Shooting in Spain has been so often talked about in whispered tones as something special and different, a real treat because of the perceived expense and something that perhaps only the very privileged do.
I recently had the good fortune to visit two contrasting estates in Spain, which led me to reflect on how we view Spain nowadays.
First, it remain special and different. Special because of the quality of shooting but also because so often the weather is much more pleasurable, the pace of the shoot days is so relaxed due to the extended light and of course the food is so different and delicious. To sit amongst the trees in or out of the sunshine, enjoying tapas after a couple of superb drives is one of the great shooting experiences.
It therefore remains a treat for the same reasons but lets look at the price. The two estates I visited recently are priced in the high €50’s to low €60’s per bird pretty much all inclusive in terms of meet and greet, gun assistance, transport, accommodation, cartridges etc. The only exclusions are generally tips to your loaders and house staff tips which might be a total of €400 all said and done. The only other cost to add to this is that of flying to Madrid. There are plenty of £40 pheasants around these days, without the VAT, the cartridges, petrol, overnight expenses etc. This makes the bird price pretty even. What makes Spain potentially painful is the number of birds the estates like us to shoot. They would like more but 500 a day is about the minimum for prime dates and even outside the most sort after dates, they still like the higher bags. These days rather than pricing on say 1000 birds over two days to eight or nine guns, the price tends to be expressed at X birds per gun (based on 500 a day) thus avoiding what used to be the issue of someone over-shooting while others stood by. Spain is geared to count birds per gun and therefore believe it or not, such a system really does work and is fairer for all and makes those concerned about such matters far more willing to sign up in the knowledge that they are not potentially signing up to pay for someone else’s shooting.
I had been invited to take photographs by a wonderful Swiss gentleman who, it turned out, had a large hand (along with his wonderful wife) in renovating the house to its current standard. Consequently he was now a part owner of the estate and shooting business. I should explain that La Cuesta is run by Jesus Alberto Muela of Las Beatas fame, an estate no longer operated because La Cuesta, his new project, so outshone Las Beatas shooting and La Cuesta is so big, he decided to concentrate on La Cuesta. There is however the option to stay at Las Beatas. For the two days he had many of his best personal friends from France and Switzerland as his guests. On arrival, the house staff was lined up at the front door to greet the guests and assist them with luggage and help them settle in. The bedrooms varied in size from renovated rooms in the old part of the house, which were very comfortable to some very large rooms in the newer part of the house. The bar, sitting area and dining room were extensive and very spacious, the gun room and coat area equally spacious. The house itself is an estancia style house pretty much on one floor with fantastic views across the open country and valleys we were due to shoot in.
The staff was charming, the food was outstanding, there really was nothing one could want for. At the end of each day, boots were cleaned by the house staff, guns cleaned by the loaders, it was a seamless operation in every way.
In talking to the guns on the way, they were clearly coming because of their long time friendship with Alain but they were excited about the prospect of very high birds. This was clearly what was getting them fired up the evening before. So, the following morning, as we descended into the valleys to the first drive I was naturally curious to see what all the enthusiasm was about. There was no exaggeration, in fact, what intrigued me was that they started the two days with such high birds. The La Cuesta shoot is set amongst 17,000 hectares of what some would be forgiven for described as almost mountains. They are certainly very significant hills. In setting up the shoot and choosing drives I can imagine that Jesus would have struggled more to find less high drives rather than very high drives. He has been successful in doing so because over the two days I witnessed some drives which were extremely good partridges by anyone’s standards but not as high as some drives I witnessed.
Without going over each and every drive in detail and allowing the photographs to tell the story, it is clear that La Cuesta leaves those hoping for very high and challenging partridges totally satisfied. Any higher and they would be borderline in range or at the very least only for the very best shots. There were some good shots among the team but they struggled at times too. It was a good mixture of drives in terms of some very difficult and others less so but nothing was easy and nothing was an example of what I would describe as a ‘traditional’ Spanish partridge. Therein lies the conundrum and the contrast in my two experiences.
As an OK shot, there is no question that La Cuesta would have challenged me and defeated me in many instances. The team shot nearly 2000 birds over the two days, as described, something visiting teams often struggle to stomach from a cost point of view but the solution to that is to either just focus on the high birds (the reason for being there) or simply do not go crazy shooting all the time. As a travel advisor, provided my client was clear in his objectives that he wanted high birds, I would send them to La Cuesta with no reservations at all and be entirely confident that they would be very comfortable and well looked after and enjoy superb shooting.
From La Cuesta I was driven about 2 hours north to Ventosilla, twenty minutes west of Toledo. This was a complete contrast. Ventosilla Palace was built in the 15th century as a hunting pavilion for the wealthy cardinals of Toledo. The first driven partridge shooting took place here in 1880. Old building verses new, rather less formality amongst very grand and traditional rooms, consequently décor and finish not as pristine and polished as La Cuesta, the contrasts continued. The guests for my two days at Ventosilla were very much a Spanish affair with some English guests. The host is Antonio Cavero, a charming Spaniard, excellent shot and great fun to be with. It was his friends taking the shooting and they, in turn, had invited other guests.
