Illaunmore, Lough Derg
Just as the February blues were taking a hold, Will Pocklington received a last-minute invitation that held a cure. The sporting island of Illaunmore beckoned.
Every year, February 1 seems to come around all too quickly. No sooner, it seems, have we dug the breeks and garters from the bottom of the wardrobe in autumn (or summer if we're really lucky) when the final horn of the season is blaring.
But how do you then fill that void? Luckily, the British sporting calendar presents us with several top drawer alternatives. Some swap shotguns for rifles and head for the woods and hills, while others reach for the rod, or turn their attention to hounds and horses. And then there are those lucky souls who venture abroad – partridges in Spain, boar in Europe, doves in Argentina. Others simply sink into a mild state of depression. I prefer to pursue the humble woodie, Lord James Percy's chariot of the sky.
This season, however, was different. My diary contained one anomaly. An unfamiliar remedy for the February blues – another shoot day... in late February. On an island.
Illaunmore shoot owner Michael Mahnke had kindly invited Fieldsports to his Irish shoot with a difference. Several differences in fact. We actually had to email the very amiable Stuart Price (who had helped arrange the trip) to double check that we'd got the correct dates and that the invitation wasn't some sort of joke.
Happily, he was being serious. Commercial pheasant and partridge shoots in Ireland can apply to the Department of Agriculture, Food & the Marine for an extension to their season – usually taking them up until the end of February – helping to make them more financially viable.
I penned over the pencil scribble in my diary.
The flight over from Heathrow to Shannon took a little over an hour and the drive thereafter to the charming village of Terryglass in west Ireland was about the same, just enough time to bombard Michael with a few of the burning questions I had.
Moving to Ireland from Germany in 1987, Michael bought the 250-acre island on Lough Derg in County Tipperary soon after and, with the help of long-time friend and characterful headkeeper Vincent Kyne, and more recently Michael Minehan, he has developed something unique.
The thought of an island shoot instantly grabbed my imagination. Predators, wandering birds, unwanted disturbance – three key variables that influence season returns – all negligible on a shoot separated from land by a half-mile stretch of water, right? But it hasn't been quite so straightforward.
“We've had to learn as we go in terms of getting the best out of the birds we put down,” Michael explained. Both he and Vincent attended a three-day gamekeeping course at the (then) Game Conservancy's base in Fordingbridge many moons ago, but have since learned by good old fashioned trial and error. Everything from how to drive the birds most effectively, to establishing the most suitable strain of pheasants. “We did once try Michigan bluebacks, for example,” he continued. “Yet watched one day as flush after flush flew like arrows into the sky, heading for the mainland without a glance back.”
Now they stick mainly to bazanties, and with no fear of boundary-crossing strayers and relatively few predators, bar the occasional bird of prey, corvid or mustelid – a few foxes did in fact manage to make their way over to the island on the thick ice during the winter of 2010 – returns of 80 per cent are achievable. Eighty per cent!
Whilst game management might have been a learning curve, hospitality comes as naturally to Michael and Vincent as a Baileys on ice after a creamy Guinness. They are superb hosts. From the moment I was greeted by Michael at the airport to the final goodbye after a hearty Irish breakfast two days later, I was made to feel truly welcome.
Soon after arriving at Michael's home, we were joined around the kitchen table by our fellow Guns and friends of Michael's. Ralf Mocken and Eugon Küster had made the journey over from Germany, whilst Jim Wilson and fellow Englishman Stuart Price had driven down to join us from Mount Falcon in County Mayo. It was mid to late afternoon and after a strong coffee and cakes, the bone china was swapped for cut crystal as the whiskey made its entrance. That evening we met two other members of the party, Mount Falcon owner Alan Maloney and his 83-year-old father John, at The Derg Inn in Terryglass, where we enjoyed a splendid meal. A convivial mood ensued which remained for the rest of my stay.
The excitement of a day's shooting still has me struggling to sleep, whether I'm going to be stood on a peg, sat in a pigeon hide or tucked-up in a dyke on the fens. This effect was multiplied somewhat, though, when I discovered that my final day of the 2014/15 season would be on an island in the middle of a lough. And we'd be travelling there on a military landing craft.
