Improvised driven sport might be makeshift and produce a small bag but it is still a wonderful challenge.
When good breeding years provide a sufficient number of grouse, we often try driving. Impromptu butts are easily made up from pallets and netting, and I’ve been on many walked-up days which ended up dabbling in a drive or two. Teams of guns take it in turns to “walk one, drive one” and the effect can sometimes be quite successful. You don’t need many birds over your butt to imagine how it might feel on a full day at Gunnerside or Wemmergill, and many smaller moors often play down their potential for driving because they don’t feel that they can compete with the big names. In reality, some of the best and most exciting driven grouse I have ever seen has been on improvised days on moors which are usually geared towards more modest sport, and while I’ve seen my fair share of disastrous blank drives, it is often worth rolling the dice.
To my dying day I will remember a single, wizened old grouse cock as he came hurtling over the shoulder of Ben Rinnes above Aberlour, ground which is usually shot with pointers. The bird was backlit against snow and fallen scree, and I knew he was done for as soon as my finger found the trigger. He must have been 60 yards away when the shot left my barrel, but he was just behind my butt when he finally rolled to a halt. His speed and momentum had been incredible, and I was doubly delighted to find he was one of those scarce and vaunted “black” cocks, which sometimes crop up here and there, particularly on Speyside. He was treacly brown all over with a smattering of white chevrons on his breast – a hero taken at his best without the pomp and circumstance of formal driven shooting.
I have similarly powerful memories of a roaring covey of birds which came sliding across the contours towards me on a walked-up day in Derbyshire. We were instructed to hide behind the stones of an old wall which ran in a slight gully across the hill. The keeper had grumbled that the drive was hardly worth doing, but we were keen to try it as a brief diversion after lunch with a few birds already in the bag. No more than 15 grouse crossed the line, but I was on rare and unusually fine form, killing three of them to two shots and all stone dead, well out in front.
Opportunistic and often pretty makeshift, these little drives have a charm all of their own, and they have the “pot luck” ability to punch well above their weight. Standing along the edge of a young spruce plantation in Argyllshire, I felt I had drawn the dud peg, but I was right on hand to see a dozen black game pass within a few feet of my head as they exited the drive. I could have touched the nearest one with my hand, and I couldn’t wait until the drive was over to ask where they had come from and who else had seen them. My host laughingly confessed he had knowingly placed me in “cow corner” because there were too many guns for the drive, and he had thought it was more likely I would shoot a pigeon than a grouse. In the event, I was the only one who had seen the black game and the encounter was far more thrilling than a dozen grouse might have been.
I can also hardly ignore a similar story from Galloway when we attempted a drive to break up two long periods of walking-up grouse. The guns split in two, and I became a temporary beater as we walked out a likely section of hill towards our friends, who keenly kneeled out of sight in a long peat hagg. The shots soon started to ring out, but they were confined to one end of the line. We were keen to find out what had happened, and could hardly believe the gun on the far right had shot four grouse, a snipe and a fox. Nobody else had seen a thing worth raising their gun to, and although we have repeated the drive many times, it has been a total blank ever since.
Driven grouse shooting is rightly held up as some of the most exciting and spectacular sport in the world. Having enjoyed many days working (and occasionally shooting) on some of the biggest and best moors in the country, I can vouch for the tremendous spectacle and challenge presented when grouse are shown to their full potential. But that does not mean that a more modest form of driven grouse does not warrant celebration.