Raby Castle in County Durham is a mecca for enthusiasts of all kinds, whether it’s outdoor theatre, music, orchids, vintage vehicles or country sports.
Originally built by early members of the Neville dynasty in the 12th century, today’s magnificent 14th century structure is still the private home of its current owner and custodian, Lord Barnard.
The Raby estate takes entertaining visitors in its stride all year round but August holds a special anticipation, heralding the start of a new grouse shooting season.
The 11th baron may be a descendant of the Nevilles but perhaps more importantly for fieldsports he’s also vice-president of the GWCT.
This means that grouse shooting prospers.
The emphasis is on wild birds too, which at Raby leads us inescapably to the moors of Upper Teesdale and the domain of headkeeper Lindsay Waddell.
Grouse shooting at Raby, County Durham, is hard and fast.
The Raby grouse moors on the Upper Teesdale estate extend to about 30,000 acres.
One of the highest moors in the country, rising from 1,200 to 2,200ft, it has a frighteningly high rainfall – about 80 inches a year – but thanks to Lindsay and his team of four beatkeepers the grouse prosper.
Part of a National Nature Reserve, the moor is recognised by SSSI status and European SPA and SAC designations – a good lesson for those who fail to see the value of well-managed moorland.
The team out on this day last season were, with one honourable exception, not only experienced grouse shots but ones who knew the estate well.
“I’ve shot here for years and love the place,” said leader Nick Knight. “The remarkable thing about this particular day is that I bought it during an GWCT dinner and auction at Le Gavroche.”
As the team gathered the weather looked promising, despite Teesdale’s ominous history of rainfall.
Several had already been out to get rusty swings loosened up and the only debate was just how well they would fare.
“Should be a good bag looking at the team,” said Chris Makin, a self-confessed grouse addict (and something of a grouse magnet as I was to find out soon enough).
Host for the day Nick Knight (left) and headkeeper Lindsay Waddell survey the scene.
Heading out in the sunshine to the first drive Lindsay warned me that Manor Ghyll, on the eastern end of the moor, wasn’t a drive chosen to ease the guns in to their day gently.
“They wouldn’t thank me for easy grouse shooting. It’s among our best drives, high birds as well as the fast low birds that you’d expect. Absolutely wicked!”
Tucked in as instructed just below the top of the ghyll (or gill as it’s sometimes known in Northumberland), I had a grandstand view of Lord Hopetoun on the skyline and guns lined down the slope.
After a few shots from guns hidden over the crest our birds swept in, and they were set against a purple backcloth on the other side of the valley.
It was a dramatic curtain-raiser.
The second drive, Hudeshope Butts, also perches on a valley side.
The ramrod straight stone butts there were built by Lindsay’s team recently because it’s what he described as a ‘reconsidered’ drive.
It’s now taken the opposite way due to a boundary change.
Nick was delighted with the way the birds were flying as guns joined in with pickers-up and loaders searching the shorter heather for what was becoming an increasingly respectable bag.
Richard Simpson in the thick of it during the final drive of the day.
Warm barrels in the bright sunshine
The last drive before lunch was a reverse to Manor Ghyll.
This time I stood on the flat moor top with Ed Morris, a seasoned pheasant shot on his first driven grouse day.
Drawn next to Nick, he was immensely pleased just to be there before the potato harvest called him back to Herefordshire.
After a relatively short but productive drive Ed explained just how much a good loader helps – Bollihope keeper David Renton was aiding him so he was in good hands.
“We might have 50 or 60 pheasant days down my way during the season,” said Ed, “but this is totally different.”
After lunch and at the Dry Dam drive I joined Gerwyn Jones and his loader, Will Ingham, tucked low on a platform on the side of the old dam wall.
We were initially spectators, and we watched distant coveys disappear left and right offering our neighbours good sport.
Loader Will Ingham.
Suddenly we were in business too, birds heading straight for us a foot off the heather.
Fortunately, the platform offered good grouse shooting to the rear as the ground dropped away behind us.
The birds were clearly forsaking the left-hand guns who had done so well early on and were trying to escape past us, but Gerwyn was having none of it, his barrels soon scorching hot in the afternoon sunshine.
I joined Chris Makin for Dusty Ghyll, the last drive of the day.
The new wooden butt sat atop the short heather carpet on a flat moor so concealment was crucial, but Chris’s ‘grouse magnetism’ worked and his new pair of 20 bores were well christened.
When the coveys weren’t offering long left to right crossers they headed straight at us, bursting like star shot at the last second over our heads.
It was a superb drive, offering the unique adrenaline fuelled excitement which driven grouse shooting heaps on the fortunate.
The most sporting of quarry in the most magnificent surroundings.
One hell of a day!
As we headed down the hill I was aware that the early bag predictions were seriously adrift, but this had been a day when opportunities were presented by a plentiful stock of well-driven birds and the team rose to the occasion.
The count confirmed it at 265 brace.
Those good stocks had been achieved by a serious investment of time and skill.
Like many places, the Upper Teesdale estate moors have suffered major fluctuations in the past, and since he joined as headkeeper in 1976 Lindsay has experienced major cycles of feast and famine.
Medicated grit has been a major help in recent years and he’s quietly confident that the cycles have been reduced if not eradicated.
He should know, as chairman of the National Gamekeepers Organisation he’s in touch with keepers around the country.
But Raby is also helped by being in one of the country’s main ‘islands’ of grouse moors that are well cared for – Teesdale boasts an estimated 30-40 gamekeepers alone.
The success of Raby is down to the dedication of the keepering and management team.
So, Lord Barnard’s desire to see the team enjoy a good day had been satisfied.
What was Nick Knight’s verdict on his auction purchase? “Absolutely magnificent! We’d persuaded the estate to sell us a second day back-to-back with this as an insurance against poor weather, but we were blessed with five lovely drives in ideal conditions.”
And how did the ‘first timer’ Ed Morris feel?
“One hell of a day, one in a million! I’m just pleased that I held my corner for a Herefordshire farmer.”
I was aware the pressure had been on Lindsay because this wasn’t a conventional commercial day, but as he summed it up afterwards:
“Some days they go and some they don’t. His Lordship obviously expected us to try and give the team a good a day, but the weather and the birds have to co-operate with the best laid plans!”
For more information about shooting opportunities at Raby contact Mr Greensides on 01833 640209.