John Hill and Major Harry Fergusson - Lord Napier and Major Gilbard
Colonel William W. C. Verner
On a warm, early, autumn day in the late nineteenth century, the weekly mail steamer of the Peninsular and Orient Navigation Company anchored in the Bay of Gibraltar. It was Tuesday morning. The ship would stay there for four hours before continuing on its journey to Malta, Port Said and Suez. It would do so, however, minus a party of English sportsmen who had no intention of continuing their journey. In fact they would not be staying on the Rock for any length of time either. They were there to try to organise a hunt for the Iberian ibex - a species of goat known to the locals as the Cabra montés.
Two ibex hunters ( 1883 - Abe Chapman and Walter J. Buck )
As Gibraltar at the time was still without a proper harbour that could cater for larger ships, they were transferred to the mainland on a local ferry and allowed to disembark on the Commercial Mole. Despite Gibraltar's strict frontier controls, they were waved through politely. Being recognisably English was a huge advantage to anybody trying to enter Gibraltar and they were soon being helpfully directed to the Royal Hotel perhaps one of the best in town.
After settling in they were pleased to find that several of their friends and compatriots who had travelled down trough Spain by train had already checked in. The new Boadilla - Algeciras line had recently been completed making it a quick and pleasant final stage of the relatively quick railway connection from London to Gibraltar.
After a pleasant supper made even more enjoyable by comparing notes on their methods of travel it was down to business. They had arranged to meet several army officers of the Garrison who had been stationed in Gibraltar for a several years. As members of the local Calpe Hunt (see LINK) they would be well placed to advise them on how best to organise their hunt. And indeed they were.
But first a bit of research in the local Exchange and Commercial Library (see LINK) - not far from their hotel - where they were directed to Leonard Howard Irby's Ornithology of the Straits of Gibraltar. (See LINK) Irby was no hunter but he had come across the animals while studying his favourite birds in the nearby hills and had some interesting things to say about them.
The large game is more varied and plentiful in Andalucia than in Morocco (wrote Irby). In most of the wooded valleys of the sierras near Gibraltar, there are a good many roe-deer (corzo) and a few wild pigs in some of the high sierras . . . the Spanish Ibex is sparingly found . . . it is extremely difficult to get to them . . . a very expensive affair . . . and then, if successful, as far as sport is concerned it is hardly worth while sitting for several hours behind a stone, nine times out of ten without even seeing an ibex.
It is almost impossible to stalk them, as they lie hidden in the thick stunted fir and other scrub which is scattered in large patches on the mountain-sides, and are so wary that you cannot come suddenly on them like the roe-deer. However, in an ibex-shooting expedition, one is amply repaid by the magnificent scenery and the novelty of the affair; but as far as shooting goes it is a failure . . .
Difficult, expensive and unrewarding other than for the scenery, they were also particularly disappointed to learn that the ibex that had once frequented the hills above Algeciras, a town just across the bay from Gibraltar and easy to access - were no longer available. A disease which broke out among tame goats was communicated to the Ibex, who all perished.
Ibex-free hills behind the town of Algeciras as seen from Gibraltar ( Mid 19th century - George Lothian Hall ) (See LINK)
A second opinion was required. After some consultation they were recommended to contact a local resident and guide. There were very few better men, they said, than John Hill to advise them on where to find ibex. He was a man with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the hills and crags of the Campo de Gibraltar area having been on them on countless occasions. As a bonus, he was also known to be a very good cook - no mean attribute when living up a mountain far from civilisation for several days.
John Hill's advice was, however, even less promising than Irby's. There was more game in Andalucia than there was in Morocco and the sierras near Gibraltar were full of deer and wild pigs. The Ibex was another story. There were, he said, a few to be found in the Sierra Nevada and some of the higher peaks near Ronda and Ubrique but it was extremely hard to get to them. These were difficult places to stalk animals.
