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A day on the moor for walked-up grouse

For Lindsay Waddell, a walked-up grouse day in the South Lakes is as good as life gets

walked-up grouse day

It was a fine, fresh morning when Simon Philips and his sons, Ben and Ollie, met their friends in the village for a walked-up grouse day. Although it was pleasant in the shelter of their home, I had a feeling, looking at the movement on the trees in the churchyard, that we were in for a challenging day once we hit the heights of Claybogs, the beat we were to walk. My thoughts were realised once we reached the track car park at around 1,800ft, where, given the clarity of the atmosphere, we could see for miles out to the east coast and well over into the peaks of the South Lakes. It was a great day to be in nature, but with the brisk north wind and distinctly autumnal feel, not the easiest walked-up grouse day at altitude.

Andrew Hyslop, the headkeeper, delivered a safety briefing to the Guns before we lined out over the crest of the hill, looking towards even higher ground. Safety is paramount on a walked-up grouse day, as it is all too easy to get a bend in the line and any bird that goes back or down the line then becomes an unsafe shot. With our gamebags on and Guns’ pockets stocked with cartridges, the line set off. Pretty much straight away it was obvious that many of the grouse were not for sitting around, instead lifting at the maximum distance for a decent chance of a shot. (Read your essential guide to walked-up grouse shooting.)

Andrew Hyslop picking up

Walked-up grouse day

With a cheek wind we proceeded in line, with the odd salute producing nothing until we reached slightly more sheltered ground and the first bird or two were dropped. In front of us, the Claybogs beat was laid out with the top end of the line crossing a good, long bank and the bottom end, where I was stationed along with the lower Guns, on the flatter ground. The grouse were sitting better here and Ollie dropped a few in succession, including a nice right-and-left out of a good covey. We had changed direction a little and we were now walking straight into the wind. My eyes watered profusely in the gale. We wandered slowly onwards, trying to keep a safe line as Guns and pickers-up crossed numerous peat gullies.

My little cocker, Jet, was kept busy now and again as another bird or two came to hand, and the line was paused as the other pickers-up or I had to leave it to pick a bird. Some were not easy, as the ban on burning has meant there is rather a lot of quite long heather now — good marking was essential. Cutting heather at altitude with poor ground conditions means that, without burning, such areas are inevitable. Sophia Philips, who had come for the day’s walk with the family, obviously had a good botanical eye and I was tasked a few times to answer questions on the plants she was seeing. It was interesting to note that, even at altitude, some of the dwarf shrubs have done what a few of our garden flowers have, producing flowers completely out of season. Some had even produced a few ripe berries.

walked-up grouse day

Ollie Phillips takes a lovely long quartering bird

Moorland management

It was also noted that there is far more diversity on the burned patches, which had been done before the ban, than in the old, rank stands of heather. Sphagnum moss and a host of other plants were in abundance on the old fires, compared with the understory in the very mature heather. Those who are against proper moorland management should take note, though there is such misinformation regarding burning, I doubt if they will. Although we were working into the wind, the grouse weren’t hanging around. A good percentage were simply outdoing the Guns as they slid in the wind, with quite often a bit of curl in the flight. We reached the end of the bank at the head of the beck and decided on a short break to refuel and restock. Gamebags were emptied and eight brace of hard-earned birds were placed in the tray on the front of the Argocat to cool in the breeze.

walked-up grouse day

Ollie the spaniel retrieves a grouse from the heather


The pies and sausage rolls seemed to go down well and, as we had reached our furthest point, we turned around and relined to take a beat back down the edge of a large ghyll. The younger members of the team were positioned on the bankside, out of my view, and in some less-than-easy going. There were a few fusillades of shots and the radio crackled into life periodically to ask us to stand while a bird was retrieved. The wind was now at our backs and any bird that jumped at distance soon made the gap impossible for a shot, but we kept adding the odd bird as we approached the butts, where we were joined by the Argocat carrying our lunch. (Read what to wear grouse shooting.)

With another load removed from our shoulders and into the tray, we had accounted for 15 brace. Since the team were only looking for a bag of 25 brace, we were going along quite nicely, but the break was appreciated by everyone. We regrouped for the final stretch with a similar set-out in the line, with the younger members still in the lower part of the gully. A roe came out into the open, the flash of its white rump revealing its presence. Clearly disturbed from its sheltered lie in the ghyll, it made its way out into some hags above us.

walked-up grouse day

Andrew Ballingal quickly gets his side-by-side to his shoulder


One or two more grouse were added to the tally and, while I was marking one bird, another collapsed well in front. Thankfully, realising it was hit, fellow picker-up Paul had watched it and marked it down. As it was too far in front, we left it until the line reached the area, when it was picked by Paul himself. It was well marked for the distance and it really emphasised the importance of keeping an eye on anything touched, as it may drop. More botany queries — including a note of micro-moth caterpillars feeding on the seeds of both hard and soft rush seed heads — all added to the day. We reached the wall marking the boundary between Claybogs and Monk’s Moor. The neighbouring beat is a relic from the days when most land was owned by the church, long before Henry VIII destroyed the power of the Catholic church and the monasteries lost their land holdings.

Just before the line swung uphill, a grouse lifted behind the lower end and, going at speed, quite simply outpaced the lower Guns to fly another day; although it did give more than half the line the chance of a shot. I am sure the young Guns were pleased as they left the gulley edge; our line now had a side wind and an easier walk as we headed back to the vehicles, still around a mile off. However, we were heading back to higher ground where the birds were a little more touchy. Just before we climbed the hill, Andrew took pity on the elderly game carrier and I got the chance to empty my few brace of grouse into the Argocat before the final part of the day.

Keeper and spaniel on moor

Paul Walton and Ollie the spaniel in action

Walked-up birds are not easy

Out on to the top, with the view of the South Lakes, it wasn’t long before we sighted the vehicles and received the order to unload. If anyone says walked-up birds are easy, they should try a day in late September. With 26 brace accounted for, from a management point of view it was a job well done. A decent percentage were old birds that would never fly to the butts on a driven day. They are a legacy of the past year or so, when large numbers died due to poor heather condition and worm infestation. The survivors are not all well and are best removed.

shot grouse

While circumstances meant the quality of some grouse was poor, the moor produced an impressive haul for a tough day’s work