Novar Estate ? The shoot
Finlay Allaway enjoys spectacular sport in Ross-shire.
The road goes on and on. It's a route I've travelled many times before, but more often than not I forget just how far the Boath road leads. Much like the river some way below in the valley, the single-track meanders through thick coniferous forest - a haven for sika - before spitting you out into rolling cover-cropped fields and fir blocks under the shadow of heather mosaics sculpted by annual burning.
Meeting at the lunch hut - aptly positioned 50 metres from the signature drive - the Guns pull their boots on before being marshalled into vehicles. Without exception, all have shot Novar before. And it's with good reason that they return.
Utilising some 1,500 acres, keepers Roland van Oyen and Sam Milne - who have been with the estate for 35 and 15 years respectively - have crafted 12 drives, varying from short, explosive cover chunks with Guns snap-shooting from beside a peaty burn, to moorland beats where birds soar high over the line dotted along a deep ravine, and even butts where partridges are driven like grouse.
The variety continues with the quarry presented, depending on the time of year. Early season is the time for redleg partridges to shine, with a duck pond also adding a smattering of mallard into the mix. As the hill takes an autumnal quilt and days shorten, pheasants join the fray and large numbers of woodcock take up residence.
Come the latter part of the season, with the birds wary of the routine and fully fit, quantity is left in the dust for quality. Bag sizes are predetermined to each team's preference, usually between 200 - 300 in the early months and 150 later in the season.
Today, partridges are on the agenda. First to the upland drives. Hopping from the cars, the throaty chuckle of partridges can be heard rising from the thick surrounding heather. In the far distance, two golden eagles circle the craggy tops on a thermal. With the Guns quietly walking into position, as if in a library, Sam is given the go ahead and the flags crack into action. The large coveys can be heard splitting the air long before rocketing over the line.
Dropping down from the exposed moor on the bumpy hill tracks, it is one extreme to the next, Boathvic: a steep hill with a lipped clearfell flushing point where partridges fall with peregrine-esque pace. Or, conversely, rise and rise and rise, as if striving to cross the Cromarty Firth glistening in the distance.
This early season outing is one of a handful of days retained by the Munro Ferguson family. Several of the Guns have racked up a double-figure visit tally, but such is the variation and number of drives, it is highly unlikely that any given day mirrors that of a previous. The one constant they can be sure of is the quality of sport.
After breaking for lunch, we head down the valley for the Mustard drive, with Guns lining the banks of the River Alness. As a fanatic fisherman, thoughts of salmon running through the Upper and Lower Meadow pools steal my focus. Until, that is, the first partridges flick over the birch spinney in front, whereupon my eyes fix on narrow gaps of light in the canopy. For the next 15 minutes, fin pales into insignificance for feather.
We finish on the Lunch Hut drive - by all accounts a blinder. With the Guns in a sharp gully, blasts on the whistle from headkeeper Roland forewarn of oncoming coveys lifting from the hill to the left, the block of softwood trees to the right, and a peppering of juniper bushes in-between. A split second is all the higher pegged of the team have to get two shots away, as the birds cross from ridge to ridge with fabulous pace and height.
Over a cup of tea, the Guns reflect on the day's sport - a familiar scene in a familiar room, but with new accounts and anecdotes. They will be recounted until the next visit.
For me, it is back into the car, to head back down the long, winding road through dense fir and past peering sika. And to think Novar's season has only just begun!