Barbary partridge in Morocco
Outstanding shooting, gorgeous weather and a fabulous backdrop of the Atlas Mountains - what's not to like as Mike Barnes forgets the fog back home to go in pursuit of barbary partridge.
Bravo! A bird fell from the heavens and the Gun at the next peg had the wholehearted vocal appreciation of his loader and secretario. Then it was my turn. A barbary partridge swung in my direction, and what followed was one of those sweetest of moments. The ones you never forget. My loading team were with me, eyes glued to the skies. The bird was higher than I thought. I raised the gun onto it, mounted, pulled through and... down it came, as if by magic. But no time to savour, as Mohamed and Ahmed pointed out front right - a covey was hurtling towards me.
Hajal Atlas is no ordinary partridge shoot, as the photographs indicate - we were lined out at 1,000 metres in Morocco's Atlas Mountains. The backdrop was sensational, the sky cloudless blue and the quality of sport exceptional. It was late February. The weather at home was wretched. Here after a cool start, temperatures rose to the high 70s/low 80s. Just when our own season was over, this was the proverbial icing on the cake.
So how did it come about? Primarily through two very interesting characters - Abdelmalek Laraichi (known as Malik) from Morocco and Carlos Rua from Spain.
Malik first... born in 1936 in the northern Moroccan city of Meknès, Malik was introduced to the sport as a youngster by his uncle. He takes up the story: “I was very keen from an early age. But a chance encounter introduced me to driven shooting.” He spent some of his teenage years in London, and studied English Literature at university in Paris (he is cultured man who speaks flawless English - several other languages too). “On graduation I went to stay with a fellow student at his home in Switzerland. A family friend was about to go for four days partridge shooting in Spain, and when he discovered that I loved shooting he invited me along. It was of course purely as a non-shooting guest, but it was wonderful and I decided there and then that it is what I wanted to be involved in.” However a career in politics threatened, until 45 years ago he took the plunge and brought his first party of Guns to shoot in Morocco. And he has been bringing parties ever since, and also to Tunisia.
“In Morocco we have doves, quail, snipe and partridges. The snipe shooting is still good, but was once sensational. However there is not the number of birds since the building of dams - we used to see 300-400 on a flight. But there is still good dove and quail shooting. I have made many good friends from all over the world - though sadly I am now of the age where several are no longer with us. Joe Nickerson used to be a regular visitor.” He is also good friends with Tom Gillick, the man who opened the gates to Spanish partridge shooting.
Malik has shooting rights over 65,000 hectares and is able to offer almost year-round sport - dove from the end of June to beginning of August, quail (resident) October to middle March, quail (migrating) mid February-mid March, snipe November-February, partridge October-March.
However up until three years ago there was no driven shooting - it was not permitted. But the memory of Spain had stayed with Malik all these years. “Driven shooting is something I have always wanted to do. But I felt that if it was going to work then I needed a partner with the experience and a friend in a Paris gunshop introduced me to Carlos.” The timing was good as Carlos, a very experienced and respected shoot operator near Madrid, had been concerned about avian flu, and saw the possibility of spreading his interests.
Though at first glance barbary partridge are very similar to redlegs they are different - and so are the rules. No driven shooting had been permitted and none had ever taken place in Morocco. So the environment minister was invited to visit a shoot run by Carlos in Spain. “He saw how it brought employment and tourism, and also how wildlife could benefit. In fact he was so impressed he has since become a keen shot. Barbary partridge are slightly larger than redlegs and have mottled throat feathers. Their flight is also different, the wings giving them an appearance similar to grouse, especially when flying directly at you. But as Tom Gillick pointed out to his good friend, the barbary partridge has a reputation for flying low, clinging to the contours, and pitching in again at 100 metres. “This is the enigma,” said Malik. “Once we had everything arranged for our first day we made sure we had plenty of beaters - 40 minimum - and the birds not only flew fast, but got well up in the air and went on for a kilometre. Nobody could believe it, but I am absolutely sure having the big number of beaters gave them the reason to fly out over the valleys, something which they would never normally do on walked-up shooting.”