He therefore suggested that perhaps their best bet would be Sierra Bermeja near Estepona. Among other reasons it had one big advantage. It was relatively close to Gibraltar. But first a bit of forward planning was required.
Sierra Bermeja ( 1883 - Abe Chapman and Walter J. Buck )
The private hunting lands or 'coto privado de caza' which John Hill recommended belonged to Señor Tomás Heredia and the request for permission to hunt had to be addressed to Salvador Buendiaz, Mr. Heredia's administrador at Estepona. As an aside, the Mr. Heredia in question was almost certainly Señor Tomás Heredia Livermore, a very rich terrateniente from Malaga and a member of a family reputed to have made much of their fortune from smuggling goods into Spain from Gibraltar. (See LINK)
Whoever he might be, it was - said Hill - strictly necessary to get this permission. "If we don't, then the gamekeepers of the estate will not allow you to hunt. And there is more. If you really want to get close enough to an ibex to shoot it then you will have to organize a batida. Again If you don't do this the chances of bagging one are remote."
To follow Hill's suggestion more bureaucracy was required. Several days before the hunt, yet another letter was sent to a gentleman called Jose Montesino. This fellow lived in a small out of the way village called Bennajabi and he insisted that all hunters who might require beaters for hunting ibex on the sierra write to him - in Spanish - several days in advance so that he would have time to hire and organise the necessary men. They did this but with an added proviso - they wanted Jose Montesino to be their 'first beater' as - according to John Hill - he had been born in El Caporal and knew the sierra like the proverbial back of his hand.
The Gibraltarian guide also gave them advice on the kind of footwear and equipment needed by anybody who intended to try their luck with the "Cabras Montesas,". The first and perhaps the most important thing was to provide oneself with a pair of light but strong-laced boots. They should have rope soles put on to them similar to those used in alpargatas. Ordinary leather soles would be a dangerous alternative as they would provide little grip on the slippery rocks.
As regards guns, the best choice was a double-barrel breech loading smooth bore, with ball
cartridge. An ordinary rifle might prove dangerous, as they would almost invariably have to shoot in the direction of the beaters.
Ibex hunters (1883 - Abe Chapman and Walter J. Buck )
Several days later, letters sent, beaters hired and permission to hunt given, eight guns consisting of the intrepid Englishmen accompanied by a couple of experience Calpe Hunt veterans and John Hill set off at last towards Estepona wearing suitable footwear and carrying appropriate weapons. Several locals had also been hired to carry tents, food and other equipment.
The distance from Gibraltar to Estepona is about twenty five miles along a rather uninteresting extension of Gibraltar's Eastern Beach. Heading up towards the sierra from Estepona, however, the party found a decent mountain track leading to Bennajabi where they found their beaters waiting for them. From Bennajabi they walked a distance of about ten miles surrounded by magnificent scenery. At the end of the main track they came to a place known as El Caporal where they found a small hut occupied by the guards or game-keepers of the estate.
Spanish game-keepers showing off a stag (1883 - Abe Chapman and Walter J. Buck )
El Caporal was situated between two mountain spurs and was generally chosen by hunters as a camping ground because there was a water supply from a small river close by. It was also relatively flat. The river, however, was sometimes difficult to cross and the party chose a better camping ground at a spot higher up called La Cueva, where they found a spring with good drinking water.
Much too late to do anything about it they also now realised that it would probably have been cheaper and more practical to have built themselves a hut instead of having had to pay for baggage animals to cart all their tents and other baggage. The hut would also have been preferable to tents in wet weather.
As for perishable food and other general necessities, nothing much except water and wood was available at El Caporal and just about everything else had to be bought and carried by the party either from Estepona or indeed Gibraltar. If they wanted fresh bread, meat and mutton - ibex was almost inedible - these would only be obtainable if they sent somebody on horseback back to Estepona.
