Snipe shooting on the Inner Hebrides is a sportsman's paradise
According to Sir Hugh Gladstone of Capenoch, in his Record Bags and Record Shooting of 1922, Lord Elphinstone and Mr JD Cobbold shot 1,052 snipe in a week’s shooting on Tiree at the end of October 1906. They shot 249 on the 29th alone and would have shot more had the bog they were beating in the afternoon not been so deeply flooded. At the same time of year in 1908, shooting on 11 days, they bagged 1,292. Cobbold, shooting by himself on 30 January 1915, killed and picked 151, a bag considered remarkable as there were fewer birds than in the autumn, the holding cover had died back and snipe were very wild.
Snipe shot in the north in those days would be dusted with pepper – particularly under the wings or where there was any sign of blood – packed in heather and then despatched by rail to friends and family. Prior to the Second World War there were any number of famous snipe manors in Britain: for example Wicken Fen and Whittlesey Mere in Cambridgeshire, Swanton Morley House, Hickling, Buckenham and Holkham marshes in Norfolk, Dunwich marshes in Suffolk, Pebsham marshes in Sussex and the celebrated artificial snipe bogs at Eaton in Cheshire and Blenheim in Oxfordshire. However, post-war agricultural reclamations destroyed most of these enchanting wetland areas and, sad to relate, Tiree is now one of the few places where snipe can still be found in any number.
A SPORTSMAN’S PARADISE
The isle of Tiree, the farthest of the Inner Hebridean islands, lies 20 miles due west of the Scottish mainland and about 10 from Mull. It is predominately low lying, with only three hills, of which the highest, Ben Hynish, is a mere 141 metres. Tiree is the most productive of the islands, with an outer ring of machair (fertile, flower-rich shell sand-dune grassland), a middle section of first-class cultivable land and an inner core of “sliabh” – wet, boggy, peaty ground.
The island supports five tenanted farms and 290 crofts, with Argyll Estates being the principal landowner. The crofting land is split into 31 townships, apportioned to afford a mix of all three soil types. The sliabh, which retains its moisture, provides rich summer grazing while the cultivatable ground is cropped for grain, hay or silage and the machair is grazed through the winter months.
Tiree is free of ground predators and this, along with a mild climate, traditional farming practices and many lochans, enables enormous numbers of wildfowl to thrive in densities rarely seen on the mainland – especially a population of 4,000 native greylag geese, which increases with overwintering birds from Iceland, and a huge number of nesting snipe. These are augmented by falls of migrants from northern Europe moving south with the September and October moon. Add in teal, golden plover, wigeon, goldeneye and mallard, and you have a sportsman’s paradise, which still holds the record bag of snipe shot in the British Isles.
For many years the shooting on the island was let on an ad hoc basis, until Andrew Montgomery became factor of Argyll Estates in 2002 and took the management back in hand. Now, the estate lets four weeks on snipe, with the option of some goose flighting. The snipe are shot only on 14 days from the middle of September until the end of January, and there are five weeks or 15 days on geese. It also donates a day to the Heather Trust and the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust auctions. Guests stay at the newly refurbished Island House, which sleeps 14 with an adjoining bothy suitable for a further three, picturesquely situated on the edge of Loch an Eilein.
Part of the whole experience is getting to Tiree; there are flights from Glasgow and Connel Bridge or fast RIB service from Loch Feochan. The preferred choice for most guns is to breakfast on the early Caledonian MacBrayne ferry as it takes the scenic route up the sound of Mull, past Tobermory to Coll before docking at Scarinish on Tiree. Gales up the west coast meant I had to fly in a tiny aircraft from Connel Bridge, joining David Miller and his party on the afternoon of their first shooting day.
David has been coming to Tiree since Andrew began to re-let the shooting commercially and the party included his wife Isobel, father Sam, sons Sam junior and Charlie, Sam junior’s girlfriend Kim Mallett, Bill and Sarah Allen, Graham Boon and Simon Florey. I arrived in time for the end of the afternoon goose drive and to watch Peter Isaacson, the keeper, and his liver labrador, Boggy, in action. Virtually every little field on Tiree seemed to have greylag grazing on it and Boggy has been taught to wear them off in the direction of guns. As a result, he bears little resemblance to the usual portly lab and looks more like a foxhound at the end of a hard season – all ribs and sinew. Several skeins were put off in this manner and as the light faded, an ecstatic party of guns emerged from their various places of cover. The morning bag had been six couple of snipe and four golden plover, with Bill and Simon opening their account with snipe for the first time and Simon achieving an astonishing left-and-right. The afternoon produced two geese and a mallard.
