Your failings may be on public view and the bag may not be huge, but there’s an inescapable charm to walked-up grouse-shooting, says Blue Zulu
Tramping across heather is mesmeric. One step, another; one step, another. Horizons and granite grab the gaze and it’s hard to focus on the small, be it a flutter of brown as a meadow pipit rises or the red of carnivorous sundews awaiting the next midge to err from the safety of the nearby crusted peat. And then comes the explosion, the heart-stopping sight, the blackness of birds materialising from nowhere — the grouse.
I first bumped into them on Dartmoor. Like many West Country boys, we’d somehow been volunteered into Ten Tors, a 35-mile yomp across the heart of the moor, into a no-man’s-land of white grass, mire and heather peopled only by sheep and their bones, the green-and-white horned skulls testament to the foolishness of falling into streams.
The glorious grouse of the Twelfth
Of course, we knew about grouse, the glorious grouse of the Twelfth, double Guns, keepers in plus-fours and aristocrats cosseting Purdeys. We just hadn’t seen one. They were the blue-blood game birds of Scotland and the north, whereas our own moors were home to golden plover and curlew.
And yet here they were, a covey of nine thrusting forwards towards a tor, an imaginary right-and-left falling neatly to an outstretched stick. They were the great-great-great and so-ons of the birds released at the beginning of the 19th century, when someone had the jolly idea of the Duke of Cornwall being able to pot grouse in the Duchy. Somehow, despite ravens, crows, hooky beaks and foxes, they have survived; a Ministry of Defence survey carried out in 2006 on the north moor ranges estimated that there were 27 pairs there and a total population of 46 pairs on Dartmoor.
At my next meeting with the grouse, I was also unarmed. I’d been taken on as “assistant keeper” before heading to university, a grand title for someone mostly scything riverbanks and setting Fenn traps. With no predator ground or heather burning on the hill, the grouse population was barely surviving, but an ideal spring and summer had convinced the keeper that a family day was possible for theTwelfth.
We duly turned out, the family armed with inherited guns but diluted genes — the ardent sportsmanship that had persuaded Great-grandfather to buy the estate had been dissipated by successive heirs’ fondness for less tweedy pursuits.
My job, as the boy, was to swing the line round the axis of the keeper, moored to the other end of the line puffing his pipe, and scuttle down to collect any fallen birds gathered by the two dog men. The latter wasn’t arduous, as most of the grouse were as wild as mustangs, accelerating out of trouble the moment they were spotted, and the younger birds that did sit well were usually missed, the Guns’ attention having wandered yet again, so that they were taken utterly by surprise.
Every second is heavy with expectation
Therein lies the charm of walked-up grouse-shooting: every second is heavy with expectation, or should be. A friend sent me a photo of us combing the moors a few years ago, and all of us have mentally fixed bayonets, a breeked version of Dad’s Army on patrol — eyes front, guns held firmly in both hands, dressing the line constantly to avoid missing that oh-so-easy bird because a laggard had made a safe shot behind impossible.
As a result of their peregrine-sharp focus, my friends tend to be quick off the draw — which is marvellous if they’re a good 45 yards from you, but frustrating if they’re closer, as these Wild Bill Hickoks will drop a brace of grouse before the slower shots have mounted their guns.
After a few experiences of watching “their” birds being tumbled, the slow coaches either concentrate properly or, if they’re not controlled, start walking faster — and faster — until they’re scooting over the mountainside with the pace of Olympic race walkers, buttocks twitching like a badger in a tweed sack, as they try to beat the hot shots to the promising patches of heather.
Some of my more savage keeper friends, being greyhound-fit, permit this wacky racing to continue for a while, especially if the weather’s hot, and then call a halt before someone pink and overweight suffers a heart attack. The old hands know that rushing a moor never works for anyone. So often a grouse will rise 15 yards behind you, a bird that was so close that it practically bears your boot-print. And when a pack does rise in front, so long as it’s not at the edge of range, two considered shots are more effective than a frantic double rap —and there’s time to single out the old stagers from the cheepers. Sometimes, though, there are unexpected consequences: an old friend was careful to select the leading pair of a covey of six that had decided to swing down the line, knowing that they were likely to be the ancients. But his Holland & Holland was innocent of choke and he killed the entire covey with two shots, earning him the accolade of “the greedy git” for the remainder of the day.
And that’s an inescapable aspect of walked-up grouse: it’s very public. Everyone can see each other’s triumphs and disasters, as there’s nowhere to hide in half a mile of glen. There’s time to watch the spaniels quarter and retrieve after every shot, time to absorb the full majesty of the moors dressed in imperial purple.
Of course, bags are seldom heavy, with a whole team’s daily bag frequently matching the tally taken by a single Gun on one drive in a bountiful season on a crack moor. The shooting, too, is not as testing as that on a driven day (especially late in the season, when the grouse are black brutes that dismiss your efforts with a nonchalant twitch of their pinions). But there’s a charm about walked-up sport that calls the most seasoned of Guns back to this less prolific game. Even with the grandest of moors, there’s a lull between drives, a period for chatting and relaxation. But with walked-up, done properly, there’s no chance for idling, just that step by careful step towards an explosion of birds, the thrill of a shot and a chance of glory.