The two men looked at many sites before settling on this particular one which covers 3,500 hectares, though at present they are using just under 2,000 hectares - they rent the shooting rights from the government (forestry commission). Finding drives was not much of a problem, with Carlos's experience and the nature of the landscape - valleys, gulleys, ravines, plus the wonderful Atlas Mountains. Barbary partridges thrive here. There is plenty of natural food in the form of seeds from the many shrubs (and in particular the pretty creamy yellow-flowered cyste de fleur) which dot the ground amongst Argan trees that are up to 400 years old.
The prickly shrubs give excellent protection from predators, and though foxes and magpies are few, there are some hawks and eagles. There is a decent wild stock of partridges, but it was essential to rear birds to satisfy a programme of 17-20 driven days. They turned to Spain's best known game farmer Patxi Garmendia who set up a modest dedicated rearing operation, using wild stock exclusively from Hajal Atlas. It has worked well, and the offspring once released are very wild. Apart from the gamekeeper Ahmed and underkeeper Rashid, the birds see no-one. The area is unbelievably quiet - not even aeroplane trails across the clear blue sky. We saw just one in two days.
The first driven shoot took place on December 10, 2007 and its success was a huge thrill for both men. Moreover it met the initial objectives, including bringing employment. In addition to 40-50 beaters from the local village Tizi, a team of loaders have been trained up Spanish style - and secretarios too. And excellent they were - we managed to communicate through a smattering of French, pointing and smiles, the latter coming easily to them.
Lunch is taken in a glorious tent, perched on a hilltop overlooking the mountains on one side, and the fertile Souss valley with its orange groves stretching out into the distance on the other. Food and hospitality were excellent. Tapas and drinks taken beneath Argan trees, lunch in the tent - we were never too hot, the mountain air was fresh and clean.
With me in the shooting line were Guns from Germany, France and Spain, plus Damon Harvey from Devon, who by coincidence was featured in our last issue. The connection was Dylan Williams and Gordon Robinson of Royal Berkshire Shooting School, who represent Carlos and Malik in the UK.
The whole experience was fabulous. Morocco, a north African country the size of California, is unlike anything in Europe - you really are in another continent. We stayed in the good but reasonably priced hotel Dar Zitoune (complete with gorgeous pool) in Taraudant, about 50 fascinating minutes drive from the shoot.
There were five Guns in the shooting line, coincidentally accounting for bags of 311 each day, from five drives the first day, and four on the second. Yes, the shooting was excellent. Birds presented at all heights and angles - very high and moor clinging. But the whole trip was an adventure that added up to so much more besides.
There can be few individuals who enjoy the calibre of easy charm possessed by Carlos Rua. The most natural of organisers and hosts, 49-year-old Carlos has been running shoots since he was 18. A passionate Shot from an early age, he took his first guests to a family estate, which he used for wild bird shooting until 17 years ago when in the face of a national decline in wild partridges, and a growing demand from clients he moved to Valde Laguna - La Encilla, just 45 minutes from Madrid.
His shoot in Spain enjoys a great reputation, attracting Guns from around the world, and the scale of operation is such that he offers shooting right through the season to early March.
He has also established labrador kennels accommodating 90 dogs, from both top working and showing lines, some of which are now in Morocco. The shooting season is a full-on experience for him, but he loves every minute of it. Eva, his wife of 23 years is understanding, he explains: “I was already doing this when we married. And Eva has her own business, coaching top management for big companies. Though she is a keen Shot, and a good one too!”
He is thrilled with how the Moroccan shoot has turned out. “We have taken it step by step, and kept it to just 18 days so far - next year we are looking at 25-26 days. Guns have so far come from Europe, USA and Gulf States. All have loved it. Dylan (Williams) is a family friend of 25 years, and for the last seven years has handled all my UK bookings for Spain exclusively. Last year was the best yet, and I know he is looking forward to bringing clients to Morocco. As you have seen, it is quite spectacular and Malik and his assistant Frederique are great people to work with.”
Travel was by easyJet, Gatwick to Marrakech, where processing guns at customs was quick and efficient. For details of Hajal Atlas contact Royal Berkshire Shooting School on 01491 672912 or www.rbss.co.uk