Ellemford Estate – Berwickshire
An exceptional day's shooting in the Scottish Borders leaves Marcus Janssen in no doubt that your hosts can be the difference between a good and a great day.
When we talk about a day's shooting, we so often automatically use the quality and quantity of birds as our barometer for how successful the day was. “Any good?” a shooting pal will ask. “Ah it was brilliant,” you'll say without hesitation. “Bag was 250 and they were some of the highest pheasies I've ever seen.” Great. But, like an excellent meal in a top restaurant, how much of your enjoyment actually stems from everything else – the scenery, the atmosphere, the company and, in particular, the hospitality? You wouldn't think much of Heston's finest if it was presented in a greasy paper bag by some pimply teenager with an attitude problem, would you?
As I drove back home after an outstanding day's shooting at Ellemford Estate in the Scottish Borders last year, I knew unequivocally that, although the quality of the shooting had been excellent, what had made it particularly memorable had been everything else, all the little details that make such a big difference. Indeed, Ellemford's owners, brothers Nick and Giles Wilson, are two uber-keen game Shots who, when it comes to hospitality, just get it. In the same way that Le Gavroche's Silvano Giraldin or the Waterside Inn's Diego Masciaga have an uncanny knack of making every guest feel like an old friend, both Nick and Giles always make you feel like they have been counting down the hours until your arrival.
A new era at Ellemford
Nick and Giles's father, Lynn, purchased Ellemford in 1994, which included an already established shoot on what was previously part of the Whichester Estate, owned then by the Landale family. For the first few years, Archie Denham, the headkeeper on the neighbouring Cranshaw Estate, also keepered for the Wilsons at Ellemford. This worked well to start off with but, because Lynn wanted to develop and improve the shoot, he ended up employing Archie full-time until his retirement, some 10 years later.
During this time, the fairly run-down five bedroom farmhouse and outbuildings were also converted into what is now a truly fabulous 10 bedroom sporting lodge. Overlooking its own stretch of the River Whiteadder, it is a reflection of the Wilson family's acute attention to detail – no stone has been left unturned. Bedrooms and en suite bathrooms are beautifully furnished, the house is decorated throughout with fabulous sporting and equestrian art, there is a gun room, wet room, boot room with lockers, snooker room, wine cellar, kennels, large sitting room and drawing room with open fireplaces and the sort of dining room that lends itself to long, leisurely shoot suppers. And, although it is unquestionably luxurious, it feels homely and welcoming. “There is a commercial element to what we do,” said Giles, “but we have always been determined to run it with a family feel.” And it certainly shows. All the staff, including the wonderful housekeeper, Jen Runciman, have embraced the Wilson way of making all guests feel like VIPs.
Giles & Nick Wilson
The Wilsons previously owned another estate at the junction of the Teviot and the Jed, but when Lynn bought a farm near home, at Holcot in Northamptonshire, in the 1980s, he decided to sell the estate up north. But by the mid-90s, he was on the hunt once again for a place in Scotland. “Dad just had a thing for the Borders,” says Giles. “He wasn't a particularly keen fisherman or stalker, but he just loved his shooting and he adored it up here.” Situated at the edge of the Lammermuirs, Ellemford boasts stunning scenery, excellent salmon fishing on the Whiteadder, trout fishing on a number of local rivers and lochs, plenty of roe deer stalking, and is surrounded by grouse moors including Mayshiel, Horseupcleugh, The Hopes, Tollis Hill and Burncastle.
After Giles graduated from Aberdeen University in the early 90s, he went travelling before returning to Scotland to run the estate. Focussing his efforts on developing and improving the shoot, it was the usual case of trial and error and, over the next four years, he really got to know the land intimately and how to get the most out of it. “At one point, we were probably releasing too many pheasants,” he admits. “We just weren't getting the quality back. But that's how you learn. Over the years we have taken a more long-term view of things, particularly since the arrival of our current headkeeper, David Harris.We have looked at the location of our pens, built new ones, started to think about the evolution of drives in terms of tree succession and our cover crop regime.”
Almost 20 years later, Ellemford now produces 25 days of shooting a year, with an average bag of 300 but, as Giles explains, they don't class it as a commercial shoot: “The aim isn't to make money from it, but to run it so that the six days of shooting we keep for ourselves don't cost us any more than if we were buying days elsewhere.”
Although they do release some redlegs for a bit of diversity, it is very much a pheasant shoot. “We have some Michigan blues and Polish bazanties,” explains David Harris, “but we really class ourselves as a traditional pheasant shoot, in that we think the bigger, hardier birds – traditional ring-necks – are better suited to the harsh environment up here. And they have a bit of meat on them, too.” No doubt their local game dealer approves, as well.
And with a great team in David, now in his ninth season at Ellemford, and underkeeper Charlie Withers who joined him two seasons ago from Holcot (the Wilsons' excellent partridge shoot in Northamptonshire), the quality of the shooting has never been better. “The amazing thing about David,” says Giles, “is that not only has he got broad shoulders and a level head for a young man, but his returns are incredible. Every year they have gone up, and we are now achieving more than 35 per cent, which is excellent for this area.”
Birds are driven from a mix of woodland and game crops. “We have a good mixture of softwoods, hardwoods and shrubs for holding and driving,” explains David. “When I arrived here from Bowhill, there was some work to be done in terms of habitat management – we were heavily reliant on crops such as kale, which meant that we were at the mercy of the unpredictable Scottish weather.”
