Why you should try grouse shoot­ing

All guns should ex­pe­ri­ence the magic and mys­tery of this unique form of driven shoot­ing. So no more ifs… get your­self to the butts

The Field - - Contents - writ­ten BY RORY knight Bruce ♦ pho­tog­ra­phy BY tar­quin milling­ton-drake

No ifs, get your­self to the butts, says Rory Knight Bruce

At a Game Con­ser­vancy din­ner not so long ago, a guest bid a vast sum to take a 250-bird day only to re­alise, as the ham­mer went down, that the auc­tion­eer was say­ing “for pheas­ant”. The telling of this story, at a shoot lunch where I was present, at­tracted howls of mirth. For the guns were, to a man, grouse spe­cial­ists and the un­wit­ting bid­der had thought he was buy­ing a day amongst Lago­pus lago­pus scot­ica.

There is a magic about grouse and the Twelfth that sets minds rac­ing and hearts beat­ing. It is without ques­tion the high­est form of driven game shoot­ing, unique to the Bri­tish Isles, and cre­ates an en­vi­ous sport­ing, so­cial and, it must be said, eco­nomic bench­mark, when­ever a shoot­ing party gets to­gether and talks about it.

With the magic comes mys­tery – and money. Prices are run­ning at £180 per brace and, with most driven days start­ing at 100 brace, the grouse’s “Chut! Chut! Chut!” does not come cheap. A day per gun, with tips and a ho­tel din­ner and bed, is un­likely to pass the bank man­ager at under £3,000. Yet there are plenty of would-be grouse shots who hap­pily spend the spring on the ski slopes and the sum­mer on a yacht, fish for a week in Ice­land or Rus­sia and think noth­ing of own­ing a leg in a hunter-chaser. Some­thing, how­ever, is stop­ping them from “don­ning the mot­ley” and tak­ing to the moor and it is time for them (and I in­clude my­self in this) to raise our guns and raise our game.

eti­quette con­cerns

When a sur­vey was con­ducted some years ago about what new­com­ers to hunt­ing were most ner­vous about, the an­swer came back: “Eti­quette”. Grouse shoot­ing, even for the sea­soned gameshot of pheas­ant and par­tridge, presents a sim­i­lar worry. But this does not stop the sports­man dream­ing about “one day”. We should, how­ever, for those in our fifties and six­ties, re­mem­ber, in the words of Cree­dence Clear­wa­ter Re­vival, that “some­day never comes” and take our­selves, with no ifs, to the butts.

In 1910, Gavin Maxwell’s fa­ther, Aymer Maxwell, pub­lished Grouse and Grouse Moors – much of the ad­vice on safety, field­craft and eti­quette it of­fered still holds good to­day. On safety, he of­fers a cau­tion­ary foot­note: “The present Duke of Roxburghe was shot in the face by the sev­enth Earl of Ch­ester­field, and hit so hard the blood ran down over his grace’s shirt, at a dis­tance of 180 yards.” The moral here is safety first and have the best guns, car­tridges, safety glasses, ear de­fend­ers and loader you can af­ford.

“At­tend a first-class shoot­ing school so that you will be a re­li­able and steady shot with a thor­ough mas­tery of your gun,” ad­vised Maxwell. He rec­om­mended a 7lb 12-bore with 28in to 30in bar­rels. On cloth­ing, Maxwell’s ax­iom is still true. “Noth­ing strik­ing in the way of colour can be tol­er­ated on a moor, the more in­vis­i­ble the bet­ter.”

Of the day it­self, he wrote: “Let the other guns stay cof­fee-hous­ing if they will, but you wish to make the most of your chances so go early to your butt and make your ar­range­ments. Re­mem­ber, to see birds com­ing to you in good time is half the bat­tle.

“As long as there are birds com­ing to you in front, you must never turn round. It is much bet­ter to start by miss­ing a few birds in good style than to kill a few by ‘pok­ing’.”

So much for the the­ory but how do you pre­pare for the grouse moor and then how do you de­cide where to go? The two es­sen­tials are a good shoot­ing school and a good sport­ing agent. “It is a bucket-list thing for many of our Amer­i­can clients,” says Kiri Kythreo­tis of Athina Sport­ing. “The big­gest

thing to im­press upon them, how­ever, is that driven grouse is a com­pletely dif­fer­ent ‘tar­get’ and re­quires im­mense safety and a dif­fer­ent shoot­ing eti­quette. We teach peo­ple how to re­act. I tell them to for­get about lead. The only way to get peo­ple to kill grouse ef­fec­tively is by ‘con­trolled ag­gres­sion’.” As Maxwell wrote: “You must take your bird as if you mean to kill it. We teach peo­ple to be more in­stinc­tive with their weight on the front foot. If you are on the back foot, you will miss ev­ery time.”