This is standard procedure at Illaunmore. Guns, beaters and pickers-up all meet at Coolbawn Quay in North Tipperary at the start of each shoot day, where they wait for their ride to the sporting island aboard the Second World War landing craft, ably commandeered by Francis Devanney. The game cart is also loaded onto the craft for the surprisingly smooth and pleasant 10-minute saunter across the lough.
It's worth mentioning here that all who attend the shoot to pick-up or beat do so voluntarily. They do it for the craic, for the sheer joy of being out amongst friends in the countryside. Many of those with dogs are also appreciative of the chance to work them on game – not so easily come by in Ireland, I was told. They are treated to a day at the two sharp ends of each season, are fed and given beer and a few brace of birds to take home at the end of each day, and then enjoy a feast-cum-party of biblical proportions at the end of February – the excitement for which was already mounting.
The shooting kicked off with an inland drive, where the beating team pushed a block of maize bordered by spruces, birch and bramble thicket over open grassland. For this drive I left the camera in its case and was pegged at No. 5. The first flush that erupted could have just as easily been in November. They poured over the line, some too low to consider, others sporting but not too stern, and the odd one that really stood out, soaring over at a height and pace that suggested they had an eye on the mainland. There were birds to match all abilities and the team selected the finer ones.
Picking-up didn't take long. A team of keen young helpers stood behind the line on most drives, picking birds as they fell and leaving the longer retrieves for the dogs – a nice touch I thought, which also meant that no bird was left unaccounted for.
A morning snifter followed before we headed to the next drive. The tractor and trailer that resides on the island throughout the season was our transport on land, also towing the game cart, and from its elevated position the views looking out over Lough Derg were far-reaching.
Fairy Hill saw the Guns horseshoe around a belt of dense scrub. Here the pheasants and partridges were driven from a long way back, so many had their wings set by the time they had reached my peg at the line's end, soaring at a pace. Eugon (on No. 7) and I had some great sport, intercepting some satisfying birds as Michael applauded from behind.
Elevenses consisted of sloe gin, cherry brandy, chocolates and a glut of anticipation for the first of the shoreline drives. Three nationalities made up the team of eight Guns, but fieldsports was a language we were all fluent in.
The waves lapped rhythmically against the rocky shore as we stood on our pegs at Beaters' Quay. It was with great hesitation that I handed my gun to Michael – who'd been a spectator thus far – and readied the camera. The spectacle of watching pheasants ride the wind with such speed, whilst keeping wide and of a fair height is something that I will not forget, Canon or Browning in hand. They sprung into the air along the island's edge with gusto, offering long crossing shots, with a few opting for the easier route straight over us.
Without exception, all of the dogs I saw on the day loved water. A successful shot was followed as a matter of course by a huge splash as one of the many spaniels or retrievers on-hand launched into the lough and paddled out to make the retrieve. Great to watch.
It was with a real buzz that we made our way to the new shoot lodge for lunch. Only a season old, it provides a comfortable lunch-stop, with a cauldron-sized log-burner, and an array of taxidermy and antlers adorning the walls.
The food matched the atmosphere, and the catering team did a grand job preparing the three-course meal of chowder, cod, and a fine selection of sweet pastries.
Two drives were to follow. Martin's Hill was a short walk from the lodge and saw the majority of the line pegged in woodland, with the lucky No. 8 Gun stood on the shore. But it was the last drive of the day, Uncle Pat's, that is most deserving of a final mention.
As signature drives go, Uncle Pat's was exemplary; the one drive on the day that, should I misplace my game book in years to come, I will always remember vividly. My peg was quite special – I was stood at the tip of a 10m stone pier – whilst the shooting was like nothing I'd experienced before on a driven day. The enthusiastic wails of the beaters pushed flurries of birds into the air – braces, threes, fours and the occasional flush of 20 or more which followed the shoreline, parallel to the line of Guns. Some arced wide, gliding above the chop, while others clung to the trees, presenting themselves as typical driven birds. Perhaps the strangest aspect was shooting out over the water towards nothing but a hazy shore in the distance.
Alas, all good things must come to an end, and the final horn of the day sounded as we set about picking-up before heading back towards our anchored water taxi. Any hint of the February blues, the end-of-season sickness, had – for now at least – vanished. I'd found the cure on a very special sporting island.
Bag: 160 pheasants, 19 partridges
Guns: Alan Maloney, John Maloney, Stuart Price, Jim Wilson, Ralf Mocken, Eugon Küster Will Pocklington & Nicky Cody