Poor seasons remind us how important it is to remember the good times we’ve had on the moors.
It has been a dud year for grouse. Speaking to keeper friends up and down the country, it is unusual to hear of anywhere that has escaped the fallout from a cold spring and a hot summer. A few places on the North York Moors seem to have done alright, but even the best ground in the Dales and Pennines has been quietly muted. Of course this has been frustrating for many, but there is some satisfaction in collapses like these because they remind us how special grouse are. As we move away from the traditional boom and bust of worm cycles which characterised grouse shooting until 10 or 15 years ago, it is easy to forget that wild game is chancy and unreliable.
The falling shape and the scattered feathers vanished into the wind, but these buzzing meteors were mortal.
I shot a single day this year, and now I find the end of the season approaching with only a few birds in the bag. I can’t help looking back to bigger years and the exciting fallout of late-season days where I have been enlisted at short notice to expand a line of Guns and be sure that birds end up in the bag before December 10. One day in particular stands out from 2013 when several moors in the Yorkshire Dales were facing the end of the season with an excess of birds.
I arrived to find that the main drives had been abandoned after a fall of heavy snow. We would focus instead upon a series of shorter drives on lower ground. My toes were numb before the first birds arrived. In fact, the wind was so fierce that grouse flying into it hardly managed better than a moderate walking pace. When the beaters lifted them downwind, they came low and fast in small groups and large packs; black shapes rushing against blue snow.
It was an odd experience to hear the boom of my shotgun as little more than a metallic “tap” – the bangs were being blown away downwind. Several birds rushed past me unscathed, and I started to wonder if my tiny little bangs were the product of joke cartridges. Mercifully, I connected at last and pulled the downy trousers off an old black cock bird. The falling shape and the scattered feathers vanished immediately into the wind, but I had discovered that these buzzing meteors were mortal.
In the calm after the storm, a neighbouring Gun began to look for a picker-up, and I offered the services of my young black labrador. Scoop was thrilled to be of use – she bounded through the snow and quickly found a small fan of blood where a bird had fallen. Wagging her tail madly, she began to follow a trail through the heather and then pounced wildly into a tussock of frozen grass. Rather than reappear with a grouse, she pulled a large and sullen rabbit out of the snow, which she then brought back to me proudly. Thankfully there were not many people watching, and I killed the rabbit and put it away before taking her back to the blood and starting her again. This time she did me proud, running straight off a few yards out and picking the grouse cock which had buried itself under the snow. Without a dog, I doubt that we would ever have found him.
The grouse were being quite unpredictable in the snow. I watched a pack of 60 birds land on a bank of white which had been polished as smooth as glass with ice. The hardy little figures bent their heads down into the spindrift and slithered back the way they had come through tufts of black heather. On the last drive before lunch, a party of six golden plover came past my butt like a bolt of lightning. They were gone before I had even tried to raise my gun.
We spent the afternoon shooting pheasants on a fantastic drive over a broad river where Scoop was again called upon to retrieve, this time from a swirling pool beneath a waterfall. I realised on the drive home that I was actually more satisfied by her finding the fallen grouse than I was by shooting a bird of my own. The season closed two days later, but memories of that tough, bitter day endure far beyond the more idyllic August fare of pollen and sunshine.