The estate is smaller at about 5000 hectares (with 50 drives) and my immediate observation as we drove away from the palace in the morning was of more open ground, less arid, with green, intimate valleys with rather pretty, clear streams running though them with weeds familiar to our chalkstreams. There are a few drives at Ventosilla which would defeat the best of us but that is not the objective here. What Ventosilla offers, and successfully so, is the more traditional Spanish partridge shooting where the birds come thick and fast at medium to low height and the challenge is the speed required to keep up and continue to hit birds. On the face of it, for the most part, show one Ventosilla partridge and it is eminently hitable. Show them coming fast and furiously and suddenly the good shots have shot 100 in the drive and the less good only half that. The skill is in handling the excitement and continuing to hit birds when operating at speed. It is a different game altogether and therein lies the conundrum which I will return to at the end of this piece. It is more classic traditional style of partridges shooting.
We enjoyed better weather at Ventosilla and were therefore able to enjoy tapas in the sun. Lunch was an equal pleasure in the converted farmhouse overlooking the Rio Tajo. I also discovered that Ventosilla has a sister property which is a large converted farmhouse for small groups of perhaps five or six guns. This option would be very appealing to some even though you lose the grandeur of the palace itself.
I have to comment on watching the Spaniards themselves shooting. First, having watched them both on the moors at home and now on their home turf, they are superb shots. The best of them are as good or better than our best grouse shots. They get their speed to handle grouse very effectively from shooting partridges at home. What I enjoyed most of all was the huge team around them. Six guns to start with, not our traditional pair, all laid out in a rack. On our days, only two used at any one time but the option to change. They were not three pairs but two triples. The next detail I enjoyed was the mat to stand on. As we all know, footwork is key to shooting well and thus level ground helps achieve that footwork so why not have your team of a loader and two or three secretarios, (some that drive and accompany you on all shoots), bring matting to ensure ease of footwork?!
At La Cuesta, the round discs to protect neighbours from being shot (like our sticks on the moors) are not required because guns are only looking to the heavens all the time but at Ventosilla where the birds can come like grouse, or every other height upwards, the discs are used. Then of course, for the perfect set up you need the third disc on a longer pole and this is used to protect the gun from the sun. Much time is spent ensuring it is in the perfect position for the drive and if need be, it will be adjusted as the drive continues and the sun moves. So, to come back to the words ‘different’ and ‘special’ for a second, little need for wellies, no mud, lovely level ground to shoot on, a full team around you making sure no sun glare, full safety etc etc – what is not to like? Smells of no excuses for poor shooting to me!
For those that have not been to Spain before, I should point out that the normal team for visiting guns is a loader who will sit below you so the way you pass your guns will be different from home and a secretario who is your bird counter as well as your organizer of discs, shade, footing etc. He often has dogs too to pick up after the drive.
Both are very accomplished and will look after you well. For a local gun, who shoots regularly, he might have a team of four or five around him and that team may have travelled with him or her or might be a combo of a local team provided and his travelling team. The gun/loader relationship is a serious business for these guns and sometimes such partnerships will go on for decades until one or the other is too slow! With a good loader, you will never want for a gun.
So…back to the conundrum. Beyond the simple pleasures of being in Spain what shooting does one come to experience and enjoy?
On the one hand, we have the La Cuesta style of shooting, all good to extremely high birds. On the other, we have the Ventosilla style, a real mixed bag that can be adapted to taste but will not be able to compete with La Cuesta for pure high birds, or for that matter, quality of accommodation in terms of luxury living. At Ventosilla you can experience real Spain from a shooting point of view, the way the Spanish themselves enjoy it, this is not possible at La Cuesta. Some will argue why go to somewhere like La Cuesta when you can shoot equally high partridges in the borders or elsewhere in the UK, surely the reason to go to Spain is to experience something different, not just try to reproduce what we like in the UK in Spain. Others will argue that the traditional Ventosilla birds are too easy but I have to counter that that is simply not the case and that type of shooting is extremely exciting in context. Shooting traditional Spanish partridges as the Spanish do is challenging and exciting. On the other hand, there are few places in Spain or the UK for that matter such as La Cuesta where one can enjoy such high quality partridges. Combine this with the superb accommodation and it is a pretty special place.
I have in my mind which I prefer and the answer may surprise you but I guess if you are keen enough on your shooting, really my advice has to be experience both. Bothering to travel suggests an open mind and a willingness to see and understand how others do things. No matter what your choice, Spain still deserves to be revered and enjoyed by us and it is so easy these days, the estates understand how things need to be done to maximise convenience and they do it very well. In summary, shooting in Spain is all it is cracked up to be in every way so things have not changed in that regard. What has changed is the price is perhaps more in line with our shooting these days and the convenience, it is now very easy.
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