A sport of extremes

The speed, agility and beauty of the red grouse and its nat­u­ral habi­tat con­tinue to leave us awestruck.

Shooting Gazette - - Grouse shoot­ing - By Will Garfit.

The red grouse should be Bri­tain’s na­tional bird and as such also be the em­blem of the RSPB.

The first ob­vi­ous ex­treme is sad but un­der­stand­able: grouse shoot­ing is ex­tremely ex­pen­sive both for moor own­ers and con­se­quently for guns. Over the years I have been very for­tu­nate to have en­joyed more than my share of shoot­ing, mainly as a guest of generous friends. Look­ing back on so many happy mem­o­ries they are full of such a va­ri­ety of ex­pe­ri­ences, more so than of any other game bird. The British up­land cli­mate and heather moor­land habi­tat cre­ate a unique ecol­ogy which re­sults in the fact the grouse ex­ists nowhere else in the world. It should be Bri­tain’s na­tional bird and as such also be the em­blem of the RSPB, but we all know that is down to peo­ple pol­i­tics rather than or­nitho­log­i­cal cri­te­ria. How­ever, the point is it is this com­bi­na­tion of ex­treme fac­tors that makes the grouse unique to the British Isles.

The dark bronze-coloured bird has a cackle that echoes across the vast spa­ces of the moor as the cock pro­claims his ter­ri­tory or the bird’s alarm call “gob­ack­gob­ack-gob­ack” as it’s flushed from the heather. When it is well man­aged it can pro­lif­er­ate fast if the con­di­tions are right. The hard-work­ing moor­land keeper also cre­ates the right con­di­tions for so many threat­ened bird species strived for by ecol­o­gists. In spring, grouse moors are alive with drum­ming snipe, the eerie pip­ing of the curlew and a va­ri­ety of waders suc­cess­fully nest­ing.

This won­der­ful bird, the grouse, flies like no other game bird as cov­eys hug the con­tours of the hill, fly­ing low to avoid rap­tors swoop­ing from above. The shoot­ing of driven grouse from butts has de­vel­oped as an ul­ti­mate form of sport as cov­eys are driven by a long line of beat­ers and skil­fully chan­nelled by flankers to hur­tle at speed over the butts. It’s ironic that we do all we can to show high-driven pheas­ants or red­leg par­tridges, yet grouse chal­lenges in quite the op­po­site way by speed and agility on the wing as it flairs and twists in the air at the blink of an eye, as it skims low over the pur­ple-topped heather.

Extremes of speed can chal­lenge and whilst the first driven grouse I ever shot floated past like slow de­coy­ing pi­geons, on the very next drive they to­tally de­feated me, com­ing down­hill like ground-seek­ing rock­ets. Even fly­ing up­wind into a gale on the re­turn of a down­wind drive, they can cre­ate de­cep­tive tar­gets as, whilst ap­pear­ing to hang in the air, they are side-slip­ping and still mov­ing much faster than they ap­pear, and can at times pro­duce a mock­ery of the guns.

Walk­ing-up is a won­der­ful sport. Noth­ing is more ex­hil­a­rat­ing and yet ex­haust­ing than walk­ing all day over miles of moor­land with the honey scent of heather bloom, the sound of bab­bling burn or beck and sight of cloud shad­ows run­ning across the dis­tant hill while you have the sun and wind on your face. Just as you have the feel­ing of calm and the world is a won­der­ful place there is a whir of wings from vir­tu­ally un­der your feet as a covey bursts and catches you with in­evitable sur­prise. Hope­fully re­ac­tions cut in fast enough to make a suc­cess­ful shot, or even two, as those birds ac­cel­er­ate, criss-cross­ing in the air as they are up and away.

Shoot­ing over dogs is a joy in a dif­fer­ent way and as the orig­i­nal form of grouse shoot­ing it brings a re­spect for the tra­di­tion of the sport. There is the plea­sure of watch­ing well-han­dled point­ers or set­ters work­ing across the fells or braes be­fore hit­ting the scent of a covey up­wind, crouched low, hid­den in the heather. The magic as the dog points and holds the covey as two guns ap­proach, ready for a shot as the birds are flushed.

All seems so bliss­ful in my mind but there are days in Au­gust or Septem­ber when the sun is hot and the air wind­less, and your butt is in­fested with midges. The other ex­treme is when a gale makes it hard to stand and grouse fly at speeds that defy the swing of the gun. Or days in Novem­ber when the first sleet and snow of win­ter numb the fin­gers and is painful on the face, as one waits in the butt for black specks to ap­pear and be­come grouse as a pack sweeps across the line.

So the mem­ory bank is full of the thrill of grouse and re­spect for the bird that can thrive in such a hos­tile up­land en­vi­ron­ment, and then per­form extremes of flight to test and thrill the sports­men of the past, the present and, I sin­cerely hope, long into the fu­ture.

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