My first grouse, by Jonathan Kennedy.
A love of grouse and grouse shooting has become a huge part of my life. Not only is it such a compelling sport, it embodies a particular magic in the world of country sports. The reverence with which we enthusiasts regard the bird is quite mystifying to those who regard nature as a science.
My journey in shooting started young. Accompanying my father on a pigeon roost shoot aged six saw me captivated and immediately start saving for my first gun. The piggy bank, or rather brown china football that lived on our mantelpiece, was routinely stuffed with any loose change I found lying around the house.
Aged nine, for Christmas, my first gun was presented - a single-barrelled hammer .410. For my 13th birthday a double-barrelled 20 bore arrived and I was fully equipped. Pigeons were on the agenda virtually every day of the summer holidays - not in any numbers, but with all the guile I could glean from the pages of Archie Coats' bible. I knew chapters off-by-heart.
That August (1976) saw me spend a day in the flank butt of a grouse moor owned by great friends of my parents, Robin and Toddy Cowen. They invited my father for two days each year and this time he had suggested putting the gun in the car... just in case.
My minder, a lovely man, was Jack Kirby, formerly a loader for Lord Rank. I was so excited, and he so very encouraging. I didn't get a proper shot till the last drive, when an enormous pack came over us. Bang, bang! Nothing fell.
I knew I had blown it, but Jack said he thought I had hit one and we went to look out behind at the end of the drive without success.
So, when my next chance came on September 4 that year, after a long early walk out to a duck flight at Kettletonhead Reservoir with my father and brother David, I was beyond excited and quite determined. A cock grouse had been calling from first light on the steep bank above us.
Sometimes, on the long walk back, we were allowed onto the moor and on this occasion Dad said we could walk-up and see if we could shoot one.
As we approached where we thought the grouse was, the very same bird put his head up erect and jumped onto a rock. We froze. "G'back, g'back," he eyed us, and I whispered, asking whether I should shoot him on the ground. "No, wait," was the word in my ear. So a few excruciating moments later that most memorable bird had just taken off, one, maybe two flaps, and bang!
A prouder sportsman there could not have been. The build-up and anticipation had been perfect, even if the challenge of the shot was less so. And I am very pleased my bird was in flight Ð if only just.