Partridges in Spain
Simon Barr's belief that Spanish partridge shooting is prohibitively expensive and inaccessible was pleasantly dispelled by his first dose of Mediterranean sport.
Shooting partridge in Spain is not cheap, right? And only days north of 500 birds are ever available. Sound familiar? There are a lot of mistruths surrounding this traditional form of shooting. My skewed understanding of Spain's winged game offering meant I'd dismissed it as too pricey. That's why one or two sporting agencies have devised a cost effective solution for British Guns seeking good value sport in warmer climes.
For me, end-of-season blues are an annual occurrence. However, shooting in Spain continues for an extra 10 weeks beyond the UK's game season. Furthermore, religious views allowing, shooting on the sabbath is permitted. This means two days, back-to-back, can be arranged to take full advantage of a weekend, with minimal disruption to the working week. My trip in March took in a modest day's formal driven shooting followed by a small day of rough drives over dogs.
Whilst the UK was in the grip of biblical flooding and many shooters were at a loss, wondering what to do with themselves, we jetted 1,000 miles south to Madrid for azure skies, al fresco dining and Rioja. The Guns in the team left work a little early on the Friday to meet at the airport. All told, with only a 40-minute transfer on arrival, we were in situ at the bar for vino tinto by 10pm local time. Arranged by Gordon Robinson from the Royal Berkshire Sporting Agency, we didn't need to consider the logistics again. Very civilized indeed.
Overnight we stayed in the four-star Parador hotel, a former 17th century convent in Chinchón, an area famous for its strong bullfighting tradition. The rooms were typically Spanish, great value and the local restaurants were all within walking distance. The square around which many decent bars nestled, is turned into a make-shift bull fighting ring during the numerous fiestas throughout the year.
The next morning, we were driven to La Encinilla, a 1,500-hectare estate set across spectacular terrain of gorges and valleys just 10 minutes from Chinchón. Hosted by the hugely affable Carlos Rúa, the family-run shoot is a relaxed but polished affair. Carlos learned to hunt on the plains of Castilla La Mancha as a boy, trailing his father through Don Quixote country in search of wild partridge and ducks. At 20 years old, he chose to follow his heart and dropped his university studies to transform his passion into a business.
This prestigious shoot has earned a glittering international reputation for exceptional sport, organisation and hospitality. Guns are left wanting for nothing. At breakfast, Carlos greeted our team of eight Guns atop Sullivan, a stunning grey Andalusian stallion, which he uses to gently move the partridge from the hills to the shooting ground. This traditional way of ‘dogging-in' keeps the indigenous gamebirds relaxed and is a highly effective method of blanking them in before the drive.
Each Gun was assigned a loader and secretario just after breakfast, whose job it was to mark and keep count of fallen birds. Regardless of my inability to habla Español, the international language of hunting superseded.
The day was booked for 160 birds. The first drive saw the Guns line out facing undulating foothills punctuated by shrubby thyme and evergreen Iberian oaks. Set among olive and almond plantations, the morning sun warmed my shoulders. The hubbub of dreary London seemed a distant memory. This was escapism at its best.
The beaters and Carlos' team of homebred labradors expertly drove our quarry, flushing them high against the cloudless Castilian sky. The diminutive, acrobatic birds will challenge even the sharpest Gun, so my eyes were firmly fixed on the horizon. My neighbouring Gun to the left wielded his pair of AYA shotguns with perfect precision, taking three high curlers of his five-bird tally quite early on. Likewise, the Gun to my right expertly brought an exquisite right-and-left to book, somersaulting the birds to terra firma from a dizzy height. The team displayed reserve and true sportsmanship, selecting only the most sporting birds. After the drive, as would be expected, we were beaming. I was also pleased that I had managed not to shoot too many as was my initial fear, with so many incredible targets on offer. It seems the entire line had experienced challenging sport.
“There's a bird for everyone,” said Carlos, proudly.
