A love of grouse
Michael Stone talks to Mike Barnes about his passion for the moors.
You don't have to be shooting - when a covey of grouse is coming at you, swirling across your line of vision, it is the most inspiring sight.”
For Michael Stone there is nothing quite like grouse. All facets appeal to him - moor management, shoot days, the people and of course the star of the show, the red grouse itself. “It is such a special bird” he says. “Monogamous, the survivor of harsh conditions and unpredictable.”
As the owner of two productive moors, Weardale and Egglestone, he speaks with more than a little experience. In fact his passion for wildlife goes back to childhood during the war when he and his brother, and their mother, were evacuated to a farm in Devon. He took his first shots with a .410 at the age of ten. He adored country life. But when the war was over the family returned home to Surrey - his father worked in the city.
“He was a shooting man and belonged to a syndicate but wasn't as gripped as I have been about the sport.” Inevitably, at the age of 19 he became eligible for National Service and joined the army where he was with the Royal Horse Artillery. A posting to Germany saw him enjoy some wonderful sport. “There was lots of wild game, pheasants and partridges, and we had good liaison with the locals and I also did quite a bit of hunter trialling.” For a year he was the regimental liaison officer with the local farmers.
Come the end of National Service he was due to go up to Oxford. “But two weeks before starting, my father prevailed upon me not to go, saying the family firm, ED&F Man, needed me. I was disappointed at the time, but have no regrets. It was the best move I could have possibly made.”
The company was formed 230 years ago as commodity brokers. Michael specialised in the sugar market and pretty quickly delivered vindication of his father's judgement. “We did very well after the war. I was very lucky as the older generation (there were four families involved) gave shares to the younger ones. They showed a willingness to welcome new ideas and it was at a time when air travel was revolutionised. Apart from financial success as a sugar trader, a spin-off was that it required him to travel extensively and as a consequence he was able to shoot, fish and ride all over the world.
In 1979 at the age of 43 he fulfilled a big ambition by buying a small dairy farm on the Surrey/Sussex border. “I started a little shoot but there was not much in the way of management. I still have the farm today.”
He and his wife Louisa had by now fallen for Scotland's salmon and grouse, and both before marriage and later with their three young children, they would take a fortnight's holiday there each year. “Grouse shooting was so cheap in Scotland in those days - and plenty of grouse too. But we were both also experiencing the thrill of driven grouse shooting through friends.” The couple absolutely fell for the sport and indeed the moorland. In 1984 they found what they were looking for in Co. Durham. “It was a funny little moor - 5,500 acres, a lot of which was planted with conifers - Sitka spruce in particular. But I was made aware of the moor and its potential by an old keeper Jonny Egle, who had fled Latvia. He told me that prior to the tree planting it had been a prolific moor. But the 10-year grouse average was only 300 brace.”
It was owned by the Forestry Commission who presumably assumed that it was being bought for the trees, which in any event were poor specimens. They removed 1,000 acres of conifers, a harbour to all sorts of vermin.
Careful management of the sheep was introduced - two large flocks in wintering sheds - they only fodder on the fell in the summer.
From 300 brace per annum, last year's bag was a record 5,000 brace, a real credit to head keeper Nick Walmsley and his three assistant keepers.
“After a few years I realised that one day of 100 brace was not quite enough for a team travelling up from London, so I took a lease on Egglestone with an option to buy, which in due course I did.” It has been a great success and the 10-year average has shot up, the shoot record of 3,000 being topped this last season with nearly 4,000 in the bag.
“I have been very lucky with gamekeepers.” he said. “At Eggleston, Robert Beadle is the fifth generation of the same family to be head keeper here. There are three keepers on this moor. The keepers are a breed apart. It is hard work and it is their dedication that brings us more grouse. Highly skilled too.
“As we all now know, it is a combination of things which generates more grouse. The latest medicated grit has changed everything. But good vermin control never ceases to be crucial - stoats can cause major problems.” At Weardale the keepers have taken 400 stoats, and 200 at Eggleston, per season.
