It is probably not for the absolute novice. Shooting partridge in Spain is many things – exhilarating, enjoyable, exhausting – and so very different from game shooting in the UK that newbies can be taken by surprise by the way a shoot is conducted there. Escorting a group of Spanish partridge virgins for a weekend’s sport at an estate near Toledo, I realised that something of a freshers’ primer on Spanish shooting etiquette was called for.
I had brought my party to Ventosilla, a private estate of thousands of wild hectares and, in 1880, the site of the first driven shoot in Spain. Given that my guests were attending their first partridge shoot in the country, I took this as a good omen. I think they realised this was going to be a very different experience when they drove in through the estate’s gates and caught sight of the palace, where we would be billetted. Built as a hunting lodge in the 15th century, it was restored by the Mitjans family after decades of neglect during the Franco era.
The next morning, we gather outside after breakfast. This is arid country, with a rugged terrain, and hiking boots are more the order of the day than wellies. While British plus fours and shooting socks are fine, moleskins or other hardy trousers are more common in Spain. In Britain, the physical challenges tend to include being able to withstand assaults from rain and wind, but we have glorious sunshine and 20C, so shirts, light jumpers and a shooting vest to protect the shoulder from the recoil of the gun are all that are needed.
Antonio Cavero Mitjans is the grandson of the Count of Teba, a legendary shot who took the Spanish live pigeon shooting record five times. Antonio invites guests to draw for their place, or peg, on the line. But whatever number you draw, you are unlikely to be standing at that peg, as the Spanish have a unique system of allocating positions on each drive. They say it is fairer, and that people get to vary who they stand next to. Written down, the system looks as complex as an algorithm and I have to call on Mitjans’ cousin, Carlos Lopez de Carrizosa Mitjans, to sort out where we are supposed to stand.
Cars deliver us to the first drive. Weekend shooting in Spain is something of an expedition, so I invited my guests’ partners, most of whom have decamped to Toledo for the day. While they are admiring the El Grecos in its cathedral, their partners are meeting the team that will support their weekend’s shooting. While it is not uncommon to have the services of a loader in the UK, in Spain you also get a secretario, whose job is to count the birds you bring down and make a note of where they fell. (Tipping, by the way, is important. Unlike in the UK, where you tip both loader and gamekeeper, the Spanish tip only the loader/secretario duo, usually about €120 a day for the pair. They do not take credit cards.) As the birds fly over, the secretario and loader grunt or exclaim in guttural Spanish as we do, or don’t, manage to hit a partridge.
I remind my guests that, novices as they are, they should not expect to hit very many birds, at least at first. There is so much to get used to, not least the fact that all the rules about how to shoot safely in the UK do not apply here. For example, in the UK, one of the classic safety rules is always to wait until you have blue sky behind a bird. But follow that rule here and you will rarely hit anything because the usual backdrop is a tree, a rock or a cliff. Not only that, shooting low birds, shooting close birds, even shooting your neighbour’s birds – all of which would be a complete faux pas at home – are all OK here. As in grouse butts, there is a camouflage screen, and the support team erects safety guides to stop you shooting your neighbour – shooting behind is acceptable and you need to be reminded not to swing through the line. At the end of the drive, your loader/secretario team – rather than dogs, or “pickers-up” – race off to retrieve the fallen birds.
The partridge are fast, furious and fearless, which is why so many of them get past. Much of this is down to genetics, and every week of the season Mitjans sends at least six birds to a laboratory to check their pure-bred status and thus ensure that the estate presents only pure red-legged partridge (Alectoris rufa). The closely related chukar partridge (Alectoris chukar) and chukar/red-legged hybrids are nearly twice as prolific as the pure-bred red-legged in captivity, so electing to stock only the pure-bred bird is more expensive, but Mitjans thinks it provides better sport: “Pure partridges guarantee the quality, bravery and strength of the bird,” he says.
Out at the peg, my tip to the newbies is to get on the bird and pull the trigger. Here, instinctive shooting is called for, not a considered tracking of the bird, as you might shoot a pheasant in the UK. The partridge fly as fast as grouse, at all heights, including those that would rival the highest pheasant. They also change direction constantly. The loaders are extraordinarily quick, sitting with their back to the action and passing you a freshly loaded gun the moment you have discharged the one in your hand. You will discharge more cartridges than you thought possible, and another physical challenge is to keep lifting the gun to the shoulder, even when you feel you can’t manage another movement.
The partridge are driven by about 30 or so people, led by two on horseback. The estate provides employment for a large number of locals and the extended season is a boost to the local economy. In Spain, the season is set region by region and in some areas continues until the end of March. In the UK, however, the grouse season finishes on December 10, and the pheasant and partridge season on February 1.
After two drives, we repair for elevenses, to a table laden with tapas and drinks served by white-jacketed waiters and surrounded by deck chairs. One more drive and we are off to lunch in a marquee on the banks of the river Tajo. It’s a huge effort to get up again and head off for the final two drives of the day, after which tea is served on the palace terrace. Then, at last, a much-needed siesta before a rather grand dinner.
On the second day of shooting, my guests’ partners join us in the field and experience the splendid elevenses. They also get to see the statistics. A feature of Spanish shooting is that the game card features every individual score on every drive, so there is no hiding place. I can only say that, fortunately for many of my guests, they don’t do an individual cartridge count as well.
The partridge season at Ventosilla starts in October.