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A Welsh beacon for grouse

It is August 2005, and my pal Tony, with whom I share many happy days with rods, dogs and guns, and I are coming to the end of one of our regular telephone calls, the point when each of us checks what the other has been doing on the sporting front, or to plan our next foray together. ?Anything coming up?? asks Tony, thereby signalling the end of our conversation. ?Well,? I reply, trying to sound blasé, ?a day at the grouse tomorrow.?

?What? You lucky devil! Where?? But how are you going to get up north and back? You?re coming to the Dart with us the next day.? ?Not Scotland. Wales ? and driven grouse, too.? ?I don?t believe you. Grouse in Wales? No chance.?

Our telephone call went on longer than expected, as I told Tony of the efforts some friends have been making to re-establish driven grouse shooting in Wales. Exactly where this is happening I am not at liberty to say ? a condition of telling this tale ? but suffice it to say that it is in mid-Wales; from the highest point on a clear day one can see the Irish Sea to the west and deep into England to the east.

Despite Tony?s disbelief, grouse moors have existed in Wales in the past, especially in North Wales. The late Keith Erlandson wrote of what was perhaps Wales?s most prolific moor in the past: the Ruabon moor, near Wrexham, which enjoyed pre-war bags of 700 birds (the record was 1,671 in a day), while smaller moors to the south had walked-up days as late as the 1970s. Even in the 1990s, while walking in the Brecon Beacons, I have had occasional coveys erupt from beneath my feet, incongruous against the coal tips on the southern skyline.

The reasons for the demise of grouse are well documented and have much to do with the economics of upland estates, the huge increase in forestry, an equally large increase in sheep numbers, disease, predators that found sanctuary in the forests, and so on. In recent years, it has been rare on my upland walks not to see a variety of raptors. A peregrine is always a joy to see, but, like the frequently encountered hen harrier, does little to assist grouse survival.

The red kite, more of a scavenger, is now common and little owls not rare. Labour costs, too, have made the heavy keepering levels of a century ago wishful thinking and there is a likely decline in moor-management skills in Wales.

Growing grouse numbers

And yet it is possible that the tide may yet be turned. In mid-Wales, a dedicated group of country-loving friends who shoot ? it is important to stress that their priorities are that way round ? are making a difference. What a joy it was to visit their moor for the first time, and inspect the lines of traditional stone-built butts, heather-faced, that permit six separate drives, and to talk about plans for the future.

The syndicate is not in a position to employ a full-time keeper, though an adjacent lowground keeper is very helpful. Throughout the winter and early spring heather burning is a priority and daunting work for the volunteer workforce, which would be the first to admit there is some way to go before the moor takes on the immaculate patterns of Speyside. Access tracks have been improved, which has made provision of gritting points easier. Strange as it may seem for upland Wales, the moor can become very dry after even a short time without rain, and scattered watering points have been created.

The great problem of foxes is addressed not on the moor but in the adjoining valleys, where they are shown little mercy. Eighty-nine were shot in the valley to the east last year.

Grouse counts take place in the spring to try to establish the number of breeding pairs, and once more in July to see what numbers may have bred successfully. Both counts are usually done with the help of pointers and the final estimates extrapolated from sample surveys. Average spring pair density hovers around 10 pairs per square kilometre, about half that reckoned to be needed for commercial grouse moors and some way below the 40 pairs on the best shoots. The shoot captain speaks plainly when it comes to the number to be shot on the driven days. If marksmanship has not been equal to opportunity there may be a late season foray to thin out older birds by walking up, sometimes with pointers.

Beaters and specialist dog-men travel from far and wide for the unique experience of grouse in the southern half of the UK. As it is Wales there is no shortage of spaniels, field trial champions alongside non-agoraphobics such as mine. All, of course, are unpaid and delighted to be part of this rare experience, and all warming to the shoot captain?s enthusiasm and determination to resurrect driven grouse shooting in Wales.

?Well, why not?? he asks. ?We?ve got game books going back more than 100 years and though we?ll probably never get back to those sort of numbers, we can still have a marvellous day in spectacular surroundings and everybody will remember everything they?ve shot. What more do you want?? Quite.

During the syndicate?s first year they allowed themselves one walked-up day, to which I was invited as a guest. After a day of walking through tall heather beneath an unrelenting monsoon, the bag came to seven brace and I had shot my first grouse. Each year subsequently has developed a familiar pattern.