Ibex head ( 1883 - Abe Chapman and Walter J. Buck )
Luckily they had managed to buy some decent country wine and a rough aguardiente at a small bodega, about ten miles from their camping site. The later proved an absolute necessity as their beaters thrived on the stuff insisting on at least a glass in the morning and another in the evening. They would probably have downed tools if it hadn't been readily available.
Everything finally in place, the morning of their first hunt finally arrived It was shaping up to be a cold but clear day. Both beaters and guns left at four in the morning and it took the latter five hours of hard climbing to get to the proposed shooting post.
They were now about 5000 feet above sea level and were approaching the crest of the Sierra Bermeja. The view was astounding. In the distance the vast shimmering Mediterranean and the glittering peaks of the Atlas Mountains in Africa. In the middle foreground a tiny Gibraltar midway between Jebal Musa and the hills beyond Algeciras.
The magnificent view from the top of Sierra Bermeja with Gibraltar in the middle distance ( 2013 - J. Javier Garcia - adapted )
As they continued along the ridge keeping a sharp lookout, they could hear the shouts of the beaters. Suddenly they had the good fortune to intercept a herd. As they scrambled to within about sixty yards of it they were able to make out nine bucks - three with enormous horns, two medium sized animals and four smaller ones. Then the sound of a shot echoed among the Sierras . . . the hunt was on.
"The hunt was on . . . " ( 1883 - Abe Chapman and Walter J. Buck )
The above is a fictional account of preparations made by hunters based in Gibraltar. It assumes that such a 'sport' was relatively common during the later part of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century - at least among the more well off officers stationed on the Rock as well as the odd visitor or tourist.
It is a reasonably credible assumption. The Garrison was more than well endowed with a 'huntin and shootin' mentality in which sports such as fox hunting were almost universally subscribed to by the officer class - including the Governor. The sheer excitement of being able to include 'big' game hunting in their repertoire must have been irresistible.
The lure of the hunt ( 1883 - Abe Chapman and Walter J. Buck )
Nevertheless, the topic of ibex hunting is noticeable only by its absence in the literature of the day. Tourist guides - such as Richard Ford's 1855 Handbook for Travellers in Spain - (see LINK) makes no mention of it although Henry George O'Shea (see LINK) in his 1899 Guide to Spain and Portugal does - although not in connection with Gibraltar:
In Sierra Bermeja . . . there are multitudes of corzos (roe-deer) 'Cabras Montesa', wild goat ('la cabra siempre tira al monte') like the chamois. The Conde de Luque possesses whole districts where they are found, which are situated between Estepona and Marbella.
Nevertheless my fictional description is mostly taken from Gibraltar based sources only one of which - Irby's book on birds published in 1875 - have I quoted directly from. Colonel Irby was stationed in Gibraltar from 1868 to 1872 and then again in 1874. He was no hunter. But his almost fanatical bird watching allowed him to explore just about every hill and crag in the general vicinity of Gibraltar. As such he must have often come into contact with the elusive ibex. It was his opinion - as I mention in the article - that:
. . . . as far as shooting goes it (ibex hunting) is a failure, and at the lowest calculation every ibex killed by a Gibraltar party costs more than I would like to state.Another military man who commented on the sport was Colonel William Willoughby Verner in his My life among the Wild Birds of Spain which was published in 1909. (See LINK)
Colonel William Willoughby Cole Verner posing with a butterfly net in the gardens of the Mount ( 1903 - Sarah Angeline Acland ) (see LINK)
A naturalist, amateur ornithologist and compulsive egg collector, he was - like his good friend Irby - not overly keen on shooting animals.
Not far from the same cliff (near Marbella) is a curious saddle-back . . . Centuries of denudation have caused the rocks and soil on either side to fall away until the track along the summit has been narrowed at places to a few feet . . . I have known good sportsmen, who have been compelled to cross it in pursuit of ibex, speak of it with bated breath. My Spanish companions on the occasion of my visit, men of the sierra, regaled me with a story how once an Englishman, finding himself in the middle of it, had laid himself down and held on to the mountain with both hands.
