La Cuesta - Perdix extraordinaire
Upon his return from Spain, Adrian Blundell struggled to find sufficient superlatives to describe the partridge shooting he had just experienced.
The challenge for a journalist presented with the unusual, splendid or extraordinary is often the hunt for superlatives. In the case of La Cuesta this is certainly so. Simply put, if this estate was a lager, it would just have toppled Carling from its ‘probably the best in the world' spot.
Based in La Mancha, less than three hours south from Madrid, La Cuesta has elevated its partridge shooting to a level that attracts devotees of the world's top high bird destinations. Given that there are just a handful of Spanish shoots in that league, what makes La Cuesta so special?
Anyone who strives to produce the best has to be prepared to take it seriously and La Cuesta's driving force, Jesus Alberto Muela, is nothing if not serious. Despite his father's expectation that he'd join the family business, Jesus turned his back on the world of game dealing and, aged just 12, began working locally as a loader and gamekeeper. “I loved that”, he says, “by the time I was 18 I'd left Spain for France and England. I wanted to organise shooting but had to learn first. I was with a keeper in England for two years as part of my learning.” This experience and a total commitment to improving both the shooting and the service that his clients expect has meant that people now beat a path to his door - and return year after year.
All this is good news for Nick Mason of Davis & Bowring. The friendship struck up 20 years ago still cements the estate/agent relationship more strongly that any contract. “It's trust and confidence that makes it happen”, explains Nick. “Jesus is focussed on quality. Where most people want compliments, he wants advice on the next possible improvement.”
Twenty years after they first met, La Cuesta - or Finca Cuesta de la Borracha to give it its proper name - has expanded its shooting territory and a splendid new ‘finca' (hunting lodge) has helped complete the package. An invitation to visit there, casually extended between drives on a grouse moor, was one that I'd accepted faster than you can say ‘easyJet'.
Arriving in early October, between the first weeks of grouse and the onset of serious pheasant shooting, we were met by midday temperatures approaching 30°C. Little wonder that the ground was baked hard after three months without rain and the birds were grateful for the chozo dotting the fields (miniature twig wigwams that offer shelter from the sun and predators). Long daylight hours meant that we could shoot the two planned drives late in the afternoon after a visit to the nearby Torrenueva de los Infantes and a leisurely four-course lunch.
As with every meal at La Cuesta, it was an occasion to be savoured. Taken in a building high on a hill with glorious 360 degree views, it was after 3pm when we finally met our cargadores and secretarios to head out to Piedra Blanca - The White Stone.
Perhaps I should have asked the whereabouts of the white stone but I was focussed on the whereabouts of the perdix. Birds launched off the hill in front of me would mostly be in view for some time and pick up speed too, not always easy shooting. With Nick Mason's assistant, Simon Nicholson, swelling the team at my peg, it was a short but tense wait.
‘They'll be fairly easy birds to ease us in', I kept thinking and besides, I had the get out of jail card of borrowed guns. In the event, they were as high and fast as you would hope - every bird in the bag worthy of the trip and a respectable start, borrowed guns or not. Whilst I was to find that La Cuesta has drives that will appeal to and test everyone, Jesus has set out to offer partridge in the ‘style Anglais' rather than the lower birds of traditional Spanish partridge.
Catching up with the other Guns as we moved to the next drive, our minds were already decided. This was going to be Special with a capital S.
At La Nave (the ship) we were faced with a cliff that promised an equal or greater challenge. Leaving Nick to shoot, I joined another Gun, Jesus's sister Maria Angles. This was a real family peg, Maria being joined by her niece Elena, with her cousin Roberto operating as her Cargadores and his girlfriend Tania watching.
A keen shot with a real sense of humour, typified by the ‘Road Runner' engraving on her 20-bores, Maria relished the company and made short but enthusiastic work of her birds. Indeed, all of the team were now getting into the zone and whilst no-one was interested in counting, when we headed back to the finca our secretarios' clickers had recorded a bag of almost 200. With the minimum expectation of 600 on a full day we hadn't been disgraced by the show of top quality birds. No wonder good teams with deep pockets can easily exceed this bag if they choose.
With the time to enjoy a soak in the bath before dinner, the leisurely pace continued. We took our meal on the terrace as the colours slowly changed and faded to secluded darkness. I was told that later in the season the views of the Andalucían Mountains are enjoyed from in front of a blazing log fire. A good excuse to return.
With three drives planned for the morning, an early finish to the evening was sensible, but this was an ideal time to find out more about Jesus Alberto Muela, who at just 41 has clearly achieved a great deal from a standing start.
