Nimrod tells a tale of his first driven grouse shooting trip in Yorkshire, England
The short trip northwards that morning along the A1 from the English town of York was hampered somewhat by a combination of fog and road works. Gary's decision of the previous evening to leave an hour earlier that morning than necessary for the forty odd mile trip to quaint village of Richmond, proved to be a wise one. Eventually the traffic eased and the slip road for Catterick and Richmond beckoned our trio towards the rolling north Yorkshire dales and, for Neil and I, our first experience at driven grouse shooting
Pausing for a breather on the way to the first set of butts, I looked back along the valley to where our vehicles sat as coloured dots in the distant, gravel car park. The sunlight transformed the grey, misty moor that had greeted us to a patchwork of purple, greens and browns, interspersed with limestone walls reaching out into the distance landscape. Ahead of me, the rest of the guns meandered their way along a sheep path, then through light rush to the low wall where white-painted numbers on the stonework indicated the local of the grouse shooting butt.
I was grateful for the respite offered by the sight of the number three painted on the wall of the butt. The hill, whilst not in itself that taxing, had the added discomfort of small valleys, streams and waist high rush. My shirt stuck to the sweat on my back as I leaned over the limestone wall, resting my gun arm on the carpet of heathery turf placed on the topmost flat stone. Not the type of grouse butt that I had envisaged, but then the classic stone and turf butt depicted in the pages of glossy, coffee table, shooting publications are not always representative of the real world.
The Briefing and a Stiff Drink
Sat in the lounge of his home on the previous evening, enjoying a dram of Irish whiskey along with me, Gary, our host for the weekend, ran my son, Neil and I through the basics of classic driven grouse shooting. Grouse, he said, will usually hug the contours of the moor and will rarely lift more than a dozen feet of the deck. The secret to shooting driven grouse, he reckoned, was to pick up the pack of incoming birds early, choose and individual and be prepared to mount when the target is about seventy yards out. By the time the gun is mounted the birds are at fifty yards. According to Gary, only experienced grouse shots can consistently kill two in front so it is much better to pick a bird and concentrate on it. He said to soot at thirty to forty yards, thus allowing the bird to advance into the shot pattern. The second shot should be taken by lifting the gun to high port, pivoting around, always ensuring that the muzzles of the shotgun do not cross the line of shooters, and then take the second bird behind. Try, he said, to mark the kills for the pickers up. That is always done after and not during the drive. Neil glanced in my direction. His cheesy smile said it all.
Beaters appeared on top of the hill in front, perhaps half a mile from the line of guns. Mere specks to start with, their shapes became clearer as they advance in line through the knee high heather. In the centre was the shoot captain with his red flag. On each end of the line of beaters were the flankers, with yellow flags. Between these, the remainder of the beaters carried white flags with two walking guns in their company. The beating line was organised with military precision and, as it moved ever closed towards me, a cocktail of anticipation, uncertainty and excitement flooded my thoughts.
With the beaters still many hundred of yards away I heard the first grouse. "Go-bak, go-bak, go-bak" resonated across the moor as a pack of grouse lifted. They did indeed hug the contours of the moor, dropping onto the heathery carpet again some ninety yards in front of butts numbers two, three and four. The beaters' advance was relentless, resulting in the inevitable explosion of another pack of between six and ten birds out to my right. They called and flapped frantically for a second or two then set their wings before lifting in front of the stone wall and the awaiting guns. Shots rang out, birds fell and guns pivoted. More shots, a flurry of feathers and more birds on the heather. My turn next? Perhaps!
I heard grouse calling again and, as if in slow motion, I watched four birds lift from where they had dropped in several minutes earlier. "Pick and bird and concentrate on it." Gary's words of the previous evening echoed in my head. Easier said than done!
Brown shapes came racing towards me at an unbelievable speed. They were just feet off the ground. There was no way I could even imaging shooting a bird in front. My reaction time was not in the same league as that of the grouse. I lifted my gun vertically, pivoted, and fired off two quick shots at a rapidly disappearing brown shape.
Three sharp whistle blasts from the shoot captain signalled that birds could only be taken behind as by now the beaters were entering shotgun range. Some birds were shot to my left but no more came my way. A long, shrill whistle brought twenty-five minutes of sheer exhilaration to an end. Dogs were sent to pick up the fallen. My first grouse drive drew a blank.
The mist descended upon our party as we came off the first section of moor. Where only minutes earlier there had been bright sunshine, a cool, damp blanket engulfed us. It lifted as quickly as it had come down so that by the time the vehicles were reached, the rolling dales of North Yorkshire were once again exposed. It truly is a wonderful area of countryside and one which I can well believe, has and will continue to inspire writers who will catalogue with such passion its remote beauty and the warmth and hospitality of the dales folk. The four wheel drives took the guns to the next drive while the beaters regrouped for their next assault.