“The GWCT has done so much for grouse - their work is invaluable.” He doesn't say so - far too modest - but he has been a very generous benefactor to both the Trust and the Upland Appeal. He sat on council for GWCT for many years and is now a vice president.
He also gives recognition to the Moorland Association, founded almost 30 years ago. “Its chairmen have been Anthony Milbank, Simon Bostock and Ed Bromet, each of whom has done an excellent job. But particular thanks go to long serving secretary Martin Gillibrand, a solicitor who specialises in common land, and is very knowledgeable on the uplands and its wildlife.”
He also points to the new ownerships and investment which has underpinned the resurgence of moors in both England and Scotland. “Where once there was a very gloomy picture, now moors are being properly restored and there is now more heather than for years. Many of us have gone down the re-seeding route, and it has worked.” There are swathes of purple across both moors.
“We love it up here. Apart form the countryside itself, the people are special who live here.” They have made many friends and have loyal support both in the lodge and on the moor.
The owner particularly enjoys seeing the wildlife and conservation benefits which shoot management brings. Evidence of this can be seen on the walls of the lunch hut, where photographs of 121 bird species are hanging, all of which have been seen on the moor.
In fact there is something of an holistic approach in evidence.
The estate is run as a limited company, and this embraces both the farm and the grouse shooting, which is all sold. “The sport brings both trade and employment to the local economy,” he adds. “On a shoot day for example, including Guns, beaters, loaders, flankers, pickers-up, there will be in the order of 60 people out on the moor. With other nearby moors, this is a six-days a week activity.”
Following the closure of the lead mines in Upper Weardale in 1890, without grouse shooting there would be little or no employment, bar the odd shepherd. Moreover, the sheep would graze the ground bare making it inhospitable to grouse and other ground nesting birds.
The couple are also involved with the reinvestment and revitalisation of The Lord Crewe Arms at Blanchland, anticipating employing many local staff. They have successful experience to call on in the shape of the award-winning Calcot Manor and Barnsley House in the Cotswolds.
“The sport does so much for the environment and local economies. It is frustrating to see both criticism and also others claiming credit for what we do.”
They know a thing or two about looking after people. Guests talk of not only their generosity but also of being great hosts. Will Garfit told me: “I have been a guest for a number of years and they are an exceptional couple - they are exemplary hosts who seem to genuinely love having people at the lodge. Most definitely not pretentious, and in a way somewhat old fashioned. But all the better for it and this is part of their charm.”
This extends to shooting, where despite his ownership of two moors, you would never see Michael Stone place himself in the best butt - much more likely to be in No. 10, or wherever it is that the birds are least likely to show.
They love working their cockers Archie and Bramble, and while Michael shoots at his own moors, he now sticks to picking up when invited elsewhere.
More than anything, it is shoot management which fascinates him. “Grouse are wild creatures - not put and take. And while medicated grit has worked so successfully, we can never be sure that something else isn't just around the corner. Ultimately nature is in charge. But all the challenges help make it such a fascinating hobby.”
They take up residence in the lodge for three months, from the beginning of August, and then return to their Gloucestershire home at Ozleworth Park (another classic restoration of a once derelict property) where they have a first class pheasant shoot. There are drives on seven different valleys, and can present some stunning birds. But he has pretty much handed the shooting over to his children Charles, Andrew and Nicola, whose husband Ed Farquhar is also a keen Shot. There are 12 grandchildren - 10 are boys, so that sounds like a formidable Stone line up in years to come.
“I have been very lucky,” he says. “Louisa has been a wonderful support, I was fortunate to be in the right place at the right time in business and I have a lovely family. I have always been lucky with dogs too! And through grouse shooting we have made so many friends.”
He says he was also lucky to be able to retire when he did (2000). But even the most blessed only have so much good fortune. People tend to make their luck. Clearly Michael Stone's father saw that his son had something special, and shrewdly dissuaded him from Oxford. From then his business acumen took control, and enabled him to acquire two moors and enjoy grouse to the full. And with spring counts up 40 per cent he is once again looking forward to another new season - with fingers tightly crossed!