A FISTFUL OF HEAVIES
I had not expected to shoot, but David and Andrew between them generously decided I should join the party as a gun. As we prepared to move on to Loch Bhasopol for the evening flight, Peter handed me a fistful of heavies and an over-and-under Baikal, a thoroughly agricultural Russian shotgun, for which I developed a deep affection during the course of the following 36 hours. At the loch we moved into position round the south end and waited as the light began to slip away. From time to time trips of teal hissed past and snipe could be heard scarping all around us. Periodically, we heard the clamour of geese moving as Peter and Boggy pushed them off fields. The island greylag are under little pressure to seek safety and although they flight to drink and wash, they do not have coastal roosts in the same way as mainland birds. Four decent-sized skeins came over us and Andrew dropped one well out into the loch, which his cocker, Ghillie, brought back after a spectacularly brave retrieve. Dinner in the kitchen at Island House was a splendidly informal affair presided over by the chef, Ian MacArthur, and Morven Macinnes, his assistant. It was then to bed, as the party for the morning goose flight had an early start.
At six in the morning, Simon, David and Sam senior (who at 76 is enviably spry and never misses a chance to have a go at the “long-necked fellas”), were strung out among the boulders and rank heather beside the Cornaigbeag lochans. Tiree is famous for its normally balmy winter weather but as the dawn light came up we were lashed by a freezing northerly gale. Several skeins came over low and fast, and I could see flashes of shots farther down the lochan. Then the sky darkened and hail followed by sleet came howling in from the Atlantic. At 7.30 we packed up, picked our geese and were in the lodge by eight o’clock for a quick breakfast and exchange of heavies for snipe shot before walking-up bogs.
The entire party formed up for this exercise with Isobel, Sarah, Kim and 11-year-old Charlie roped in as beaters. The low front had passed through and we lined up across the bog below Heylipol Church in bright sunshine with a strong north wind at our backs. The sliabh on Tiree, fertilised by countless generations of island cattle, are perfect snipe habitat and birds started to rise, scarping in alarm, as soon as we began to move forward.
This was snipe-shooting at its thrilling, unpredictable best with birds jumping everywhere. One moment they would suddenly spring out of cover and jink away, twisting and turning almost out of range, the next they were flying into the wind high above us.
RISING AND PITCHING
We followed the sliabh along the shore of Loch a’ Phuill, stopping periodically to pick birds or to reform the line when a gun or beater had to circumnavigate a flooded drain. After two hours, we emerged on to dry ground at Balinoe Croft with a bag of six-and-a-half couple.
Peter Browne, who had flown up from Heathrow, joined us in time for the three afternoon drives with Andrew’s eight-year-old son Piers. The first drive started at a bog near the Old Kelp Factory. Two guns walked with the beaters while the rest were in a semicircle behind whatever cover they could find and David picked-up with his cockers – something he enjoys as much as shooting.
Walking-up a snipe bog may be thrilling, but nothing compares to the gripping sense of anticipation when they are driven towards you. Hunkered down behind a clump of reeds I could see the beaters sploshing towards us with snipe rising and pitching everywhere. As the line moved closer, the scarp of alarmed birds became more distinct and soon they started flickering in every direction, high and awkward.
On the last drive I was hiding behind a gatepost. Immediately to my right was a splash of water. I could see the sea in the distance and innumerable little white crofts with geese rising and falling in the fields around them. A flight of golden plover flew past so close that sunlight glinted on their yellow markings; then snipe started to drop into the splash and, for a short while, I had my own flight pond. Our bag for the day was 13 couple of snipe, two golden plover and three greylag.
The shooting on Tiree is unique and, under the current management, will remain so. To see snipe in such numbers is an insight into what parts of Britain were like once. In the spring and summer, the island must throb with their drumming. It would be worth coming back then just to hear it.