I'd expected drive and focus, but what surprised me was the intense passion to succeed that oozed from this quiet man. It was simple to him, “Last year I took no holiday, we have to be ready for shooting. If I want my business to go on, I have to be there”, was his opening comment. Last year he developed new drainage systems, this year it's more roads through the estate's 16,000 hectares. And with the ability to shoot for more than a month without repeating a drive, or to host two parties at once without one hearing the other shooting, these roads are a real necessity.
His creation has won a reputation for high birds, and as I was to find out, this meant high, very high and stratospheric. His philosophy is simply: “Ask me for the type of shooting that gives you pleasure, and I'll give it to you.” It's why he's spent so long developing his estate too, always looking for better countryside, as he puts it.
If the opening day's drives had been impressive, the second day was even more so. Rescisio saw our line of Guns threaded through a gap between cliffs that were impossibly attractive, the moon glowing in a picture postcard blue sky. When the birds came, they matched the setting and by the end I was wondering if some of the Guns would need surgery to remove their huge smiles.
Given that this was intended as a snapshot of what La Cuesta can offer, after a break for tajos under the welcome shade of a tree, we moved on to a different challenge: La Nocturnas. This I'd thought meant night-time, but it actually means nightmare. Whether for the differing heights or sheer quantity of birds in the drive I do not know, but the challenge here for many was to stay focussed, picking out those birds that gave you most pleasure. They were clearly all killable and several of the party were doing the hot and dusty work of the beaters' proud.
I had wondered where this might take us for the final drive. Las Communistas, named after a slogan painted by some departed and anonymous comedian, provided the answer. The previous day's roles were reversed as I was joined by Maria Angles who called out encouragement for every bird that was within range and cheered my few successes. It was here that I was treated to the spectacle that brings the world's best shots to La Cuesta. In a valley not unlike my normal shooting environment in the Highlands, but of sun-baked bare soil, scrub and small trees, came a steady trickle of perdix - every one scorchingly high and fast.
Jesus had wanted to show us a few of the faces of La Cuesta, a shoot that can offer birds that vary from very good to extraordinary. But La Cuesta is so much more than just high birds. It also feels so much better for being a family business. Jesus's wife, sister, father and mother are all involved - it may one day involve his four-year-old son too, if, as Jesus puts it, “he takes it seriously”.
The big question is whether La Cuesta can maintain its place in the Premier League of shooting destinations. All I'll pass on is the comment that Jesus made to me: “There are 365 days in a year. Every one of them is a chance to do something better.”
Perhaps our Editor will send me out to check on progress in a year or two.
The main link between Davis & Bowring and La Cuesta is Nick Mason, the director of their shooting agency. Nick has what one might fleetingly view as an idyllic life - hosting parties chasing partridges in Spain, doves in Argentina, fishing for trout in South America. And that's before you think about grouse five or six days a week in the UK, followed by partridge, pheasant and salmon et al.
On the redeye Liverpool to Madrid flight he was quick to confirm my suspicions. “It's jolly hard work. You need to be there with your clients every day. You're a facilitator who needs to iron out potential problems quickly”, he said.
His involvement as a sporting agent had come about by chance. Taken to West London Shooting School for a lesson aged eight, he'd chased pigeon on a relative's farm and then stalked the Suffolk marshes for a while clutching an AYA No. 3 that had cost the princely sum of £62. So, an interest in shooting was a given. But he'd started his professional career as a land agent 30 years ago. “It was the start of let grouse shooting, and as estates we managed asked if we could find a few clients to shoot, it started to snowball from there”, he says. “Back then being a shooting agent wasn't seen as a serious profession.”
After a few years, Nick had been tempted down to Hungerford, to help establish another agency. But after a few years, Davis & Bowring had won him back and Kirby Lonsdale is where he has stayed. Grouse still form a major part of their business, but things have expanded to sport around the world.
The partridge in Spain are, as he says: “A natural fit between grouse and pheasant”, and his 20-year relationship with Jesus is one of which he is proud. “It's all done on a handshake, but we've a great partnership.” The Spanish side of the operation is so important that Nick now engages an English graduate in Spanish every year to act as his on-site assistant. On the trip that we were on, Anna Gamble, the 2010/11 assistant, was there to hand over to Simon Nicholson who will spend the next six months looking after Davis & Bowring clients. “So”, I asked, “what's the most crucial attribute in your business?” The answer was quick and unequivocal: “An understanding wife and family!”