A day’s sport for 100 people at Wemmergill
The guns are just one part of a team devoted to the thrill of grouse shooting and the habitat it supports
Janet Menzies meets a team of people devoted to grouse shooting
When does a day’s driven grouse shooting start? Is it when the convoy sets off up the moor, snaking behind and in front of you up the estate road into the heather? Is it when you get up in the morning, full of excitement and rush down for a massive shooting breakfast? Or did it begin months ago with the chicks hatching and the keepers anxiously watching the weather? Perhaps even earlier than that, with the heather management and estate maintenance all year round? Really, the day at Wemmergill Moor, Teesdale, started 175 years ago with the first recorded shoots on the moor, then owned by the Bowes family.
Yet there is also a good case to be argued that my day’s shooting at Wemmergill last summer had begun only a week or so earlier, when the estate, now owned by Michael Cannon, entered a new era of grouse shooting and moorland management by signing the first ever long-term Management Agreement with the Government body Natural England.
Robert Benson, recently retired as chairman of The Moorland Association, explained: “Wemmergill is the first of the big moors to sign up to a 25-year management plan, which is agreed with Natural England. We are hoping that it will provide a blueprint for how deep peat moor is going to be managed. It has been researched in huge detail with Natural England to tick all the boxes in terms of managing the blanket bog, which is the unique natural resource of these moors.”
Benson uses the word “unique” advisedly. Heather moorland is rarer than rainforest as a natural habitat and equally threatened globally. Three-quarters of the world’s heather moorland exists in Britain, making our upland estate owners the guardians of something very special. Saving the moors doesn’t just mean the preservation of all the many rare birds and wildlife species, however, it is also something that may save us humans in the end. The moors are the home of the humble sphagnum moss – that charmingly
lurid green and pink spongy antiseptic moss you can clean your hands with after gralloching a deer – which also has a rather more important role to perform, in creating blanket bog. Benson explains: “Sphagnum in blanket bog ensures better functioning peat, which absorbs carbon. I think most of us are agreed now that this carbon capture is one of our greatest weapons against climate change. The peat also cleans the water and it filters it into the reservoirs nearby, which is saving the water company millions in cleansing processes. In time we also hope to produce a slightly rougher surface, which helps to slow down the flow of water and prevent flash flooding.
“And, of course, moorland birds are benefitting enormously because of the management, although it is very hard to measure. When curlews don’t lose their brood to predation and you end up with four more live curlew chicks than you would have had, what is that worth? The buzz phrase for all this is ‘natural capital’. That is something that we are struggling to quantify but we are being asked by Government to try to measure that.”
Today, on top of Teesdale, on a glorious summer morning just a few days into the grouse season, seems like a very good moment to start totting up all that natural capital – and adding in a bit of old-fashioned economic value as well. My mission was to discover the full extent of the role played by driven grouse shooting in the area around Wemmergill – not just to the environment and the wildlife but to the local people and the wider economy, too. It turns out there is a lot more to grouse than simply shooting and eating it. I am spending the day exploring all the activities of a driven grouse shoot. During the four drives planned for the day I will be beating (only for one drive, thankfully); waving a flag with the flankers; standing with the guns; and picking-up at the back with the dog handlers.
Richard Johnson, Wemmergill estate’s manager and long-time grouse shoot partner with Michael Cannon, briefed me: “A
Heather moorland is rarer than rainforest and equally threatened globally
day like today is a massive logistical exercise. We have to fill teams of beaters, pickers-up, flankers and, of course, the keepers and underkeepers. On a shoot day there are about 70 or 80 people working employed by the estate.”
As we set off to our station on the flank, I can hear radios buzzing as the various teams move into their different roles. The beaters today have divided into two teams of 25 and there are 12 of us flankers getting into position. While we are waiting for the drive to begin, Johnson continues adding up the economic input of the estate: “We have seven keepers in all – headkeeper John Pinkney plus six underkeepers. One of them doubles up on maintenance and repairs because we have so many vehicles. There are four Polaris, several 4x4s, five or six quad bikes and three Hägglunds [tracked, articulated, allterrain carriers].”
The job of looking after all this kit belongs to Mark Crackles, who has just put me into position on the flank. He warns me: “The beaters start from about two kilometres away, depending on how much ground we want to take in, it can be farther. This is an enormous drive and we need the flankers placed according to how the grouse are behaving – the wind will have a lot to do with that. The downwind flanker has more to do because the grouse will naturally want to drift down on the wind. We need to stay down now so we don’t scare the grouse, and the wind is doing our job for us, keeping the grouse flying over the butts.”
Crackles gets on the radio and shouts “incoming”, letting the rest of the shoot know what the grouse are doing. Green Fell drive has begun. The grouse like to fly along ridges, hugging the natural contour lines, but on command I try to do something about that, leaping up and waving my flag to whoosh the grouse towards the guns – though the birds are not easily deflected. Luckily, 72-year-old Bernie Coatsworth and his friend, Derek Jacobs, are doing the real work. Jacobs says: “I have been coming up to Wemmergill for 20 years. It is a good shoot and a great atmosphere.”
Coatsworth jokes: “We are the elder statesmen – now I am too old for beating I do the flanking instead.”
I leap up and wave my flag to whoosh the grouse towards the guns
Above: cocker spaniel retrieving Right: Sally Ann Cannon with Wemmergill’s estate manager, Richard JohnsonPrevious page: Robert Benson loading for George Stucley
Picker-up Jacqueline Kimber Below: taking them well out on one of the four drives that day