Kythreo­tis tends to or­gan­ise par­ties who shoot later in the sea­son, in late Septem­ber and October, be­fore the birds pack up and fly in groups. He also spe­cialises in smaller bags, from 60 to 80 brace at a fixed price, and rec­om­mends two days with three nights stay, al­though a week of big­ger bags is also pos­si­ble. “Later in the sea­son the birds are far wilder and more wily as they have been over the butts a few times and, be­ing older and more feath­ered, are stronger fly­ers.

“Un­less you have dou­ble-gunned be­fore, don’t,” is Kythreo­tis’s ad­vice, al­though it is al­ways ad­vis­able to bring a sec­ond gun, es­sen­tial to use the ser­vices of a loader and to wear safety wrap­around glasses, the lenses of which can be changed ac­cord­ing to weather con­di­tions. “All good load­ers are ex­pe­ri­enced shots, know their ter­rain and have got their eye in,” he ex­plains. “They are also there to give you en­cour­age­ment.

“Our aim is to take high-qual­ity shoot­ing and make it af­ford­able.” But it is also to fac­tor in the cul­ture and land­scape of the High­lands. “I like to use the Ed­war­dian house-party anal­ogy,” says Kythreo­tis, “where wives and part­ners are wel­come and the eight or nine guns stay in a pri­vate lodge.” He reck­ons with care­ful plan­ning a three-night stay with two days’ shoot­ing at a fixed price of 60 brace can be had for £4,000 per gun.

“The past five to 10 years has seen a real ‘Golden Age’ for grouse shoot­ing and grouse shoot­ers and this has in­evitably seen more novice guns on the Hill,” says James Chapel of sport­ing agent Wil­liam Pow­ell. “Twenty years ago there were only a lim­ited num­ber of days to let in any one sea­son and bag num­bers were not large. Due to ad­vances in grouse moor­land man­age­ment this has cer­tainly changed. In 2004, Wil­liam Pow­ell let only one grouse day but in 2016 this had risen to 160.”

All sport­ing agents have a check­list of eti­quette and the shoot­ing schools run cour­ses on ev­ery­thing from safety to tip­ping of the head keeper and pay­ing your loader. As a rule of thumb, any prospec­tive grouse shot should have had at least six lessons on grouse clays at a shoot­ing school.

“I know of sev­eral es­tates when is­su­ing their in­vi­ta­tions to friends in­sist that they go on ‘re­fresher’ cour­ses at a shoot­ing school,” says Mark Heath of the West Lon­don Shoot­ing School. “For two months be­fore the Twelfth we are fully booked with grouse lessons,” says Rob Fen­wick of EJ Churchill at West Wy­combe Park. “Many of the top grouse shots also book to get their eye in again.”

“I would say en­try level is a 50-60 brace day and I have a hand­ful of client es­tates where this is pos­si­ble,” says Ge­orge Gold­smith, whose Ed­in­burgh-based sport­ing agency is now in its 20th year. “There’s noth­ing quite like ar­rang­ing a sport­ing week­end with your clos­est friends. We can of­fer self-catered or fully-catered op­tions and two back-to-back, 50/60 brace days can work well at this en­try level.”

If grouse stocks do well this sea­son, there could be some good last-minute deals for later in the sea­son, dur­ing October and Novem­ber. “The High­lands and glens are at their very best,” con­tin­ues Gold­smith. A pop­u­lar ad­di­tion to his house par­ties has been a Glen­fid­dich whisky tast­ing with one of the dis­tillery’s whisky am­bas­sadors.

At EJ Churchill’s shoot­ing ground there are five grouse butts, 25 traps and two in­struc­tors work­ing full time through­out June and July. “Eighty per­cent of our grouse moors are in the north of Eng­land,” says Fen­wick, with guns of­ten stay­ing in fa­mous sport­ing pubs. “The cru­cial thing is to put in the time and ef­fort with an in­struc­tor.”

For the first-time grouse shot who has put in the hours at a shoot­ing school, Fen­wick ad­vises a 75- to 100-brace day. “This will give you a chance to ex­pe­ri­ence the full thrill of grouse shoot­ing,” he con­tin­ues. “If you can do a back-to-back day, so much the bet­ter as you will learn a lot from the first day.”

