An invitation to shoot driven grouse sends Tim Maddams into a bit of a panic, but a lesson at Calvert Sporting soon calms his nerves and proves to be an exciting experience in its own right
An exciting sport in its own right
Sometimes in life you fall on your feet and this is one of those stories. For a while now I have been working with, and doing my bit for, The Country Food Trust. This charity has been set up to feed the needy in our land with pheasant and partridge meat from shoots across the country, and it’s doing so in the form of ready meals. I have helped develop the recipes for these and I am proud to be a part of such a sensible and helpful cause. Of course, I was very happy, then, to offer them an auction lot for their charity supper earlier in the year… but I did not expect what happened next.
A lovely email from Tim Woodward, who runs the charity for the trustees, delivered the news that my lot (offering to cook dinner for a team of Guns) had been bought by the team that had also bought a day’s driven grouse shooting at the Purdy-award-winning Weardale moor – a lot generously donated by none other than trustee of the charity, Michael Stone. Great, I thought, I love a trip north and watching grouse drives is something I have had the pleasure of doing before. Happy days, maybe I’ll take the dog and give him a good outing pre-season. Then the phone rang; I had been invited to shoot. Driven grouse. Double-gun. I couldn’t say no – I really want to do it, it’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. I have to admit, though, I agreed with more than a little nervousness. This is a unique form of shooting, and I do not wish to completely hash it up or, worse, cause offence (or even worse) with bad shooting or safety. I have seen this sport done properly by some of the best shots in the country; it’s hair-raising stuff... I don’t even own two guns!
As time has gone on I’ve relaxed and begun to look forward to September – what shooter wouldn’t given such an opportunity? Key to this is that I booked myself a grouse shooting lesson with a man who has built his business around teaching others to shoot this exceptional quarry. I think it’s fair to say that to shoot driven grouse is beyond most of us, simply because of the expense. But the lesson in the butts at Calvert Sporting in Oxfordshire is something we could all save up for and I have to say it was the most exhilarating experience I have ever had with clays.
I arrive on a very windy but, thankfully, dry day in June for my allotted time with Adam Calvert, a busy man; it was a little tricky finding a date for a lesson. “I do get quite busy, particularly as we get closer to the start of the season,” explains Adam, and this is an understatement as both Penny (Adam’s wife and business partner) and Tom (trap operator, gun manager and all-round good chap) are both constantly bustling around, moving guns, booking people in, and there is only the three of them here. Adam doesn’t only teach people to shoot, or to improve their shooting; he is also busy fitting and handling the sale of guns for various clients as well as looking after guns for foreign clients. This is a different world from the one most shooters are familiar with, but the same passion is here. Adam is brimming with enthusiasm, knowledge, respect and advice on everything from safety to etiquette – this is a man who knows his stuff. I am all ears.
Over coffee we discuss ‘where I am’ with my shooting. I am characteristically blunt about it. Adam smiles: “Tim, relax. I am sure we can get you onto a few targets today, but the rest is more important. Let’s go.” And off we head to the butts, a short drive from the office. On the way we chat: where will I be shooting? Have I double-gunned before? Do I mostly shoot driven game? Have I done any pigeon shooting? “I’m glad to hear you know a bit about shooting pigeons, Tim. One of the worst things you can do in a grouse butt is move about too much, and a pale shirt is a no-no… you need a little fieldcraft. And, the shooting style can be similar – you need to be aggressive. The birds can be low, and very, very fast, but, again like pigeon, they can provide all sorts of different shots.”
We arrive at the butts and a good 40 minutes is spent on safety. Adam explains that accidents can happen and that is why we use safety sticks – simple wooden frames arranged at the edge of either side of the butt – and we keep a high level of awareness of where everyone else is. “You can have a flanker out at 125 yards one minute and in at 50 yards the next time you look,” explains
Adam. “It is your job to make sure you are safe; your loader will probably set up the safety sticks but it’s up to you to make sure they are where they need to be.”
I allow this to sink in. This is a discipline that requires discipline. “Your fellow Guns are at shot-height to your right and left,” Adam continues. “You will be shooting at birds between you and the beaters. Towards the end of the drive the keeper will blow a horn for no more shooting in front – but if you can see beaters and flankers out in front, and you don’t want to shoot, don’t. At the end of the day you are the one shooting, it’s up to you to be safe.” “Well,” I say, “that is why I’m here.”
