Since its sale in 2005, Rottal estate in the Angus glens has entered a new sporting era. And it's one with a promising outlook for grouse, as Marcus Janssen discovered.
After some lean years, Scotland's grouse moors are starting to deliver again. Leading the way are the Angus glens where the larger and better-known estates like Millden and Glenogil have even seen records broken. However, a number of other smaller moors have quietly enjoyed a resurrection of their own, a perfect example being Rottal in Glen Clova.
Originally part of the famous 31,400 acre Airlie Estate, Rottal was put onto the market in 2004. And for the first time in 700 years, the estate changed hands, with the original shooting lodge becoming the new family home of Dee Ward, a businessman from Hertfordshire with a passion for field sports.
Dee was introduced to Scotland and indeed shooting by his father, a keen Shot with an affinity for sport north of the border. “My dad had a small farm shoot down in Hertfordshire where I grew up, but we used to go to Scotland every year on holiday. So from a very young age, I dreamt of living up here,” says Dee. Hence when the opportunity arose to purchase what is arguably one of Scotland's most scenic sporting estates, he jumped at it.
Since then, he has immersed himself in the day-to-day running of the estate and takes a hands-on approach to everything from their recently installed hydropower scheme - the electricity from which is sold to Marks and Spencer - to sheep farming and the running of the estate's sporting portfolio. “I guess the best thing about Rottal,” he says, “is the diversity. We have a bit of everything. On the lower ground we have a good partridge shoot (they put down about 3,000 birds), we have a few good pheasant drives, we have the grouse, we have some roe deer and at certain times we get good numbers of reds on the estate.”
And then there's the scenery. “When people come and shoot here,” he adds, “they invariably fall in love with the views. Although the focus is very much on the grouse, the diversity keeps it interesting.” Indeed, a lot of effort has gone into grouse management, and, with the help of his keeper Donald Collins, there has been a steady, year-on-year increase in grouse numbers.
When Dee took over the estate, it was in need of some attention. The heather hadn't been burnt, the keepering hadn't been particularly proactive, and the grouse numbers had dropped accordingly. So the first thing he did was to take the decision not to shoot it for two years and to focus instead on building up the grouse population. “Our keeper Donald deserves a lot of the credit,” says Dee. “He has been here for a year longer than I have and he has been very assertive with his keepering. He has used medicated grit extensively and has really stayed on top of predator control which has yielded great results.”
Grouse counts undertaken seven years ago showed that there were areas on the estate that had no grouse at all. But these days it's a very different story. “There are more grouse on the estate now than there have been for many years,” says Donald. “With grouse, you've got to get back to basics. Burning your heather and killing vermin are crucial. But in the same breath, it has to be said that the efforts by organisations like the GWCT have also contributed to the grouse's recovery in the area.”
Indeed, both Dee and Donald readily acknowledge that the holistic approach to moor management that has been implemented in the Angus glens has been crucial. “The substantial investment made by the big estates, our neighbours, has been greatly beneficial,” said Dee.
“The upward trend really started about seven or eight years ago,” adds Donald, “when the Angus Glens Grouse Management Scheme was started by Lord Airlie. Since then, many estate owners have joined in and started to work together. This collaborative approach to grouse management has had a major effect on the overall grouse numbers.”
Last year Rottal accounted for over 310 brace of grouse over five driven and three walked-up days, a huge improvement from the 13 brace shot on their first driven day in 2007. “But it's not just the grouse that have benefited,” adds Donald. “We have great numbers of other ground nesting birds too – black grouse, curlew, wheatears, meadow pipits, sky larks, oyster catchers, lapwing, red shanks, golden plovers, mallard, teal and snipe. Controlling vermin helps all of these species, and it's really rewarding seeing them benefit.
“And I'm quite sure that when our Guns see lots of wildlife, this adds something important to the day's shooting. After all, it's about the whole experience, not just the bag size. We all know that if you are constantly chasing big bags, things can become quite stressful. That's not what shooting should be about.”
Patrick Despard, a Gun who has shot at Rottal for the past two years, agrees wholeheartedly. “We go to Rottal for family days, with several fathers and sons standing in alternate butts along the line. And what we particularly love,” he says, “is the informal, relaxed atmosphere. There's no stress at all – they get that aspect just right.
“I've shot many grouse moors, and Rottal is ideal for a fathers and sons day. It is orientated very much towards the next generation, which is something that I feel very strongly about.”
Patrick believes that not only estates, but the shooting industry on the whole, should be doing more to ensure that the next generation get to experience the opportunities that he had as a child. “We hunted up and down hedgerows,” he says. “But today, with the commercialisation of all sport, that is becoming more and more difficult. So places like Rottal are becoming increasingly important.”
Patrick and his family will be returning to Rottal in August this year, where Henry, his youngest son (11), will have the chance to shoot his first grouse. Indeed, three or four of the boys in their shooting party took their first ever grouse at Rottal last year and the year before, which obviously makes it a particularly special place for them. “And the younger boys go rabbit shooting in the evening,” adds Dee, “which, as you can imagine, they absolutely love.”
In addition to the grouse days, Rottal also hosts about 10 driven partridge and pheasant days a year, and in October, they do something pretty special. “We have a mixed bag day,” says Dee. “On our way onto the hill, we start off with a pheasant drive. Then we do two grouse drives followed by two or three partridge drives. And to finish off, we have a go at the ducks. One day last October, we shot something like 24 brace of grouse, a black grouse – a mistake, but we have a lot - 50 partridges, 35 pheasants and about 20 duck. The sheer diversity makes for a wonderful day's sport.”
“Just grouse, grouse, grouse can get clinical and detract from why we all enjoy shooting in the first place,” agrees Donald. “The key to a good day's shooting is a relaxed and happy atmosphere. Everyone's got to enjoy it, from the beaters to the Guns. But then of course, without the grouse, there would be no sport at all. And we do produce some very exciting grouse shooting, which is only going to get better.”
For information about shooting at Rottal, contact George Goldsmith via their website: www.georgegoldsmith.com