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