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
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.
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