Opening day

?Cadwch lawr. Dim yn hir nawr.? Stay down. Not long now. It is opening day 2005, and the words, half whispered in his soft Welsh brogue, come from my host, who is doing his best to become invisible, motionless in his grouse butt 30 yards to my left. Calling the pallet stuffed with sprigs of heather supported on two stakes a butt is hyperbole; mine is no different, but if it offers as much concealment as my host?s, especially with a low peat ridge behind us for background, I am confident we won?t be seen until it is too late. To my right is another crouched figure, in a proper butt this time, and beyond him a fourth, until the slope falls away into dead ground where others are waiting.

In front of us is a rolling expanse of purple heather, some of it burned by hard graft in the spring, yet looking lost in the midst of a purple haze stretching to the horizon. On that horizon pinprick figures can be seen, a picket fence of them vanishing into undulations before appearing again, each time infinitesimally larger. Occasionally there comes a brief wink of white as a beater?s flag catches the sun. ?Not long now,? I remind myself and hiss at the spaniels to be still if they want any work in the near future. Flies darting across my vision cause me to stiffen in anticipation, before relaxing again, still watchful. A flock of small birds skips from one heather clump to the next towards me. No, indeed: dim yn hir nawr.

Then, from nowhere, low and fast-moving, swinging diagonally right-to-left, a small covey of grouse. Where did they come from? No time to think. Gun up, choose a bird, swing, pull the trigger, watch it tumble in a ball of feathers 20 yards in front and swing to the next. My host is moving into my line of vision, sensed more than seen. I raise the barrels and take the gun from my shoulder as two quick shots come from him.

There is a silence and stillness as though nothing has happened and I am again crouching behind my pallet, eyes glued to the horizon in front and registering that those human figures are almost in range. Another covey, larger, slanting left-to-right this time, out of range for me and heading straight for John. I look to my right and see him bent over, fondling his spaniel?s ear, oblivious. I shout ? ?Forward!? ? too late for John, but a warning for Ed, who tumbles one and hits another, which glides away to where a picker-up is waiting.

The horn sounds and we stand up, unload, relax and suddenly there are spaniels everywhere. I whistle mine, which has set off in the wrong direction. She stops, turns and is soon back with the first grouse of the day; my host has another, Ed a third and, in the distance, the picker-up holds Ed?s second aloft in triumph. We gather on a low knoll, admire the grouse and give John stick for being fast asleep and missing his chance at a covey that gets larger with each telling.

?Must have been 20 birds at least, straight in front.? ?No, more like 25, straight over the top of you, John bach. ?John defends himself as forensically as only
a consultant can and changes the subject to point out that if we look carefully we can see the Irish Sea to the west.

We change butts for the reverse drive, one that becomes mixed up with a herd of wild ponies and a flock of equally wild sheep. The bag creeps up before we re-assemble at the armada of 4x4s parked nose down and out of sight. ?We lost them one year; the cloud came down and it took us ages.? In today?s cloudless sky it is hard to believe, but I can remember times when the day has had to be abandoned before lunch and we?ve barely got off the hill.

At lunch the dogs are watered, before lolling, panting, in the shade of the vehicles. It takes the scent of food to bring them scavenging. Feasts appear from all sides: an entire beef Wellington here, a huge leg of cold pork there, to the cry of ?Reared it myself ? try some.? A big sewin, complete with dill sauce: ?Caught it two nights ago on the Tywi on that fly you gave me last
year ? haven?t got any more, have you??

We eat, we drink; we exchange banter and the gossip that is the life-blood of
rural communities everywhere. On such a glorious day we would all have liked to linger indefinitely, but our host is soon on the move, briefing beaters, Guns and pickers-up. Stiff limbs are urged into action and off we go, some beaters already diminishing figures, departing to take in a distant swathe of ground. The rest of us lurch and tip along hypothetical tracks towards the next drive.

I fear I let the side down badly: a covey comes towards me; I see them well in front and have plenty of time, but as I move they see me and swing into my right ? in-range, straightforward, comfortable shots. My eye is wiped consummately by my neighbour, however, who brings off a right-and-left. Banging elsewhere tells me of others in the action as well. I am cursing myself when the beaters arrive and, barely stopping, walk through for the return drive.

This time I am second from the right and, like my neighbour, almost clinging to my butt, which is like a pulpit perched halfway down a precipice. In the late-afternoon warmth I begin to doze until my reverie is broken by a fusillade to my left. Wide awake I stare uphill, only to duck involuntarily as, literally coming through the heather above the stonework of my butt, a large covey brushes my hair with astonishingly loud wings. Culpably, I don?t even get off a shot behind. I pay for it later, of course, as John delights in telling me. ?At least 25, Phil bach ? straight over the top of you.?Touché.