It was a chance weekend with friends that led Donald Ogilvy Watson to buy the Urlar Estate in Aberfeldy, Perthshire back in 2005. “I’d always wanted to try and build up a grouse moor – I was up in Scotland looking, and originally thought I might lease a place,” he explains. “I just happened to be staying with some friends who own Bolfracks Estate, and at the end of the weekend they said they were interested in selling the moor, the house they’d brought their children up in and part of the river, and was I interested? I’m afraid it was as unpremeditated as that! But I’ve found that these things done on the spur of the moment often work out well. If you spend ages agonising about trying to find the best place you’d never do anything.”
There was just one problem – there were virtually no grouse on the heather moorland. However, “One of the attractions was that there was a very well-managed moor next door, Lochan Estate, which was showing that it was perfectly possible to do it,” Donald says. “And Urlar had been a great moor in the 1930s, so there was no real intrinsic reason why it couldn’t be done.”
The principal issue, he explains, was a tick-borne viral disease called louping ill, which mainly affects sheep – and red grouse. “It’s the origin for the term ‘to go loopy’ – it affects the brain. With grouse, if you have a fairly high prevalence of louping ill, virtually none of your chicks will survive. So it doesn’t matter how much effort you and the keepers make, you’ve got to get rid of the disease first.”
Donald was told it would take between five and seven years to reduce the tick infestation, through regular dosing of the sheep flock. “It’s quite a daunting thing – I don’t know how many billions of ticks there must be on 7,000 acres,” he says. Each year, he and a friend would undertake a grouse count, walking the moor along the same set of lines to get a sense of whether the stock was improving or declining.
In 2011, they attempted to conduct proper testing for louping ill with the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, and only just managed to harvest the requisite 20 brace of young birds. Donald’s keeper, Paul Anderson, recommended not shooting at all the following year, to allow stocks to replenish – although Donald admits it wasn’t a popular suggestion at the time. But patience paid off and, true to predictions, “Bang on year six everything started getting better.” In just a couple of days’ shooting in 2013, they bagged over 100 brace. “I just couldn’t believe it – I thought to shoot 50 brace would be fantastic,” says Donald. “And since then, we’ve had four very, very good seasons.” The numbers speak for themselves – the five-year average is now 1,555 brace, with an unprecedented 3,138 brace in 2017 (well surpassing the 1934 record of 2,000 brace).
The estate includes two moors totalling over 7,400 acres, as well as just under a mile of single-bank fishing on the River Tay, also available as a separate lot, with a five-year average of 52 salmon. In addition to the six-bedroom shooting lodge, there is a keeper’s house and three further staff cottages. For Donald, returning the moor to its former glory has been a labour of love. “It’s been quite a success story to prove that you can get grouse back in a difficult place,” he says.