IT was the Royal Show in its tractor-and-combine glory days but teased into a narrow ribbon of roadside agricultural repair shops, John Deere showrooms and stockists of giant tyres leaving little footprint in this loamy lushness marching to the horizon. We’d been prepared for Argentina’s indecent fecundity by Charlie’s tooth decay. Forced to stay in our Buenos Aires digs by his recovery from emergency root work we’d stumbled across a shopping channel among the Spanish-dubbed US soaps. Instead of offerings of hair-thin gold necklaces we had Lot 103, a herd of Hereford x Brahmins trotting across the screen to the accompaniment of accordion music. Lot 104, similar, but with the addition of the odd beast resembling a British White steer.
Agriculture dominates this most European chunk of South America. Even so, the lushness of Córdoba’s crops, the verdant explosion of maize and sorghum, soya and rape, almost made us miss the wild guinea-pigs dodging the cars and the first grey flash of feathers against the blue skies. As we drew nearer, that flash became a flock, the flock a cloud until finally, in a feathered version of the Pied Piper’s rats, they merged into a blizzard of doves pouring on to the shooting grounds of the Pica Zuro Lodge. hat famous old prophet of pigeon- shooting, Major Archie Coats, urged his disciples to seek out “traffic”. Well, this wasn’t a trickle of Sunday drivers but Hyde Park Corner on a Friday afternoon, with birds queuing from every direction.
Lucas Dominguez, the head guide, was entirely unexcited by the sight. His company, David Denies, now owned by Nervous Waters, has been in the dove-shooting business for 27 years and currently rents the shooting on 56 farms over 250,000 acres of Córdoba, a province sitting in the foothills of the Sierras Chicas mountains, 400 miles north-west of Buenos Aires.
It’s that geography that makes it the ultimate worldwide destination for bird-shooting. Clement weather, abundant food and scrub-covered hills for nesting result in the eared doves laying three to six clutches of two chicks per year. This makes the dove the protein equivalent of wildebeest and sprat, preyed on ceaselessly but always beating the toothed-and-clawed subtraction. The population estimate for Córdoba alone is 80 million.
And the odd 10,000 seemed to be buzzing around the trees as we shambled out of the minibus, the final stage in our long pilgrimage to this shrine of shooting. Lucas pressed a cup of peat-black coffee in our hands and asked, “Do you want to go to the lodge, take a shower and relax – or would you like to shoot?”Within five minutes we’d changed in the field, grabbed a 20-bore Beretta each and trotted off to a belt of tall trees accompanied by our guides, each carrying two slabs of shells.
“High or low?” asked Nolo, my man for the week, anticipating the answer. The British always opt for the tall birds while American clients prefer the medium stuff reminiscent of their southern-state white-tailed doves.
The hide had already been cleared and within 10 minutes a dozen birds were on the ground. Sometimes they came like medium partridges, the sort shown by the chalk-valley shoots of Dorset and Wiltshire. Others would flicker over as high as Yorkshire stormers. And always they came – with a consistency that transforms confidence in your ability and a shotgun’s lethality. You do not need to worry that this is your best chance of the drive. That the bird might be your neighbour’s. That you’re shooting more than your share. In Argentina you can shoot at the highest birds, the widest birds – all the birds. The only limit is your appetite to continue firing.
We’d promised ourselves to start steadily but every 30 seconds there’d be another challenging, irresistible shot and, somehow, before lunch, Charlie and I had each worked our way through 1,125 cartridges, a normal season’s worth of shooting crammed into three hours.
At 1pm we returned to the mess tent, set up under the cool of a grove decorated with primrose-yellow butterflies and a brace of blue-tufted star-throat hummingbirds. Our fellow guns were already settling into chilled beers. Sid Tate and his son, Andrew, had travelled down from North and South Carolina, while Peter Marshall and his wife, Linda, had hop-ped over from the UK. Generally, 75% of dove-shooters are from the US, 25% from Europe, with the British by far the major players.
Within minutes our guides transformed into first-class cooks. Fresh tomato and onion salads, avocados and bottles of malbec appeared with dove-breast kebabs, chorizo-style sausages and steaks of intense flavour that you could cut with a butter knife. We’d eaten at some glitzy restaurants in Buenos Aires but, good as they were, their sirloins could not touch the ones rustled up by our team over a rough old barbecue in this patch of scrub. Modestly, our guides claimed the quality was down to the cattle being grass fed throughout and slaughtered at local abattoirs.
Inevitably, the lunch-time conversation drifted towards the fate of the bag. “It’s pointless pretending we can collect all of the birds,” said Lucas, “the scrub is just too thick. But every guide is contractually obliged to breast-out 200 doves a week, which we chill and put into cool-boxes and deliver to the Maria de la Esperanza Mission, run by Sister Teresa and volunteers. We also donate pasta, rice, vege-tables and cash given by shooting clients, all of which means that the Mission can produce a daily meal for up to 1,500 under-privileged children. So, what is a serious agricultural pest to us is put to the best possible use.”
It might be a pest but the eared dove is also a gentleman. In the morning it flights from its roost to its feeding grounds, from 10 o’clock to 1 o’clock. Between 2pm and 6pm it flights back to its roost, allowing the guns a long and leis-urely lunch. The guides, meanwhile, play cards ferociously, a South American version of Farmer’s Glory, while their more indolent clients can siesta in a string of hammocks.