Af­ter an hour with Mark Heath I felt it was like step­ping out of a Bentley onto a red car­pet, such is his knowl­edge and as­sur­ance, his un­com­pli­cated com­mu­ni­cat­ing of the ba­sics of grouse shoot­ing. “For­get about look­ing at the gun and look only at the bird,” he told me. “Stay at the front of the butt and move your feet, but al­ways on the front foot.” I was soon tak­ing trans­verse clays without

The past five to 10 years has seen a real Golden Age for grouse shoot­ing

giv­ing them any lead, as he had told me to do, a re­ward­ing and in­struc­tive ex­pe­ri­ence.

In his pro­fes­sional ca­reer, Tony Fletcher, now se­nior in­struc­tor at EJ Churchill, was a top-flight For­mula One en­gi­neer. From June on­wards, the shoot­ing ground is full of grouse ex­perts get­ting their eye in for the sea­son as well as those fa­mil­iaris­ing them­selves with the grouse butts for the first time. It is cru­cial, he says, to in­vest in good equip­ment. His two-hour lessons cover all the the­ory and prac­ti­cal ba­sics. “My aim is that the guns when they get on the moor will en­joy them­selves. At West Wy­combe we can sim­u­late the pre­ci­sion of a burst of grouse over the butts, the speed of the tar­get and the pack of the tar­get.”

His tips in­clude the se­lec­tion of a bird and to watch it come down be­fore se­lect­ing an­other bird. “You can­not ‘cream a pack of grouse’ and ex­pect to shoot them. Selec­tive­ness and pur­pose are ev­ery­thing.” He also em­pha­sises the im­por­tance of al­ways be­ing at the front of the butt and on the front foot.

My own prac­ti­cal day of sim­u­lated grouse came when I joined a team of 14 guns at the West Lon­don Shoot­ing School’s 100-acre grounds at Great Tew in Ox­ford­shire. The day was run by Chris Douneen and for­mer clay world sport­ing cham­pion Mickey Rouse from 9am un­til lunch in the lodge at 3pm. In Au­gust, they also run morn­ing or af­ter­noon Purdey Grouse cour­ses with Battue clays, which sim­u­late the flight path and pace of the grouse. The four var­ied drives, all reached by two gun wag­ons, are set amongst glo­ri­ous Cotswold coun­try­side, an op­por­tu­nity to im­prove our shoot­ing under at­ten­tive and ex­pe­ri­enced tu­tors with more than 300 shots each be­ing fired.

The eight Cotswold stone grouse butts are as real as it gets. Douneen gave me in­valu­able ad­vice to im­prove my bag, which I was im­me­di­ately able to put into prac­tice. The last drive saw seven right-and-lefts and three sin­gle clays fall to my gun for 20 shots. That would not have been the case at the be­gin­ning of the day.

Let us re­turn to Aymer Maxwell, who ob­served: “Driven grouse, when all is con­sid­ered, is a beau­ti­ful and fin­ished per­for­mance; and there is as much plea­sure to be de­rived from watching the mas­terly han­dling of the birds as from the ac­tual shoot­ing. No sport is bet­ter adapted to cater to the needs of those whose days of leisure are few.”

Maxwell’s book is now all but out of print but there is a copy in the Be­naki Mu­seum in Athens as Maxwell’s son, also Aymer, used to, as all grouse men should, take his yacht round the Greek wa­ters in the sum­mer months. One of his ports of call was to travel-writer Paddy Leigh Fer­mor, as was mine, and we got talk­ing one day about Maxwell and his sons, Gavin and Aymer. I fished out my first edi­tion of Maxwell’s Grouse Moors and gave it to Leigh Fer­mor.

Since his death, his li­brary has gone to Athens and with it Maxwell’s book. I hope a first-time grouser might feel suf­fi­ciently in­spired to go and get it and have it re­pub­lished. De­pend­ing on how I get on my­self on the moor, that per­son might even be me.

The high­est form of driven shoot­ing and unique to the Bri­tish Isles, prices are run­ning at £180 per brace

Above: the ex­perts ad­vise em­ploy­ing an ex­pe­ri­enced loader, who will know the ter­rain and be able to of­fer ad­vice and en­cour­age­ment. Left: late-sea­son grouse are wilder and wily, more feath­ered and stronger fly­ers

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