Drive number two produced birds for the high butt numbers. I had moved to number five and like John, the Yorkshire farmer in the butt beside me, did not fire a shot on this particular drive. We moved to the third drive and with this drive came my turn as one of the walking guns. Neil joined me for the walk along the edge of the moor to the "kicking off"point for the third drive. The scenery from the top of the mountain was spectacular. The purple and browns of the carpet of heather on the moor giving way to a green patchwork of pasture with small woods on the valley floor and, glinting in the distance, sunlight reflecting off the windscreens of traffic on the A66, the main Penrith to Scotch Corner road that is so often impassable with the winter snows. On that late September morning, however, none of us could contemplate the harshness of a moorland winter.
It was on the third drive where I exchanged my gun for Neil's white beaters' flag. He was then just eighteen years old, had acquired his first shotgun and had recently joined me in game and wildfowling syndicates at home. I have to say that I thoroughly enjoy his company and I take comfort in the fact that he has come into the sport and has turned out to be a fine and very safe shot. He took my gun with relish and his place in the beating line as a walking gun. I worked a setter in front the line of beaters as we dropped into a small valley, pushing as we moved forward, packs of grouse before us.
Neil's First Grouse
From my vantage point at the top of the small valley I could see most of the line of beaters but I paid particular attention to the figure in shirtsleeves wearing a wide brimmed hat. The hat he had conned out of me at the Midland Game Fair, held near Birmingham, the day before the grouse shoot. This, along with a pair of breeks, a cartridge bag and a waxed drover coat. Keeping company with one's eighteen-year-old son can be an expensive business!
As he and the rest of the beating line pushed forward, some birds rose and broke back between the beaters. I watched Neil lift the gun barrels straight into the air, turn and with his first barrel, kill a grouse breaking back. A classic movement, which proved that he had listened to Gary's safety advice about a gun crossing the line. Of course, from my lofty vantage point several hundred yards away and perhaps eighty feet above, I saw the bird fall before the noise of the shot reached me. I was delighted to see the bird retrieved to hand and him slip it into the game bag he carried. It was at that instant I realised that, at eighteen, he had shot his first grouse before his father! He has, in his own inimitable fashion, reminded me of that fact on several occasions since. That's gratitude for you!
The morning's last drive was alongside a plantation of conifers. I had now moved up to butt number nine for the drive. We moved two places each drive to ensure that all guns had at least one "hot spot" on the day. This should have been my "hot spot" according to Gary and, to an extent it was. I sat with my gun broken on top of the grouse butt and settled down to wait until the four-wheel drive vehicles ferried the beaters to the beginning of this drive. The forest block to my left concerned me a little and for a very good reason.
"Can I remind you gentlemen" said shoot captain Tony, at his pre-shoot briefing earlier in the day.
"There is a lec of black game in the plantation of conifers and we do not shoot black game on this shoot"
I knew the collective term for a pack of black game was a lec. I had never seen black game in the wild though and I thought to myself, that's interesting. Tony then went on to say;
"In past years we had a penalty for any gun who accidentally mistook a black cock or grey hen for a grouse. It used to be a magnum of Champagne but I understand that, with inflation, it is now a case of Champagne"
His words bounced around my brain for a moment as I worked out that even mediocre bottle of Champagne is about and that a case would set some unfortunate fellow back about 0.
Who was on butt nine for this drive?
Where was the conifer plantation with the lec of black game?
Answer... right beside me.
I asked the question of Gary after Tony's briefing, "What do black game look like in flight?"
"Oh, like a cross between a grouse and a pheasant" came Gary's reply "A bit like a menalistic pheasant without a tail"
Perhaps it was just me but that sounded very like a biggish grouse!
Did He or Didn't He?
Packs of grouse started to move on the moor in front of me as the beaters pushed further forward. Some dropped in again, others came over the line of guns. Three skimmed across the top of the heather at an angle of about forty-five degrees towards me. I could see them jinx and dodge between the contours of the land. I mounted, pushed off the safety and missed in front. I pulled into the bird as it crossed behind me and squeezed.
I cannot remember when I last had a misfire. That one, I felt certain, cost me a grouse!
More came towards me. Once again I missed in front. They really were so fast. I turned again and this time took it with the second barrel as it passed behind me. My first grouse and like Neil's, it too was retrieved. After more than twenty-five years of game shooting, one of my shooting ambitions had been achieved. The fact that my son had also shot his first grouse that day, was icing on the cake.
Two further drives in the afternoon and two more grouse fell to me, completed what was a memorable first day at driven grouse. I consider myself to be privileged to be invited onto such a fine grouse moor. It may not rate as one of the top moors in England but it certainly has all the ingredients to make members of that particular shooting syndicate, happy grouse shooters year after year.
We called into the Threshers Wine Shop in Richmond on our homeward journey. Neil stayed in the car with the guns and dogs while Gary and I explored the back section of that establishment where the racks of French wines were stacked.
Did I shoot the black game on the last of the morning drives? Was I in the wine shop to pay my penance in sparkling French wine from the Champagne region?
All I can say in defence is that the two bottles of 1996 Chateauneuf du Pape I bought were enjoyed by all at dinner that evening!