clement even on a bad day but uphill driving on the tracks proves to be a trial for some “four-by-fours”, caught out with city tyres, and I am astonished by the suggestion of juggling an umbrella and two guns. Every consideration has been given to the guns’ comfort and enjoyment.
A large local team is responsible for beating. Marshalling wild birds is never an easy task. As ever, though, it is a trade-off; wild birds may be skittish but you can expect them to prove strong and testing in flight. At Pereiro they do not disappoint. When you’re shooting in drizzle, it seems partridges are not always cooperative but they can still put on an exciting show. For every covey that goes back or sneaks out of the end of the line, birds are coming forward – mainly in smaller groups, singles, doubles, trios, taking their own line, some hugging the contours and darting round a bluff, and others making an honest dash for it overhead, across the whole line of guns.
After each drive, no bird is left unpicked and the dogs make a powerful contrast to our uniform ranks of labradors and spaniels. Lean pointer types prevail here but there are also many mongrels and local hunting dogs like the podengo. All are keen workers and they efficiently sweep the ground for any runners, although one suspects they might have a tendency to be wilful if not kept busy enough.
The pickers-up and their hounds are certainly busy here, and the terrain that makes the area so beautiful and the birds so interesting brings its own challenges to the team. On Sunday, in much brighter weather, we shoot in the steep gorge of Ribeira da Foupana. We’re standing halfway down the drop when the birds suddenly appear over the crest and then belt for cover on the far bank. Many of those that are intercepted are brought down on sheer rocks. Dogs and pickers-up must skip nimbly and scramble with care across the face to ensure no birds are overlooked. It is slippery work on shaded outcrops covered in moss.
When dry and happy, the birds seem more inclined to cooperate and are breaking forward in larger coveys as well as sneaky singletons, and flying strongly with a purpose. It feels as though the birds have a plan – are on a mission – and it is great fun though not easy to try and stop them. A fast, low crosser is followed by a high covey of seven birds bursting overhead. There’s a moment of silence and a pair see their chance and scoot through.
Ramos takes a very dim view of wounding birds, and despatching a bird that is escaping with a leg down takes priority over a cracking right-and-left for him and his son. The guns are all sportsmen who enjoy their shooting wild and among friends.
One such gun is Antoine Velge, a neighbour of Jacques Hicter in France, who is famous for his success with the Game & Wild-life Conservation Trust in supporting grey partridges in Picardy. Velge and his son Federico are the only two bucking the lean-dog trend and they are shooting with their own handsome retrievers. Federico’s dog is enjoying its first day in the field and taking everything in its stride. Their winters are busy with shooting in the UK and elsewhere in Europe, and staghunting in France. Fernando Pereira Coutinho, a gastronome, produces his own wine for personal consumption.
The day is also very much a family affair. Peter Villax is shooting with his wife and six children in attendance, and they set up a comfortable camp at his peg for each drive. The eldest, Maria, is recently qualified in law and intends to shoot as sharply as she argues.
Villax describes Ramos as “a pioneer – the first to bring vineyards to the south and the first to put his name on the front of the bottle”. Since then Ramos has expanded into olive oil, wine vinegar and, naturally, port – his first bottling was a vintage. His industrious attitude seems to be paying dividends producing partridges, too. At this shoot, emphasis is placed on quality rather than quantity but there still seems to be lots of shooting to go round and the bag exceeds plenty of small UK shoots which put down quantities of birds.
Portugal may be known as a golf destin-ation but this is selling the country shamefully short. We found great sport and wild country that, perhaps luckily, has been living in the shadow of its bigger neighbour until now. The infrastructure and the easy flights, which were developed to aid the package holiday-maker and the golfer, can now be exploited by guns in search of wilder, better game.
Price €40 per bird or €3,500 per day, which includes airport transfers to and from Faro and B&B accommodation as well as a loader and a picker-up.
Bag 300 to 500 birds.
Contact: email firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.huntinportugal.com.