Still buzzing from adrenalin and coffee, we went birdwatching instead. As well as hummingbirds and countless doves, Córdoba has a plethora of birds of prey, including the massive black-chested buzzard eagle and southern caracara, which work the roadside verges together with the diligence of parents seeking a dropped toy. There are also squadrons of monk parakeets, the same species we see in London. “Far too many of them,” according to Cate Smythe, the manager of the Pica Zuro Lodge. “You can hardly hear yourself speak for their yackering,” she complains, as we watch another flight do a low-level swoop over the wild guinea-pigs grazing the lawns.
Cate runs the graceful old lodge like a swan a’swimming, all calmness above the surface while below there’s the constant flurry of activity as she ensures guests have the smooth-est of stays. With nine bedrooms, Pica Zuro is akin to a Scottish lodge but with endless supplies of good wine, perfect steaks and a complete absence of midges. “We’re right in the middle of the shooting grounds,” she says, “so nowhere’s more than a 30-minute ride in the minibus. And if you want to take the whole place for a smaller party, we have La Dormida Lodge, with seven rooms. We try to make sure that guests feel it’s their home for the stay, and not too formal.”
We found it bordered on the riotous. During our three-day stay the revolving party included a clutch of Californians, South and North Carolinians and a covey of Englishmen. Jonathan Harris, chairman of The Futon Com-pany, was stopping over after a tussle with the Rio Grande’s sea-trout. Paul Southerington of Witham Specialist Vehicles, teased as “supplier of armoured cars to the gentry”, was a Pica Zuro regular, as was Brian Austen, founder of the Moscow State Circus, ex-high-wire walker (“El Briano Vaselino”), and lion tamer (top tip: “Never work with all-male lions – they become over-fond of each other and turn on you.”) Add youngish hot shots, Jeremy Pemberton and Ed Buxton, and the conversation was as quickfire as the shooting.
Our party was not unusual in its mix. A browse through the visitors’ book revealed a string of British guns, including one team who fired 52,000 shots for 33,312 doves. Not everyone wants to shoot such numbers, but if you can shoot reasonably and have the desire, it’s easy to shoot 1,000 birds per gun per day. The 20-bore over-and-unders and semi-autos, fed on 24g loads and used with a recoil pad, give little perceived recoil. For many, however, the real challenge lies in practising those shots that are expensive in the UK, such as high pheasants and driven grouse.
On the second day Nolo, my guide, found a flight line that produced perfectly acceptable partridge-type birds but I’d spotted a steady trickle of birds that were all of 40yd up and frequently little more than a midgy speck in the azure. He grinned and within minutes we were under birds that would cost £45 plus VAT on Exmoor. Move slightly, and they’d spot you and flare offline but keep still, ad-dress the bird properly at the last second, and they’d tumble. They’re not quite pheasants, of course. Eared doves don’t carry long tails to gull you into pulling the trigger too early, and have none of the resilience of an old January cock. But the shot that kills a 50yd dove would undoubtedly despatch a Devon archangel, given a heavier load and bigger shot.
Change location and the dove can be so grouselike you can almost hear the flanker’s flag crack. Jeremy Pemberton and Ed Buxton had put in virtuoso performances on the high birds and were making easy work of partridge-type birds when I suggested they turn round and address the birds coming from behind, clipping over them on the wind no more that 10yd high. Shooting grouse well in front takes nerve. Too often we fluff our rare days on the moors by leaving the birds too late, hoping, stupidly, for an easier shot. But with an endless stream of doves there was no hesitation. We created an impromptu set of three “butts” and had two hours’ continuous sport at these lagopus doppelgangers.
“It’s a shame that all the British come from late January to March,” according to Horacio Dartiguelongue, the lodges’ general manager. “Of course, it fits in with your seasons and with the sea-trout fishing in Patagonia. But from July to mid October the doves move into the foothills and we can show birds from 30yd up to completely out of range. Anyone who wants to practise for high Devon pheasants, come in early October and fit in three years’ worth of ‘normal’ shooting into three days.”
As well as “pheasants”, Horacio can organise Argentinean “woodcock” in our summer months, hunting the white-spotted wing pigeon through the olive groves in the drier country around the company’s Montaraz Lodge. The white-spotted is about the size of a woodpigeon and decoys easily, rather too willingly, we thought, which partly explains why there’s a daily 300-cartridge limit. But Montaraz is a working 17th-century estancia, with quality horses tended by gauchos and a long bar overlooking the swimming-pool. As such, it’s a good contrast to the more intense dove-shooting, especially if you’re travelling with partners. Few do, though. Argentinean dove-shooting is for the dedicated shot.
Picking my birds carefully, I averaged just over 1,000 cartridges per day but the head of an American private bank, using Benelli emi-automatics, fired 5,500 in eight hours. Extreme? Perhaps. But the eared dove popu-lation has exploded with the changes in Argentinean agriculture, which now feeds much of the world. In the peer-reviewed
scientific journal, Current Zoology, Messrs Enrique H Bucher and Ronald D Ranvaud’s paper, “Eared dove outbreaks in South Amer-ica: patterns and characteristics”, states, “Following reports of severe damage, local authorities implemented massive control campaigns during the 1960s and 1970s, using poisoned baits distributed around the roosts. Although millions of doves were killed, there was neither a noticeable reduction in overall population level, nor in colony numbers.”
The dove is too graceful and delicious to be poisoned. But it is a pest that needs controlling and one of the most sporting birds in existence. Add that quality to the verdant beauty of the landscape and local people’s kindness and you realise why visitors never question returning to Argentina. They only ask “when?”