For the pre-prandial drive, the Guns were treated to yet more exceptional sport. The expeditious partridge raced high above the line from every direction. If you are lucky enough to shoot regularly during the UK season, then Spain is the place to put your perfected, honed skills into action and impress your peers at the end of the UK season.
Keen to make the most of the typically sunny weather, our al fresco elevenses were an unhurried affair, with copious amounts of jamón and manchego. Spain's laid-back attitude really is a much-needed antidote to the rat race back home.
For the last two drives we headed north-west, less than a kilometre from the lodge. This was a cara y cruz, or reverse drive, meaning the birds were flushed from one direction, then the other. The Guns' eagerness and sheer excitement was palpable. Within seconds of quietly standing on our pegs, the first covey had flushed. A dozen partridge lifted from the shrubby carpet, locking their wings and leaving the contours of the hills far behind as they rose as high as Devon pheasants. All 12 flew unscathed as the team was caught off-guard. In the distance, another three large coveys lifted and disappeared over the horizon. The Gun to my left was the first to bring down a bird. Without any hesitation, he picked his bird from a covey and connected the muzzle to its flight line. “Buen tiro!” shouted loader Mateo Rúa, Carlos' son, as he congratulated his sharp shooting. Before long, birds were streaming high over the Guns in rhythmic bursts. The topography lent itself to some of the most breathtaking and challenging wing shooting anywhere in the world. The presentation of the birds mirrored the British taste for high sporting targets.
We managed to keep to the bag and have one of the best day's shooting any of us can recount.
Afterwards, we returned to the lodge for a three-hour traditional Castilian lunch; endless barbecued partridge covered in a sweet sticky marinade and washed down with decent Rioja.
The next morning was a Sunday, so it felt quite novel to be going shooting. The Guns gathered for our second day of sport – this time walked-up partridge over pointers and labradors on El Valle estate, just a 45-minute drive from the previous day's venue. Mateo was once again assigned as my loader. We had worked well as a team the day before so I was pleased to welcome back the always-smiling student.
Less formal walked-up days offer incredible value for money and give Guns the opportunity to see even more of the stunning Spanish landscape. Dressed in blaze orange, the beaters and dog handlers walked between the Guns. The temperature was cooler, but the sky was still a bright azure. With my borrowed AYA broken over my arm, I filled my pockets with Rio Especial Ojeo 30g cartridges, which are designed specifically for Spanish partridge. The first walk-up took us through a scrubby tree plantation with far-reaching views.
Walking-up the partridge made for superbly challenging sport and tested our reactions in a way that driven had not. The line was kept straight and unhurried by the ever-watchful eye of Carlos, who ensured every Gun received their fair share of sport. Although I have been fortunate enough to shoot driven partridge in England on numerous occasions before, I had never walked-up this quarry. I was intrigued to see how they flush and, indeed, how quickly they accelerate in flight. Be under no illusions, this pocket-sized, nimble bird provides plenty of difficult sport. No bird was left unpicked; the team of gundogs were kept busy constantly flushing and retrieving.
As well as his first-class partridge shooting, Carlos is known for his line of labradors. His dogs are noticeably heavy set, more akin to the UK's show type, but they are agile and have a fantastic work ethic, hunting out every last fallen bird. Trained by Carlos' business partner, Miguel Angel Gomez, the dynamic duo have won numerous awards and national championships. I have one piece of advice to you dear reader: do not accept Carlos' invitation to visit his kennels, which are full of puppies looking for new homes, with your broody wife.
Just an hour later and we were back at the airport. Given the UK's close proximity to Spain, it really is the ideal destination for a quick pick-me-up to recharge your batteries and satisfy your itchy trigger finger. My original illusion of Spanish partridge shooting being out of my reach had been pleasantly shattered. My annual sporting calendar will most certainly include a Spanish fixture hereafter.
One day of driven shooting with 300 – 350 birds and one day of walked-up shooting with 100 birds costs €2,000 plus IVA per Gun, including tapas in the field, your hunting licence and insurance.
Flights, gun hire and accommodation are not included in the cost.