David has since overseen the planting of about 30 acres of beech, oak and birch, as well as Douglas fir, Sitka spruce, red cedar, larch and Scots pine. “In terms of holding cover, we have also planted a lot of dogwood, snowberry, wild privet, blackthorn and hawthorn,” he explains. “I now have seven-year-old plantations that were once game crop drives that could only be shot until mid-December. They will now hold birds until the last day of the season.”
The development of a shoot is an ongoing process, and the journey that began at Ellemford in the early 90s is by no means complete. “We still have great plans,” says Giles. “Part of the joy of having your own shoot is that you can always improve things. And with David's energy and vision, I have no doubt we will.”
Indeed, David ultimately aims to turn Ellemford into a woodland shoot, with shrubs for cover and small areas of game crop to attract birds and hold them until the start of the season. Over the past few years he has experimented with canary reed grass, triticale, kale, barley and pampas. “Creating the right habitat hasn't just benefitted the shooting,” he says, “it has really helped with holding game. One of the biggest problems we have in this area is birds wandering, but we have noticed a big difference.”
A complete day
A day's shooting at Ellemford begins in the best possible way – with a full Scottish breakfast cooked by the wonderful Sue Nicholson who, having produced an excellent four-course dinner the night before (accompanied by some seriously good wines from the cellar), miraculously goes on to rustle up elevenses, a three-course sit-down lunch and an afternoon tea boasting a wonderful array of delicious home-baked goodies. How Nick and Giles aren't built for sumo wrestling is a mystery.
The team then gather in the courtyard for the safety briefing, a snifter of home-made sloe gin, and the drawing of pegs, before heading in convoy to the first drive, known as Roundel. “We are not Devon or Yorkshire,” insisted Nick as we meandered our way down to our pegs at the bottom of a ravine. “But, as you will hopefully see, they are challenging, not just because of the topography, but because of the weather and the wild landscape. They definitely have a wildness about them.” As the drive got underway, I could immediately see what he meant. With a brisk crosswind, the pheasants – driven from left to right – were turning and curling like Messerschmitt 109s with Spitfires on their tails. And there was a complete array of sport too. While Nick, Giles and fellow Guns – including well-known hotshot Ruben Straker – were pulling down the tallest of the lot,
I got into the swing of things with a few more moderate birds that were testing enough for me.
And, as we gathered in the specially converted bothy for elevenses after the second drive – which had seen the Guns standing on elevated wooden platforms at the bottom of a narrow wooded ravine – Nick summed things up perfectly: “The great thing about Ellemford is that there is shooting for all abilities. The best Shots can be selective and will be tested by the tallest birds but, importantly, they are all killable with ordinary game loads. You don't need a bazooka.”
Just as I was jostling my way around the woodburner, honing in on my sixth honey and mustard sausage and second mug of Sue's eyewateringly good bullshot, Giles announced that the beaters were in place for the third and penultimate drive, known as The Quarry. Taking my eye off the ball for no more than a few seconds, the last of the sausages suddenly disappeared out the door as Mark Rampton and Adrian Thornton-Berry headed for their vehicles.
Again, The Quarry drive saw good sport right across the line, with Nick taking what was arguably the bird of the day, a screamingly high hen that had been at the mercy of the increasingly powerful crosswind. Just as we were making our way back to the vehicles, a picker-up emerged from a nearby wood. “Bloody hell, Mr. Nick, that was some shot,” he said. Slightly embarrassed, Nick made light of it, claiming it was probably 100 yards up and climbing. “It must have landed at least half a mile behind me,” he said in jest, as a guffaw of laughter erupted from younger brother Giles's direction.
Lunch at Ellemford is served in a Scandinavian style log cabin which overlooks a little trout pond with a backdrop of mature woodland and heather-clad hills. Warmed by yet another almighty log burner, and illuminated by candles suspended on an enormous deer antler candelabra, it is the most perfect spot in which to ruminate over a cheeseboard and glass of red. Outside, the spruces were rocking back and forth in the strengthening wind. “I could easily settle in here for the afternoon,” said Ruben, who was suffering with a shoulder injury which, it was suggested, was clearly the result of too much shooting. The idea of an afternoon of cheese and red wine didn't meet any objections, but, before the words had time to linger, Nick looked at his watch and said he was off to shoot the final drive on his own – if we didn't get our derrières into gear.
And everyone was glad that they did. Black Bog was something else. Having been gently blanked into a long strip of wood while we were still enjoying Sue's splendid sticky toffee pudding, the birds were then driven into the teeth of a now howling gale. The result? Some of the most exhilarating shooting I have ever experienced. At one point, I looked over to my left to see Ruben fold an impressive right-and-left as his cap was plucked from his head by a sudden gust of wind, meanwhile, to my right, Nick was equally impressive as he staggered about trying to find a solid footing as pheasants whizzed past in a blur. I remember chuckling to myself mid-drive as birds that were getting up three or four pegs to our left suddenly hurtled over between Nick and I, at peregrine-stoop speeds. “Hey, Marcus!” he shouted with a grin. “Is there any lead in those cartridges of yours?” At that, I was most pleased to drop a bird that had bisected the line directly between us, just as my host was raising his gun.
Even as we gathered in the house for a cup of tea and another healthy dose of Sue's wicked delights before saying farewell, everyone was in extremely high spirits. “There's a bed for anyone who wants one,” said Giles, generously, as a bottle of single malt appeared from the drinks cabinet. The offer was incredibly tempting, but as we all know, great hosts make you feel at home, even when they wish you were. Alas, it was time to hit the road.
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