GLORIOUS REASONS TO GO GROUSE SHOOTING
Why you need to get up on the moors, whatever your role on shoot day. By Roderick Emery.
Whether shooting, beating, picking-up or even hosting.
why do people go driven grouse shooting? Why do people shoot at all? Shooting satisfies the urgent need within some of us to reconnect with the most basic needs in life – to hunt and to feed. And how better to make that connection than from a charming, top-drawer sporting hotel and a tidy, stone and peat butt, set amidst swathes of purple heather with a couple of gunsmith’s finest offerings and a chap to hand them to you?
This caveman stuff is all very well, I dare say, but surely we have to give ourselves a bit of credit for having evolved just the tiniest little bit? Of course we do. Bring on the Range Rovers then, and let us go to the moors. But why grouse, and why grouse most particularly?
For the guns
Grouse shooting is the highest form of game shooting. We have all heard it said, but what makes grouse shooting so special? The first and principal reason is that grouse are wild birds. And as wild birds they
are subject to the vagaries of the climate. Thus there may be good years and bad years. Sometimes there will be grouse to shoot and sometimes there won’t. Every now and again someone announces they’ve successfully reared a brood or two of grouse and there is a flash of excitement as people visualise grouse moors stuffed to the gunnels with birds, just like a lowland pheasant shoot. But nothing ever comes of it and perhaps that is a good thing because that scarcity contributes to the excitement of finally getting a chance at them.
Many advances have been made in recent years to control the ravages of the deadly strongyle worm, which is so deadly to grouse. The use of medicated grit has, to some extent, evened out the ebb and flow of grouse populations but red grouse stocks still crash from time to time, leaving moor owners tearing at their hair, and guns staring at an empty diary.
Once on the moor, of course, the true excitement of grouse shooting becomes immediately apparent because grouse are damned difficult to hit. They appear from nowhere, fly like bullets in undulating patterns which mimic the terrain over which they are driven, they arrive in coveys which can discombobulate the unwary and the inexperienced and, as a final refinement, the whole shebang takes place at ankle height.
The most exquisite high pheasant practitioners can easily find themselves dithering and poking when grouse burst into their theatre of operations because they are waiting for the birds to “get up a bit!” Well, they won’t because they don’t, and that’s a fact. It is difficult for those of us who have been told since childhood “to put some sky round your birds” to come to terms with aiming at grouse three foot off the heather, even if they are doing a zillion miles an hour; and even more difficult to ignore the fact the beaters are lined out on the horizon. We know there will be a horn when they are within range and that for the time being it is not only safe but necessary to be aiming what seems to be directly at their heads, but it still feels terribly, terribly wrong. And that’s before we have taken flankers into account.
We know there are good shots and less good shots. On a lowland shoot there are guns who regularly shoot better than 3:1 and those who don’t. On grouse moors this inequality is not doubled but squared. Good shots not only shoot more accurately, they also shoot faster too. I know of a very experienced partridge shooter who thought he had got the hang of driven grouse when he picked 10 birds for 24 shots after a drive.
“Grouse are damn difficult to hit. They fly like bullets, arrive in coveys, and the whole shebang takes place at ankle height.”
His neighbour managed to pick an impressive 36 for 45 shots.
Grouse shooting is rare. Grouse shooting is difficult. Grouse shooting is fantastically expensive. Slice it where you like, not many people can do it; so it is exclusive, certainly, which means if you get the chance to do it you must seize it with both hands.
For grouse moor owners
I have often wondered why people own grouse moors. Some have inherited them, of course, and feel an obligation to keep and maintain them. Some people are colossally wealthy and if you are colossally wealthy and don’t fancy a massive yacht then a grouse moor is an elegant alternative. It consumes vast amounts of money for 12 months of the year while providing three months of entertainment. It comes with a liveried crew who are all experts in their chosen fields. You can invite your friends over to share it with you from time to time. You can’t, however, transfer it from Monaco to the Bahamas if the weather changes, but that aside, a grouse moor ticks many boxes. And if you like to shoot grouse then a grouse moor is the thing to go for.
I also think that for some owners a grouse moor is a challenge. If they have been very successful in one aspect of business, a grouse moor is an almost irresistible project. I doubt anyone has ever made real money out of a grouse moor and for some enterprising folk it’s a bit like Everest. It just sits there thumbing its nose at you until you have a crack at it. I may very well be wrong, of course, but I’d love to see the figures.