This mountain is one of those - there are many - where the Spanish ibex still holds its own. On various occasions when seeking nests or watching Eagles, I have come across these animals, sometimes in considerable numbers. One day I chanced to see about twenty-five feeding together on a rocky hillside on the grassy patches amid the cistus scrub. I was high above them and they had no idea of my presence and presently began to move off slowly westward, feeding as they went.Verner also mentions a friend - Major Harry Fergusson - who unlike him was an ibex hunter.
A third source was Wild Spain by Abel Chapman and Walter J. Buck published in 1883. Chapman was an Englishman who came from a long line of sportsmen who were both hunters and naturalists. I am not entirely sure who Buck was other than that he lived in Jerez de la Frontera.
Abel Chapman ( Unknown )
What I do know is that both of them belonged to that species of hunter who went about shooting everything that moved - from boar to lynx, eagles and great bustards, deer and . . . you name it, they shot it. The ibex of course were no exception and the article above is generously peppered with their various accounts.
The Spanish mountaineer does not much affect ibex-hunting, though there are in each mountain-village some who try to earn a few precarious dollars by it. The peasants who follow this pursuit in the alpine regions of Spain become fearless climbers: with their feet clad in alparagatas, or hemp-soled sandals, they traverse ridges and descend crags where nail-shod guide would falter.
The first object is to get as high as possible. Then, crawling to the verge of some fearful abyss, the hunter commands the depths below, and, if he descries ibex, is enabled to approach without the warning of the wind. Should he see none, he imitates the shrill cry of the female, and not infrequently a ram is thus betrayed by the whistle of love.
The ibex-hunter must be provided with lungs of leather, a steady hand and eye, and untiring limbs. The best time for ibex-shooting is during July and August, when camping-out on the higher regions is practicable and even enjoyable. The snow-storms and frozen state of the snow render the winter-and spring-shooting both dangerous and uncertain.
When ibex are known to be frequenting the lower valleys and chasms of the sierra, guns are concealed among the broken rocks in the higher regions commanding the ravines by which the montéses are accustomed to ascend. Then the beaters enter from below, shots and unearthly yells disturb the timid animals, and slowly they ascend the mountain-side, listening ever and anon as they look down from some shelving ledge or giddy point.
So slowly, indeed, do they sometimes come that the hunter may contemplate them for minutes before he can despatch his bullet. At some vital spot it must take effect or the trophy is lost. Such is the vital resistance of the wild-goat that unless killed outright he will manage to gain some inaccessible precipice, and there on a hanging ledge give up his life.
Great Bustard driving ( 1883 - Abe Chapman and Walter J. Buck )
The fourth source is by far the most revealing and is A Popular History of Gibraltar. . . A Guide Book by George James Gilbard published in 1888. Major Gilbard was - among other things - librarian to the Garrison Library (see LINK) ADC to the Governor - Lord Napier of Magdala, and some time later Police Magistrate on the Rock. In other words he was somebody who was familiar with what was going on in Gibraltar and knew what kind of topics were worthy of inclusion in his guide. Ibex hunting was one of them.
The distance from Gibraltar to Estepona is seven Spanish leagues, equal to twenty-five or thirty English miles. The road for the greater part of the distance is along the Eastern Beach and very uninteresting. On leaving Estepona for the Sierra, two and a half leagues of the way is along a good carriage road, and half a league of mountain foot-path, and you then come to a small village called Bennajabi (which is not to be found in the Maps of Spain) . . . .
The best season for ibex shooting is about September and October. It must not be supposed that the ibex shooting on these Sierras is all play . . . .
All in all I would say that ibex hunts were restricted to a rather select group, most of them perhaps well-off Garrison men. But I would guess people like Chapman and Buck were not alone in their hunting excesses and that they were preceded and followed by other tourist hunters who used Gibraltar as a convenient British base for their activities in the surrounding countryside.