First brush with grouse
How dreamy days of walking-up gave artist Ben Hoskyns a fascination for the king of gamebirds.
I saw my first grouse on the morning of August 16, 1976. I had been invited to tag along with my father for a week's shooting over setters at Balnacoil Lodge on the Brora. I hadn't a clue how lucky I was; I had only been shooting for two years and I assumed that this was the way it would always be.
My game book reveals that I had connected with some 30-odd ?things' with my .410 up until that point - rabbits, pigeons, pheasants and a very unlucky jack snipe (legal in those days) - and I managed to point it in the right direction at a grouse, eventually, on the last flush of the first day.
The two setters, Rose and Rory, had worked superbly all day and had given me several earlier chances to no avail. We were only a couple of hundred yards from where we had parked the vehicles when Rose stopped and set, and was shortly backed up by Rory. A single cock grouse flushed, giving me a crossing shot. Most of my game shooting had been walked-up and, with such a little gun, I had learned to be quick off the mark. My first grouse fell dead into the heather, but I had also learned not to be too quick to claim - someone else may have fired, too. They hadn't, but I had to wait until the second half of the barren pair had also fallen before being congratulated.
It was a magical week in that long hot summer. We walked for many miles, diving into the burns to slake our thirst whenever we could and 'miraculously' cresting a rise to find the pony with our piece, just when we thought we could walk no further. We didn't shoot very many, but I have never forgotten it, or the magical essence of a grouse moor.
I managed to add another grouse to my total of seven the following year in Perthshire when a friend's family took a cottage out on the moors for a week. We were dogless and consequently didn't get too many chances. We had a few hundred acres of hill, with odd patches of heather and one or two coveys of grouse to ourselves, and we walked all day for an occasional sighting and infrequent shot or two. I had no idea it would be more than 20 years before I had the opportunity to swing a gun on a grouse moor again, and I can remember in my 20s wondering whether I ever would.
It was only when I began to paint for a living that I had the opportunities to really study grouse and their habitat, although I had absorbed as much as I could when stalking in Perthshire in the 80s. The more I painted them, the more fascinated I became with them. When I was asked to paint specific moors I would find myself amongst people who really knew their grouse, and they would spend the rest of the day answering my endless questions while we searched for the right spot to paint.
Much of the enjoyment of any day's shooting is about the other wildlife you see and hear, but you can easily be caught napping which could lead to a certain amount of trouble. When shooting driven grouse there is often a long wait before the first birds appear and, naturally, you look around, noticing a pipit or wheatear on a rock in front of you. You hear a curlew calling and search the vast skies for its familiar shape. A swallow passes and you idly watch as it flits by. Out of the corner of your eye, a bee drones over the swathes of heather, only you suddenly realise that it is a single grouse, on set wings, hurtling towards you. The gun comes up automatically and the bird falls into the heather beside your butt. As it drops below the skyline it ceases to be a silhouette and you realise that you have just killed your first blackcock, complete with a ?500 fine attached. It is lovely to see blackgame, but it is nicer still to get a side view when they are flying over someone else!
Grouse are one of the most delightful birds to paint, with their rich and immensely varied plumage, both in colour and markings, and I never tire of looking at and painting them. They make rather good models too - obligingly sitting atop a drystone wall as you drive past or gritting by the roadside so you can draw to a halt 20 yards away, sit back and observe.
In flight they are, quite simply, breathtaking to watch. Few birds come close to their speed and agility, especially for a bird the size and weight of a grouse. They have enormous stamina, too. I have seen a large covey of a hundred or so come the best part of a mile, pitch in 70 yards in front of the Guns only to flush immediately and go the whole way back, over the beaters and out of the drive!
I have nothing but respect for their remarkable hardiness and ability to survive in what can be, in winter, a pretty hostile environment. But it is this magical environment that makes seeing grouse such a wonderful experience. I would always rather be somewhere beautiful, whether I am watching or shooting, and few places come as beautiful as a grouse moor.