Sunday, 8 May 2011

The Shooting Challenge, Part One: Blasting Pigeons

Two minutes drive North from Inverness Airport in Scotland, you'll find yourself in such leafy countryside that you'll wonder whether cities like London actually exist at all. Thanks to winning a competition prize on Dave Berry's former XFM radio show I found myself, along with my missus in this very situation. Yet I did have a challenge in mind...and it involved pigeons.

The morning had started with the usual rush to pack and load the car, but this time I wouldn't be going to work, I'd be going on a mini break with my girlfriend and the bill was being picked up by NDL Group thanks to a text I'd made to a radio station some 6 months previous.

We stopped for the now standard service station breakfast - show me a road trip that doesn't begin with one and I'll show you a naff road trip! Unfortunately we picked the worst hot food venue out there...

The laziest sausage the World!
We made up for this atrocity at the Apostrophe eaterie at Gatwick Airport before boarding our plane to Inverness.

Just an hour and a half later, having driven through some of the most glorious countryside in the UK, we entered the mile-or-so long driveway that leads to Alladale Wilderness Lodge.

Alladale is not just any lodge...

Oh my...
This amazing old hunting lodge is set in the grounds of Alladale Highland Wilderness Reserve; owned by visionaire Paul Lister, the son of the founder of furniture company MFI and himself the founder of The European Nature Trust (TENT).

Lister's aim is to create Europe's first every wilderness reserve - taking a 23,500 acre plot in the highlands of Scotland back to how it would have been some 300 hundred years ago (truly inspirational, you can read about this here).

Insert bears, wolves, moose, grouse, red squirrels, boars and bison here.
A Land Rover ride later we arrived at our private stone cottage, Ghillie's Rest Lodge.

Ghillie's done a lovely job with the place.
Once our bags were ditched and we knew where to find the food and work the various gadgets, our host Innes drove us straight off to my next sporting challenge...Clay Target Shooting.

Innes MacNeill is Reserve Manager at Alladale, but he's also competed at the World Championships for Clay Target Shooting - so as coaches go, we'd hit the jackpot.

Coach MacNeill introduced us to the shotgun we'd be using for this task, its twin barrels were mounted one atop the other to allow easier aiming and accuracy.

Due to cost restraints (I'll be honest The Everyman Olympics is costing me a fair wedge; I'm still entirely self-funded) we'd simply be emulating the Olympic Final of the Trap discipline used at the games.

Here's how The Clay Target Shooting Challenge would work:
  • 25 Shots each, 1 point per hit.
  • 3 separate traps: The Grouse (10 shots), The Pheasant (10 shots), Going Down The Line (5 shots).
  • The highest scorer would be the winner.
The Grouse

Standing in a large clearing, clay targets (or 'pigeons') would be fired towards and above us from approx 15 metres away - for this and indeed each of the traps, we'd have 1 shot to break the target and collect the point.

At each trap Coach MacNeill talked us through what was going to happen, then he'd ask us who was going first.

Thinking on my toes I suggested Jess should go first, so that I knew the score I'd have to beat and could get a look at where the clay pigeon would fly from.

Though Jess missed the first shot, she then bagged the next 4! Was my missus secretly an assassin and not a buyer at Next?!

Agent Fountain on the Grouse
Innes berated me for having put my girlfriend in first, saying that being over-competitive would be my downfall in this challenge; by not going first I'd have added pressure to perform and would be ignoring his instructions thinking I knew best...dammit he was right.

In my first five shots I only hit the second pigeon - I would stop moving the gun the millisecond I'd opted to shoot and this was disastrous every time, I think the one hit I did get was a fluke.

Jess hit a further two clays in her last five shots at the Grouse, which gave me a chance to calm down and pay more attention to Innes - not surprisingly this tactic paid off, I bagged 4 of my last 5 clays!

Spot the city boy in the countryside.
The Grouse: Jess 6, The Everyman Olympian 5.

The Pheasant

Moving up the hill to our second trap, Coach MacNeill delighted in pointing out the error of my early strategy, given that he was carrying a gun and clearly knew how to use it, I thought better of being a twat and biting at his jibes.

The Pheasant trap was mounted higher up than our first shooting position, on shouting 'pull' Innes would press a remote control which fired a clay target from the trap, this time rising in the air towards us and over our position at a slight angle, before landing in one piece behind us if we'd missed the shot.

Jess again went first, blasting her first pigeon out of the air like she was born to shoot...but then perhaps pressure to produce got the better of her because she missed the next four.

In her second stint on the Pheasant, Jess would manage just two more hits.

Luckily no aircraft were hurt in the making of this photo.
The Pheasant: Jess 3, The Everyman Olympian 5.

Going Down The Line

While feeling let down that this trap did not have cool bird-based name I got put in first by my girlfriend who claimed she had a slightly sore shoulder (I knew she was blagging it but what can you do eh?).

We'd have 5 shots from this last position, we were stood back down in the clearing, only this time the clays would race away from us, barely clearing the treetops and allowing only a short few-second spell in the light of the sky.

Jess had employed the strategic genius of Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible, perhaps she was an assassin after all...

I struggled to get to grips with the movement and speed of the clay, only striking my final target.

Shooting clouds
Blasting her first pigeon out of the air like it had flown off with her favourite bracelet, I feared the worst...but I really didn't need to.

Going Down The Line: Jess 1, The Everyman Olympian 1.

Maybe it was beginners luck on this trap, maybe Agent Fountain thought better of showing off her skills just to win bragging rights, I'm not sure which but I wouldn't let these trivial matters get in the way of a win!

Final Score: Jess 10, The Everyman Olympian 11.

Afterwards Coach MacNeill remarked that getting double figures on our first ever attempts was actually really good. Adding that women often tended to do better because they listened more (he was still carrying the gun).

With special thanks to Coach Innes MacNeill - a top coach, guide and all round fella.

We really enjoyed our stay at Alladale Wilderness Reserve, the work that Paul, Innes, John and the team are doing is truly amazing and we'll definitely look to come back some day to see how it's coming along, and get a glimpse of how Scotland used to be.

If you'd like to check out Alladale yourself, here's their website:


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