Driven grouse shooting is a sport of extremes. When it goes well there are few more exhilarating and enjoyable days available to the sporting gentleman. On days such as these, the great expense needed to create this spectacle seems entirely justified, but on others, when numbers crash and the moors are silent, the grouse addiction starts to become a costly habit. Imagine, therefore, the initial wave of disappointment felt by a client who to celebrate his 60th birthday, has invited his friends and family to a 50-brace driven grouse day on a Scottish moor with healthy bag returns for the past three years, only to arrive under a deluge of biblical proportions. This is how the day began at the end of August last year for Michael Fetherston- Dilkes party of Guns on the award-winning Lochindorb estate, north of the Cairngorms in the hills above the Moray Firth.
Beaters and pickers-up sheltered in their vehicles, dreading the command from headkeeper David Taylor to move out to the first drive as they watched the rain lash against their windscreens. To make matters worse, a strong breeze had picked up, causing the heavy droplets to fly horizontally into the eyes of anyone facing into it. The Guns were putting on a brave show of enthusiasm, but for several of the younger team members this was their first attempt at driven grouse and their repeated glances to the heavens revealed their frustration.
I joined picker-up Angus Begg on the first sodden drive, Glentarrach Flats. Now in his sixties, he has enjoyed a full career as a keeper in Perthshire and regularly comes north to Lochindorb, where his son Kevin works as Davids underkeeper. A bit of picking-up while Im here helps pay my fare north, Angus said, sheltering with his dogs near a peat hag several hundred yards behind the row of stone butts.
It wont be easy with both strong winds and rain, he said. Either on its own is manageable, but the two together becomes tricky. Its a test for the keepers as they wont be sure which way the birds are flying. Its also a test for the beaters, as they will have their heads down, making communication almost impossible. And then the Guns have the rain in their eyes and can get cold if nothing happens for a while. You do start to wonder why you bother sometimes. I waited optimistically for the but at the end of his sentence, as Angus pulled the storm collar of his jacket in tighter round his neck. But this wind will be our saviour today, he said, eventually. The weather can change in an instant in this part of the Highlands. I wouldnt be surprised if were complaining that its too hot by the end of the morning.
Sure enough, the rain clouds had departed over the hills by the time the beaters reached the Guns and were replaced by the welcome sight of clear blue skies. The waters of nearby Lochindorb appeared from the gloom and soon sparkled in the sunshine. In the middle of the loch we could see the ruins of the Wolfs Lair, a fortress built in the 14th century by the infamous Alexander Stewart, the Earl of Buchan, known as the Wolf of Badenoch.
Alasdair Laing, who owns and manages the shooting on Lochindorb, was in a buoyant mood, as we watched the action unfold on Glentarrach South and North drives, which were pushed in two directions to the same line of butts. The grouse darted over the Guns with some swooping low and jinking above the top of the heather, while others opted for altitude evasion, passing over the team like high pheasants. Everybody is more relaxed now, I think, he said, as we looked over a patchwork of thriving heather. The best heather or weather would have done little for this estate 15 years ago, however, when hardly a single red grouse could be heard clucking its warning cry in August. Louping ill, still the great scourge of grouse stocks in Scotland, had laid waste to the population on Lochindorb and the outlook had been bleak.
We were at our wits end, said Alasdair. During the 1970s, we witnessed the same peaks and troughs as other moors, but by the mid-1980s, the graph had crashed. We did whatever we could vermin control, heather burning, sheep dipping. Nothing worked. At our lowest ebb, we had bag returns of 16 brace for the whole year, with 80 per cent stock mortality before the season began.
In 1993, Lochindorb called for the help of the Game Conservancy Trust (GCT) whose scientists quickly confirmed the link between mountain hares on the estate and the spread of louping ill through parasitic ticks.
At only 1,500ft above sea level, we are too low for high numbers of deer, which can also act as hosts. We had long suspected that it might be the hares, so it was a relief to have evidence finally, explained Alasdair as a covey of 15 grouse was scattered by the two lowest butts. Two of their number tumbled down into the heather, where picker-up Jane Harriss sleek black Labradors were on hand to retrieve them.
Throughout the 1990s, the keepers followed the GCTs guidelines on reducing the tick burden. Slowly, their efforts were reflected in the number of grouse on the moor. For the past three years, the estate has achieved bags of 1,000 brace, making the shoot a shining beacon among many recent disheartening tales of grouse fortunes in Scotland. David and Kevins keepering efforts were further recognised by winning the coveted Purdey Award for Game and Conservation in 2008. The work we have done in the past decade has allowed us to be five years ahead of other estates, especially as far as the louping ill is concerned, Alasdair said. On a day like this, you realise that the hard work and investment was worth it.
As the Guns took some refreshment before driving along the hill road to their next post, the beaters scampered up the adjacent slope to begin driving the grouse forward. I lazily travelled with the Guns, instead of marching the hard yards with the team of flaggers, who were soon far away. The butts were lined steeply above one another on Hare Hill Screens, demanding a lungbusting hike to reach the top stands, where the strong wind attempted to knock me off my feet. It was no weather for loose-fitting hats.
I bunkered in with Michael who made himself at home positioning the white guidance posts and practising a few dry swings. He tossed a sprig of heather into the air to test the wind direction and speed and it flew back over his shoulder. This should be fun, he said, excitedly.
The skies were now clear of any cloud and Anguss prediction of overheating had proved true. I gladly stripped off another layer. Behind me, the Moray Firth was clearly visible in the distance with the Black Isle beyond. Speyside, with its malt whisky distilleries, was spread out in front. The first covey of the drive arrived uphill from Michael, cruising on the wind with their wings set. Take them early, the Gun reminded himself, stopping a pair with his right-and-left barrel. Such was the speed of the grouse that they landed in the heather 20 yards behind him. No sooner had he reloaded than the next pair arrived, though his son George was quick to account for them before they came in to range. When we arrived that morning, I didnt think we would be treated to this, Michael said. It doesnt get much better for the shooting man: driven grouse in wonderful scenery with your family and friends. I wish I could turn 60 again.