Traditional country pursuits reimagined for a modern world
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Photographer / BYRON PACE
For keepers struggling to bring on the next generation of grouse, 2018 has been an annus horribilis. A brutally long cold winter followed by a searingly dry summer cruelly conspired against the broods of the king of gamebirds. My opening day on the grouse was, luckily for me, one of the handful not be cancelled. Way up in Inverness-shire, Dorback still could put on a show of birds worth travelling to see.
The day can accommodate a number of people if we are walking-up over spaniels or labradors but with pointers four seems to be the ideal number, and pointers or not that seems to be the number we have settled on. My companions were Al Young and Tim Cray – two of my closest friends and regular companions on many a shooting trip. The selection of the fourth person to join the team is always the subject of considerable debate between us. The first day of the season is important, like the first shot of the day, it seems to dictate how the sport thereafter will unfold. Consequently, things and people that introduce metaphorical grit into our oyster are not to be encouraged. I was therefore particularly pleased when the pair of them agreed with my somewhat diffident suggestion that the fourth Gun this year be my daughter, Georgia, now 16. She shot her first grouse at Dorback when she was 12 with a .410 under the watchful eye of Brian Hamilton the keeper. Since then she has shot on a few occasions but this was to be her first full day in the line for a while.
Whilst she is always welcome, I have felt it’s very important that she shoots because she wants to and not just to please me. I was delighted when she said she would come and did so with real enthusiasm. So much so, that when I saw a very reasonably priced AYA XXV 20 bore being sold by Bill Elderkin at the Game Fair, I snapped it up for her. These little guns are extraordinarily good value currently and spot-on for more petite teenagers (and adults) – especially if they are to be used for walked-up shooting. The comb turned out to be too low for her cheekbones though and it was a little short in the stock – so a trip to meet Justin Risely, the gunsmith at Nuthampstead, was in order. There wasn’t enough time to have the stock altered and a Silvers pad fitted before we were due to go North, so plans were put in place for that to happen on our return and a comb raiser and pad quickly fitted.
As before we stayed at Muckrack Country House Hotel where it was good to see familiar fellow sportsmen from previous years. We retired to bed at what was a wholly respectable hour – experience seems to have finally persuaded us against the dangers of self-medication to avoid ‘first-night fever’.
The following morning saw us all assembled, perky and ready to go. As we drove to the starting-off point there seemed to be plenty of grouse about – quite a relief given the difficult year that they have had generally.
We set off and it wasn’t long before Al had the first brace of the day in the bag. I walked for a while near Georgia before realising that being next to her father probably wasn’t going to do anything for her shooting and that I was hanging back when grouse got up wanting her to shoot first. Brian, ever the diplomat, gently repositioned me and sure enough moments later Georgia had her first grouse of the day.
As we age, moorland feels evermore determined to punish us for our love of it. More hidden rivulets concealed by heather and sphagnum to fall into up to our thickening waists, and ‘babies-heads’ to turn old ankles. We can’t recover our youth, but we can take pleasure in watching our youngsters springing more lightly across the purple flowers.
It was a real joy to be part of that magical landscape again and to share Georgia’s pleasure in the flora and fauna of the moor, from watching the many mountain hares which would sometimes sit so tight that she nearly stood on them, to the resident sea eagle which wheeled over our heads at the very top of the moor and had us all simply stop to watch, enthralled. Brian knows this particular bird well and encouraged us to press on after some time – no grouse would want to fly there for a while.
As we walked I found myself thinking about what a great deal I get out of shooting and how lucky I am to be able to do it. The pleasures of a clean shot well taken on a difficult bird, the good dog work, the great company, the humour and the delicious eating bit are real and important, but the deepest pleasure may be from knowing that these things have been handed on. We can’t all own a grouse moor but each and every one of us can do something to introduce the next generation to the sport we love.
Georgia wasn’t the only youngster being taught that day. Tim’s beautiful labrador Darcy (2) spent the day learning the business of the moor for the first time from Bonny (5) a seasoned veteran, and had her first grouse retrieve, shot with customary style by Al and brought back very well to hand.
At 4pm, dogs were put back on leads as we began the approach to our vehicles. It was clear Georgia felt her day wasn’t quite over. She had noticed the steady attention the labradors had been paying to the ground just in front, and realising that we might be pushing birds in front of us she closed the breech of her AYA and, safety on, went forward vigilantly. Her intuition was rewarded with a covey of 12 birds bursting from cover and fanning out in front of her low across the scrub.
Her 20 bore was shouldered, aimed to 10 o’clock. A sharp report and a 30-yard grouse cartwheeled into the heather. Knowing it was good and without missing a beat she swung onto the next one, fired the other barrel and a second bird froze dead in the air at 40 yards before thudding onto the peat bowl of a hag. A text-book left-and-right and the perfect way to end. (I think I may have got a little heather pollen in my eye at about this point.)
The determination and vigour of youth made the end of the day the most satisfying imaginable to Guns, keepers and dogs alike.
And as for the vigour of the seniors there? Rob, the underkeeper, who I think I can say may have a few years on me, still strode over the hill with unflagging stamina for seven solid hours without once tiring. When asked how he did it, answering, “If you want to keep walking, you keep walking.” Whilst for the older Guns this sort of sport may be a race against decrepitude, he was a powerful advertisement for a less sedentary life.
We took away all of our bag – it was modest, 8½ brace. But they were enough and they were hard won. We plucked them over a glass or two of something suitable back at Muckrack and joined by local friends they made a feast fit for anyone.
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