From high partridges to champion pointers, Wilson Young is the man who got it right when he created Eskdale Shooting Services, says Mike Barnes.
It was 10 years ago when I had last visited Wilson Young's shoot near Lauder. I had seen high birds before but these were something else. Guns lined out in valley bottoms of moorland fringes trying to come to terms with partridges high and swirling like dots in the sky. There was a lot of missing taking place but the team of Guns had flown from halfway across the world in full knowledge of what they were to be presented with. They were regular visitors and just loved what Wilson, now 67, had to offer. Spectacular birds in spectacular settings and a seamlessy run operation.
The purpose of my visit then was not to shoot, but to write an article for Fieldsports' sister title The Scottish Sporting Gazette. The day left me wondering over the subsequent years how well I might cope with birds of this calibre. So when, on a chance meeting last summer, Wilson kindly invited me to shoot in October, I didn't hesitate: “Yes please.” Alas, as the big day drew near, repetitive strain in my wrist took hold – I could barely lift my gun, let alone shoot. And no, it wasn't a consequence of excessive trigger pulling! Honest. So I made the dreaded call explaining my dilemma. Wilson was very understanding. Though he probably thought I was a complete wimp, he didn't let it show, and said that I was still more than welcome to come. For my part I was every bit as keen, gun or no gun. In fact, I would take my Canon and take photographs of the action.
It was an easy journey, cutting across from the A1 to Coldstream, and on to Lauder. I was given a warm welcome by Wilson and his wife Isabelle, both on top form, even though they were at full tilt with their Eskdale Shooting Services business.
For much of the season, from grouse at the beginning to pheasants at the end, and partridges throughout, they entertain up to four teams per day. At the peak they will probably have 55 days in a fortnight.
With shooting on over 60,000 acres of land, none of it is pressurised. In arrangements with landowners in the Borders, notably Burncastle, Roxburghe and Thirlestane Castle, and with shoots such as Bowmont and Greenhill, he has some wonderful countryside on which to work his magic, and has created some spectacular drives on land which in some instances had not been shot.
It is quite an operation, with 12 full-time gamekeepers and a team of beaters on contract through the season, six days a week. Heading things up is Wilson's son, Wilson Jnr. “When we started, the norm was covert shoots,” says Wilson. “Now the big thing is valley shooting, and we have some wonderful countryside for it.” Indeed, Eskdale Shooting Services are masters of it.
At the hub of the operation is Isabelle, who has the daunting task of sorting logistics, which is further complicated by the fact that 90 per cent of the clients come from overseas. “Many of these have been coming for some years,” says Wilson. “They have become friends and the visits are like reunions.” But what about the high birds? Are they not too much for them? “There may be some who will struggle,” he adds, “but there are quite a few who take the shooting seriously and have become very good Shots.”
It goes without saying that there are some very interesting characters, but none more so than Wilson himself. Born in East Lothian as the son of a miner and bookkeeper (as was his grandfather), his father was a very keen Shot, and from an early age Wilson would go with him.
Fieldsports became his passion, enhanced by visits to Edinburgh newsagents when, as an 11-year-old, he would devour American sporting magazines such as Field & Stream. Shooting and fishing – what better!
As a young teenager, however, he found he had a gift for sprint running. He was quick and joined the professional circuit, before moving on to coaching, at which he excelled and looked after five of the six members of the GB Olympic Team, including Allan Wells.
At the time he was also sales manager with a nuclear pharmaceutical company and was stretched timewise, so to balance the books in terms of both income and time, he and Isabelle took on a pub in Lauder. They were naturals and the pub became a success. They then took on two hotels in Lauder and the Lauderdale Hotel was the first in the Borders to be awarded four crowns by the Scottish Tourist Board.
By now, somewhat disillusioned with athletics, at his hotels he was enjoying the company of keepers and Guns alike. Steve Phillips came over from the USA to shoot grouse, and at the bar one evening told Wilson how much he loved the area, and asked if he could find him some pheasant shooting for late season.
Wilson didn't need to be asked twice and took shooting at Gosford and Dalkeith Palace. A success! In the second year, Dalkeith suggested he take on the shoot himself. And that, 35 years ago, was the beginning of Eskdale Shooting Services.
Its scale gained momentum as he added extra pieces of land. He explained: “People have said that running such an operation with so many farmers and landowners must be very complicated, but it's not at all. I don't know what other parts of the country are like, but these are good people and it all works out extremely well.” Moreover, in the shooting season he is the area's biggest employer.
Most visitors comment on the quality of the birds, not just their presentation over the Guns, but their apparent strength in flight. Wilson Jnr heads the rearing operations and by mid-summer it's all pretty full-on, as all birds are reared from day-olds and released well before the end of August. “We want partridges that are strong and fit so the sooner we get them out into the hills the better.”
Wilson is clearly a man in his element, for he is also a keen Shot and a great fan of 28 bores, a gauge he has been using for 25 years. “A charming Frenchman called Claud Foussier came here with his .410 and Joe Nickerson with his 28 bores. I have shot with 28s ever since.” His preferred load is 21g.
Living in such stunning surroundings, he is a short journey from a number of other seriously good shoots, and gets some tasty invitations.
But his other big interest is field trials with a special interest in pointers – he has made up 13 field trial champions. He also keeps cockers and labs for shoot days. For good measure he hosts championships for the major breeds and is the chairman of the Kennel Club Gundog sub-committee.
When the shooting season ends, Wilson and Isabelle head for quail in South Carolina where they have many friends who shoot with them in the UK each year. Then back home for the build-up to another season, but not forgetting grouse counts and pointer championships.
Perhaps he should be known as Wilson ‘Forever' Young!
Memory has a habit of exaggerating the reality, but happily the day's sport was every bit as good as I recalled on my previous visit. Shooting was on the Longcroft beat, part of the Burncastle estate which had enjoyed a particularly good grouse season. We were on the low ground but saw the odd grouse which had veered off territory.
There was some very good shooting all along the line and, as might be expected, the Duke of Northumberland brought off some exceptional shots. Though chatting over lunch he was typically modest, his attention focused on how challenging the birds were.
Birds, lots of them, flew high and wide, curling, sliding and generally giving the Guns plenty to think about.Weather conditions could hardly have been better – cloudy in the morning with a soft breeze, the sun breaking through in the afternoon.
And of course, it was all brilliantly organised.
The Duke of Northumberland, Capt. The Hon Gerald Maitland-Carew, Steve Dean, Brian Richardson, Harry Dobson, John Castle & WilsonYoung.
203 redleg partridges, 3 pheasants.