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The Wemmergill shoot

The red flag was flying, signalling that Warcop army ranges were in use as I drove across the border from Cumbria into County Durham. The bare “white ground” abruptly gave way to heather — a sure sign that I was now surrounded by managed grouse moor. After several more twisting miles of redbrown heather, I reached my destination.
Wemmergill is one of Britain’s most historic and prolific grouse moors, with shooting records that date back to 1843. Many rich, famous and blue-blooded gameshots have shot here, making the day’s line-up of Guns all the more intriguing. They were all personal guests of the owner, pub entrepreneur Michael Cannon, but were also all employed by him to look after his six sporting estates in England. This was going to be the first headkeeper’s day of its kind, and Mr Cannon’s chance to say thank you for all their hard work.
This was the 39th day of grouse shooting on the moor in 2008, despite the driving rain throughout August and September, and even driving snow in October. There were still plenty of birds — too many to leave over winter if the breeding stock was to remain healthy. Underlining the serious task of reducing the wild population through the day’s endeavours, I learned that some of the underkeepers in the beating line would also be carrying guns as they advanced towards the butts. With drives covering miles of grousnd, they would have plenty of opportunity, but I didn’t envy them carrying their guns and cartridges over the unforgiving terrain.
After a safety talk, we headed off under uncharacteristically clear blue skies. The convoy crawled its way far up on to Northside, the northern half of the estate. The strong and very cold westerly wind put paid to headkeeper John Pinkney’s plan to use some of the new lines of butts that have gone in since Mr Cannon took on the shooting rights in 2003. Instead, the first drive took us to Close House Down. The position of the butts may have been old hat, but each butt was entirely new, sunken, immaculately walled and beautifully topped, allowing it to blend in to the landscape. This standard of workmanship was to become a familiar feature of the day.
In number five, I stood with John Hall, headkeeper of Southside at Wemmergill, who was trying out a 1976 sidelock Beretta SO4. Before long, a whistle sounded, which alerted the Guns that grouse were coming. And come they did, hurtling like rockets with the wind behind them, camouflaged against the background. If John didn’t spot them as soon as they broke his horizon, there was no time to get his gun up before they flashed past to the left or right, hugging the heather. John took a beautiful single bird way out in front and then picked another out of a small pack. The flankers worked hard to stop birds breaking away below the line and a steady stream further up the hill gave everyone something to think about.
James Southworth, headkeeper at Portledge estate in Devon, at number four, took a bird well out in front, which tumbled to the ground just in front of his butt. At the end of the drive, I discovered that it was his fi rst ever grouse. “The last time I saw a grouse,” he said, “I was at college learning to burn heather on Chatsworth estate.”
After a quick team photo, we set off for the next drive, named Standards, climbing up past extraordinary rock forms — a legacy of the estate’s mining history. The wind had dropped and, far below, Selset Reservoir glistened in the sun. Beyond that, Southside rolled out mile after mile towards the far horizon.
Joining Brett Newton, sole keeper on the Lyons Head estate in Dorset, in butt number one, I learned that the beaters were starting from where we had just come from, at Close House. Their advance was accompanied by booming from the army ranges and the much more staccato shotgun fi re from the beaters themselves. The anticipation rose as old hand Colin Morgan, Brett’s loader for the day, mused that there were some “big packs coming by the sounds of it”.
The whistles blew and the flankers to our left fl apped like mad to turn the grouse, which frustratingly turned too sharply and headed back uphill and over the higher numbers. Alex Stott, headkeeper on Stags Fell moor in Wensleydale, in number two, picked off a lovely right-and-left as they seared past. After that, Brett’s turn came again and again as packs of 40 to 50 flew up the line. With deft movements he seemed to hit everything he looked at. It was easy to see why Mr Cannon enlisted the help of Brett 15 years ago when he decided to learn to shoot.
Guns have to be quick if they want to pick their own birds, as the beaters and their dogs close in rapidly at the end of the drive and a swarm of pickers-up’s Labradors quartered-in expertly from behind. Everything was picked and accounted for and everyone seemed to have notched up three or four and looked relaxed and happy. Then Andy Page, an underkeeper on Northside, emerged from the beaters line looking pleased as punch; he’d shot nine birds while beating that drive.
The third drive was Green Grain, John Pinkney’s favourite because it is on his beat and “always seems to go well, no matter what the wind does”. As the flankers got into position, a pair of golden19 August 2009 Shooting Times & Country Magazine 19 SHOOT REPORT plover was disturbed and fl ew past us followed by a weary-looking woodcock. A buzzard — the third I saw in the day — hung lazily far off in the distance.
We were in butt number nine, two above John’s actual number. There were more butts than Guns, allowing the line to move up or down, depending on the conditions. The adrenalin rushed as a huge pack of 100 or so grouse came into view a long way off. To the dismay of the beaters and flankers — heard clearly on John’s radio — the birds veered off and disappeared. But then they came in small numbers for the rest of the drive, headon and from the left. John’s shooting was exceptional, picking them off with the first barrel in front, but kicking himself as the second barrel failed to connect and they whistled overhead and were gone. He said: “I enjoyed keepers’ day more last year on Southside because I wasn’t shooting my own birds!” I later discovered that he had taken 19 birds with 21 shots on one drive that day.
With the tally at 72½ brace, we headed back for lunch produced by Alison Anderson-Turnbull of Complete Cuisine, who cooks for several moors across Arkengarthdale, Swaledale, Wensleydale and Coverhead. She has always insisted on using local produce and served us delicious beef rump and “dunkers”, as Mr Cannon called the dish.
Apple crumble with ice cream, and cream if you could fi t it in your bowl, made the cheese course virtually impossible if movement was to be achieved in the afternoon. After a sincere and charming thank-you speech from Mr Cannon to the keepers on behalf of himself, his wife, Sally, and Richard Johnson, the director of Wemmergill, for all their hard work, it was back on with the boots and up to Green Fell on the Allotments for the fi nal drive.
The sun had disappeared and the wind became bitter, but that was not going to dampen James Southworth’s spirits on the last drive of his first grouse day. He’d built up a good rapport with his young loader Matt Scott, an underkeeper on the nearby Lartington estate, near Barnard Castle, whose grandfather had been headkeeper at Wemmergill in the days when Sir Joseph Nickerson had shot the moor. With a very short horizon into a bank in front, the few grouse that presented themselves to James had some sky as background, making the swing more familiar. With a steep gully to the rear, two grouse soon landed with a satisfying thud far below.
The final tally for the day was 111½ brace with 44½ of those claimed by the beaters. Everyone was offered a brace to take home and the rest were sorted and sent on their way to London with gamedealer Allens of Mayfair. The most memorable shot of the day for me was John Pinkney’s when a bird slipped in from the left completely undetected. John had cursed, giving up hope on it, but swung round and with complete balance and poise pulled the trigger and exclaimed in surprise: “Oh! I got it!” I don’t fancy being a crow on his beat much.