?Horse of the woods? ? that is what capercaillie means in old Gaelic. What ought to be our largest gamebird just missed out as, at the time of the 1831 Game Act, it was extinct in the UK. My old friend the late Arthur Cadman reported feats of capercaillie shooting with his 20-bore. He bagged four rights-and-lefts followed by a run of singletons. He paused and added ruminatively, ?Of course, you don?t see so many of them about nowadays.? Now I wonder why that might have been? It lived in poor parts of Britain in pine forests and hungry locals found it easy enough to shoot or snare.
I have never eaten one but am told that it tastes like pine needles boiled in turpentine, though I have also heard that it can eat well enough as long as you remove the crop immediately. It became extinct in England in about 1665, and the last Scottish one was shot on Deeside in 1785, the Irish population dying out a couple of years later.
So much is not in dispute but if you really want to annoy a Scottish shooting man ask him about the reintroduction of the bird with stock from Sweden. He will swell his chest and rise to his full height stating that Lord Breadalbane imported a flock to his estate on Tayside. In his otherwise excellent Sporting Birds of the British Isles, Brian Martin confirms it: The largest introduction was made by Lord Breadalbane at Taymouth Castle? in 1937 to 1938.
This is your ?Clever-Dick? moment, for both are wrong and the Scot will become mightily vexed with you for telling him so. The bird was indeed reintroduced on Lord Breadalbane?s Perthshire estate 170 years ago with no credit to him but to a Norfolk squire and his Irish keeper. Thanks to that and later introductions there is now a healthy breeding population and in remnants of the old Caledonian Forest there was a density of 17 to 20 birds per square kilometre.
Cue The Banville Diaries: Journals of a Norfolk Gamekeeper, 1822 to 1844, the fascinating journals of a Norfolk keeper, Larry Banville, covering his life from 1822 to 1844. A keeper friend recommended it and even found me a copy on the ubiquitous eBay.
The hardships, the walks from Norfolk to Scotland with the dogs, sleeping rough and waking covered in snow, being made to go shooting in weather not fit for a dog ? it was a tough life. Often he slept in straw in an open shed in January, his clothes soaked with rain and nothing in his belly. Larry came into the employ of Thomas Fowell Buxton MP, of North Norfolk, a humanitarian and pillar of the anti-slavery movement.
He, his master and his master?s friends walked the rough Norfolk manors shooting mostly snipe and grey partridges with the odd hare, deer, mallard or woodcock. Larry was a good shot if his own statistics are to be believed ? so even in those days there were sad sportsmen obsessed with their kills to shots ratio. One summer Mr Buxton and Larry enjoyed generous hospitality at the home of Lord Breadalbane, and as a thank you Buxton sent Larry to Sweden to catch and import enough wild caper to reintroduce the species on to his friend?s estate. Spasmodic attempts had been made but failed for one reason or another.
The last one in the Cromer woods, a male, was shot ?by accident?. Thus it was that in the spring of 1837 Larry sowed his vegetable garden, bought six shillings worth of fishing tackle, a hat and coat, and left home on 30 March. He travelled via Norwich where the women and children looked most miserable and sailed next day downriver to Harwich ? his fare was five shillings and sixpence for him and his dog. He embarked for Scandinavia and, a dreadful sailor, was violently ill for the entire trip. His only amusement was showing a fellow passenger the best way of worming dogs. News of his arrival preceded him and several caper were waiting, word having gone out that birds were required. The captives were kept in a holding shed but there was comment about the number of fir boughs being cut for their food. They were also fed turnip tops and barley and white peas and drinks of water.
Workmen were employed to make coops 6ft long and 3ft wide, with a compartment so that each captive could be isolated while the coop was cleaned. Larry was scrupulous with his hygiene. The birds fought each other at random, cocks and hens, they cared not; one was killed and another had its wing broken much to Larry?s dismay. He set clumps of boughs to reduce daylight and made water troughs from hollowed out alder boughs, making life as natural as possible. He kept a good supply of sawdust underfoot, giving the chaps at the sawmill a bottle of brandy for their help. He checked his charges at dawn each day ? I am at their tails each morning at about five sometimes as I will get up to see if it is all right with them sometimes at 4 o?clock, but I must say I do not hold in disturbing them so often. I left a hen with the cock, they fought and she bled a good deal in the wings.
He bought a fine tame cock for £5 but Larry reckoned that by the time it got to Scotland it would have cost Mr Buxton almost £200 ?to do it well. What a lot of money to spend on the great birds? Larry passed his spare time fishing and caught salmon up to 20lb, pike, sea trout and perch by net, spear, rod and line and ?burning the water?, the old Scottish method.
At other times he prepared the skins of birds for the collection of the young masters at home. His specimens included a red-throated diver, a plover, a black duck, a blackcap, two treecreepers, two black woodpeckers and others including the star attraction, a great owl of the forest, probably a European eagle owl.
By now he had 11 cocks and 14 hens ready for the journey and arranged the coops on
the dock so he could walk between them. He found one hen eaten by rats, more distress and there being no traps to hand he laid poison. People kept coming to gawp at the collection so he erected a hessian screen to keep the birds calm. They journeyed as well as could be expected on a smooth passage but there were some fights, so that I thought they would kill one another? the coops was all full of feathers and spotted with blood? They sailed from Gothenburg to Hull and thence to Dundee, where he landed on 22 June.
Interestingly to Northumbrians, he sailed on the ship Forfarshire later wrecked on the Farne Islands when Grace Darling carried out her heroic single-handed rescue. Larry?s arrival was a sensation, reported in the local paper, and many gentry came to see the birds. He was annoyed to find that at Taymouth Castle no arrangements had been made to receive his precious charges. He got willing men from the sawmill working to make an enclosure, observing, A few shillings worth of whisky will do wonders in the North.Years later a pair of capercaillie was sent to Prince Albert, who had shot some on a trip north. Larry delivered them to Windsor and was horrified at the cramped conditions in which HRH kept his sporting dogs.
Ten years later, Larry reported, The capercaillie doing well at Taymouth and abound in great numbers? A man can easily see 40 or 50 broods in a day? none are being shot? They have a great many in the woods at Dunkeld. The last survivor of the batch sent to Prince Albert was an old cock, which died in Norfolk with a fir cone stuck in its throat due to a collar fitted to show its provenance.
So that is how the ?horse of the woods? was brought back to Scotland, thanks to a Norfolk squire and his keeper, and not the Scottish nobleman who is wrongly credited with the project. Do not let any Scotsman tell you different and remember that you saw it first in Shooting Times. As for the current status and future prospects of this magnificent bird, that is a tale for another day.
Acknowledgement: The Banville Diaries: Journals of a Norfolk Gamekeeper, 1822 to 1844, edited by Norma Virgoe and Susan Yaxley.