A bird behind
After the first horn you are safe to shoot birds behind once they have flown through the line, and this is the time to remain at the front of the butt, so you “do not allow yourself to bring your gun around the safety sticks in the hope of picking up these fast birds sooner.” I’m impressed. Adam has put me at my ease but he has also answered all my questions before I can ask them.
We begin practising a little double-gunning with safe guns. I make a mistake here, but it’s not a practical one. “These guns are light,” I say, “what type are they?” “Fabbri,” says Adam, “these are mine and they have the short titanium barrels on them – excellent for grouse, very light, very fast.” I looked them up later on when I got home and discovered I would have to sell my house, twice, to get a pair. This is a shame as I feel they would make exceptional pigeon guns.
We talk some more: watch out for the flanker when you are in the butt one away from each end of the line; relax and keep calm; shoot quickly and decisively. I’m getting nervous now and Adam knows it. “Right, let’s have a few targets then,” Adam says and he’s on to Tom on the radio calling for a “flurry of 30 from the trailer, show us a few first.” And with that, we are off. I am lucky today: the wind is against the clays and slows them, but, even so, it takes a few shots before I begin to get into them, and even then it’s certainly not easy. Adam gets straight to work between coveys of clays: “Get on them quickly and don’t mess about. You are getting on the targets but you need to get off four shots in the time you are using to shoot one or two.”
First battle done and the critique is short but sweet. “You lack confidence and you must stay with the target until it dies.” I have, it seems, been a bit too quick to get on to the next bird. “You need to be fast but you also need to finish the job. Exclude all other birds in the pack from your mind until your target bird is dead.” I know he is right. I do this a lot, and it’s something I know a lot of shooters find hard when faced with multiple targets.
We then go through the technique for shooting birds ‘out the back’ once they have passed through the line of the butts. The idea here is to keep your eye on the bird, but unmount the gun, so that as you turn you are not pointing your gun down the line. Trying to remember all this at the same time as remembering not to move back in the butt, and hand over one gun while collecting a second is tiring, but I soon get the hang of it, finally managing to shoot one in front and one behind with a good rhythm. We stop for a few minutes to change butts and have a glass of water. I am very well looked-after and Adam has clearly thought all this through. He takes the opportunity to fill me in on what will be expected of me in terms of tips for the loader – between £80 and £120, depending on how the day goes, and the keeper roughly the same, but more if we shoot a lot. “But as a guest you may not be expected to tip the keeper; simply ask your host what is best.”
Now for the finale. We are looking at two sets of 30 birds in a different butt, and here it all starts to fall apart, shooting-wise at least. The angles have all changed and the clays are reacting differently to the wind. I’m over-leading, missing off the line, but, much to Adam’s delight, despite trying very hard and clearly getting frustrated a tiny bit, I “stayed perfectly safe, even when switching to shoot behind. That’s good.”
As we start on the final 30 Adam tells me again to relax, and then adds that these will be the last birds of the day. “We have half an hour left but you are shot out,” he explains. And he is right; I can feel my concentration going, my left shoulder is tired. But I want to carry on nonetheless. I am, it seems, already addicted to this furious, fastpaced, skilful style of shooting, and these are just the pretend ones!
After further coffee and a debrief back at the office we get chatting and I am happy to discover that I have done okay. “Tim, I teach a lot of people here, many of them have been shooting grouse for years and just need a little tweak on some technique. I do have first-timers through the door a lot too, and you are a good student, you listen.” I quietly note that he didn’t say, ‘good’, or ‘accurate’. But I’ll take being a good student – that is, when all is said and done, all I set out to do today.
As I drive home, a happy smile on my face, I begin to finally properly look forward to my big day on the moor, and I cant help wondering if I might be back next year for another lesson, whether I will be shooting grouse again or not. It was an exhilarating experience and well worth a little over the £400 it cost. Worth it for the experience? Yes. Worth it for the understanding? Yes. But mostly worth it because I now feel a tiny bit less intimidated about heading north to shoot this enigmatic quarry, and on a once-in-a-lifetime trip, that is what counts.
Safety sticks either side of the butt help Tim stay within the safe shooting zone
Tim practises with a pair of very light and very fast Fabbris, their short barrels fashioned from titanium