On the other hand, as the owner of a grouse moor you can invite other grouse moor owners over for a go at your grouse. So every day you shoot at home, you get seven or eight invitations to shoot at other peoples’ grouse. Now, those are numbers even I understand.
For the keepers
I think you have to be a very particular sort of person to be a grouse keeper. Even on a great moor with many beats, the grouse keepers will lead solitary lives. Out on the hill from dawn till dusk, day in day out. Counting, catching, dosing, monitoring, protecting, counting again, watching, waiting, driving, picking-up, hanging up, counting...again; and packing off to the game dealers. I don’t know enough grouse keepers to be able to spot one at a distance but they share one feature with perhaps stalkers and round-the-world yachtsmen: it’s a little wrinkle about the eyes that
“As the owner of a grouse moor you can invite other grouse moor owners over for a go at your grouse - that means return invitations.”
comes from spending a good deal of time staring at a far horizon through filthy weather. Next time you meet any of them, have a good look and see if I’m right.
Why do they do it? Probably because on a handful of days each season they grant a select few access to their kingdom. These lucky souls can witness their achievements and marvel at what they have wrought from the ground itself. There is money involved, of course, but there are much easier ways to make money than by keepering grouse. It is passion that drives them, I reckon, and their true reward is a justifiable pride.
For the loaders
I have been loaded for and I have been a loader and the bond that develops between a good loader and his gun is profound and lasting. As a novice gun with limited experience of shooting double guns and even less of shooting double guns at grouse, your reliance on your loader is considerable.
First there is safety. First and always. Most moors now issue sticks as a matter of course, even to experienced guns, but for the novice, erecting them so as to ensure he can’t swing through his neighbours is critical. Your loader will help you.
Then there is spotting grouse. The novice who has not raised his gun to a bumble bee or a cloud of midges is a liar, for sure, because that is what you do. Once or twice. An experienced loader is eyes and ears. And normally full of advice: “Try to take your first bird there or there. Don’t look for a second bird until the first is down. Don’t look for your second gun. It will be there. Concentrate on the birds. Shooting behind is never as useful as shooting in front.”
The actual loading is the least of his worries. Keeping count of birds shot. Spotting falls. Calling the changes. “Yes!” “No!” “Well done!” “Ready!” “Got’im!” “He’s down!” “Change now!” “Lovely!” “Ready!” “That’s a cracker!” And all the time, “clack-click-click-clunk!” as guns are opened, shells slid in and closed once more. Ready.
Getting a grouse virgin through his first day with a degree of success and no incidents is a good thing but I venture loading for a top hitter must be something else again.
When Sir Frederick Milbank downed 190 grouse in a drive (out of a total of 728 personally for the day) at Wemmergill in August 1872, I reckon his loader might have felt a justifiable surge of pride in his contribution to the event. And quite right too. Watching the best in action is exciting but putting the best into action must be better still. It’s a team game, after all.
Beaters And pickers-up
Someone asked me recently how they could get to go beating and, I’m afraid, I was very little use. Beaters tend to be quite close knit crews who know their ground really well. Keepers hone their teams season by season so that when the big days come they move as one and everything goes like clockwork. This is especially so with grouse where a deftly managed flag can turn a covey towards the butts while an ill considered wave might turn them just as easily away. So there is teamwork and vigorous exercise in some of the most glorious countryside in the world. There is also a well-deserved beer at the end of the day and a few tens of pounds to buy several more with later. What’s not to like?
Pickers-up like to run their dogs at grouse because it is hard work and it makes them fit. The season starts in August and by the end of September the dogs will be raring to go as the partridge season gets under way. And who wouldn’t like to pick-up grouse? Everything about grouse shooting is the best, the most challenging, the most satisfying. That’s why dog handlers from across the world arrive on the moors to give their dogs, and themselves, experience that is simply not available anywhere else on earth.
Consider that for a moment. Nowhere else on earth. You can’t enjoy the challenge of driven grouse shooting anywhere else but the UK. When it comes down to it what other reason do you need?
grouse shooting is extremely challenging, expensive and rare, therefore any opportunity to partake in it should be seized with both hands.
A loader is a fountain of knowledge and their advice should be taken as gospel.
Beaters, pickers-up and grouse keepers live and breathe every inch of the moor throughout the season – it's their kingdom.