Grouse moor transformation

Kettelshiel

Mike Barnes talks to Richard Vainer, a diamond trader who has transformed the fortunes of a grouse moor in the Scottish borders.

Looking at the crystal clear cut diamond in my hand, I had no idea of its value. The polisher had handed it to me with the kind of look which said that the gem, no bigger than a small gooseberry, might be beyond me, but when I was told that in the middle of my palm lay $6-7million worth of precious stone I was blown away.

I was standing in the Hatton Garden offices of one of the world's great names in diamond polishing. Grouse can take you to the most unlikely places and the reason for my visit was to meet Richard Vainer, a diamond trader who runs a grouse moor in the Scottish borders which in the last four years has gone from a standing start to delivering 100+ brace days.

It was to prove an intriguing visit. A genial and engaging character, 52-year-old Richard explained not only how the moor has been resurrected from the dead, but also gave me the inside track on the diamond trade and the art of polishing. The Vainers (he runs the business with his brother Martin) are something of  ‘the last dinosaurs left standing' in London - much of the trade has gone to New York, Antwerp and Israel, while the smaller stones are traded in China and India. 

However he still has a number of heavyweight clients who make their way to London for the special service he has to offer. And it is special - the dust that falls to the floor off a cut diamond can be worth up to £1million per carat. Mistakes in buying and cutting can be very expensive. But if you get it right and enjoy a good reputation, then it will enable you to take on your own grouse moor.

Richard is the first to admit that no-one in his family was the slightest bit interested in either shooting or fishing. No family moor, let alone rod or gun. The Vainers originate from Czechoslovakia. Grandfather was an Air Marshal who trained the Czech pilots who fought over London in the Battle of Britain, but was captured before he could leave Prague and given a tough time by the Gestapo. While his father moved to London, freshly engaged to his mother, just in time before the Iron Gate came down. “They escaped overnight with two suitcases.”

One conversation and acquaintance led to another, and he found himself a job ‘as a good gentile' working with the Oppenheimer family at De Beers. It proved a great success and he was soon running their whole outside buying operation, eventually hitting a glass ceiling which prompted him to start on his own as an independent trader. He went on to build up a business which eventually saw him responsible for valuing about a third of the world's rough diamonds - from Botswana to Australia, Namibia, Sierra Leone and Angola. 

Richard explained: “I lived in Sierra Leone until I was eight, when my parents felt it better that we moved back to London.” He went to St Paul's School and London University. But most significantly, father bought a house with an island in the Thames near Henley. It was here that young Richard caught the fishing bug that was ultimately to take him to live in Scotland and run a grouse moor. 

“I fished for dace, bleak, minnows, anything - I loved it. I grew up with fishing and much later after discovering trout fishing, I was on the Test at Rooksbury Mill when someone suggested that I should try salmon fishing. I was interested and agreed. It was to prove one of the most expensive decisions of my life. I went to the Tweed and caught three or four springers and that was it. Hooked.

“I fished whenever I could, wherever - Norway, Russia, Argentina, Mongolia... But it eventually became apparent that there was a gap in my diary. I was in my late 20s and a ghillie suggested to me that I should take up shooting. So along I went to the Royal Berkshire Shooting School in the hopes of learning to become a competent shot. What followed was, I suppose, the ages of man - shoot at anything, shoot a lot, shoot quality.”

He joined syndicates, shot widely in the West Country and Sussex, until eventually a friend, Gerry Wilton, suggested he should try grouse. But it was too soon. “I stood there on the moor thinking I had driven all this way, hardly shot anything, and when the mist eventually cleared I couldn't hit them. I thought to myself, this is daft.” It proved a false start.

He and his wife Anna (a tidy shot) have two young children Charlotte (9) and Tom (3). The couple had been living in West London in the week and Henley at weekends. “We were both now a little jaded by London - and Henley had changed. Charlotte was new-born and with an eye on future schooling, a life in the country seemed the answer. Fate led us to the Scottish borders, further than we had intended but we found a lovely keeper's cottage on the river Whiteadder. That was nine and half years ago. Initially it was a weekend place but we are now at Elba full time - at least I'm there four nights  a week and we couldn't be happier. Charlotte is at a local school with very small class sizes. And we have salmon jumping outside our front door.”

From nowhere, grouse popped up again. A fishing friend invited him to get involved with Kettelshiel which, along with adjacent moor Bedshiel, comprises approximately 6,000 acres and is barely 15 minutes from home. One thing led to another and Richard agreed to take it on with his good friend Peter Sherrary. “In many ways, salmon fishing had prepared me for what was to follow. There are no guarantees with fishing and it is imperative that you have  a sporting attitude. Likewise grouse - even more so if it's your moor.”

The moors had recently changed hands twice and a management plan had already been put in place. Richard took advice and is the first to admit to the steep learning curve that followed! From the outset, land agent and grouse expert Mark Osborne gave him good counsel. The GWCT's Hugo Straker helped with a black grouse plan, Geoff Eyre with heather regeneration and SNH have a strong interest due to the area being an SSSI. He has three young keepers, and together they have implemented the plan to the last letter. Though they will never get to the last stoat or fox.

As a result of intensive management, red grouse numbers have risen to record levels. From 1999 to 2003, the five-year average bag for Kettelshiel was five brace. From 2004, the bags have consistently risen as a result of vermin control, habitat management and low shooting pressure. 2007 was a record year for the moor with 429 brace accounted for over four driven days on Kettelshiel - and an average of 107 brace per day. Plus a further 120 brace at Bedshiel. Despite a very wet breeding season, these numbers were repeated the following year, and with a good stock there is cause for optimism for the coming season.

When management began, Kettelshiel was a severely overgrazed sheep farm with no keepers and one part-time shepherd responsible for 1,100 sheep. The moorland habitat was in a very poor state of decay due to over-grazing, under-burning, bracken and a large vermin problem. “We keeper as far as we can, which has also been a benefit to another nearby moor! Each keeper runs in excess of 200 stoat traps and 200 fox snares, rigorously checked. “

Foxes, crows and stoats were a major problem (annual averages taken of  60, 150 and 120 respectively) and this is an ongoing headache due to the position of the moor, with only one fully keepered moor within the vicinity. As can be seen from one of the photographs, this is also a low lying moor with adjacent grassland. Ground nesting waders and songbirds have benefited hugely with significant increases in curlew, lapwing, golden plover, oyster catcher, redshank and snipe. The vermin control undertaken has also helped to protect the internationally important population of pink-footed geese that roost on Bedshiel every autumn - as many as 26,000 have been recorded.

For the benefit of black grouse they have felled six Sitka spruce/Scots pine woods, five of which have been replanted with native broadleaves and shrubs , including Scots pine, birch, hawthorn, alder, rowan, willow and a small amount of larch and oak. 

He suspects that from his fishing experience, getting involved in wild bird shooting and a project such as this was inevitable. But how did he find running shoot days? How was he on the first driven day? 

“Bloody nervous” he laughs. “You can host days on other people's pheasant or partridge shoots, but everything is taken care of. Nothing can prepare you for this. But I have to say I love it. For starters it's great living up here and I have made a lot of friends from ghillies on the Tweed to beaters, keepers and pickers-up. Having my dog, Mason, gives me so much pleasure. And of course a day's shooting is like doing a jigsaw puzzle. It's a coming together of lots of different elements - the people, quality of sport, lunch, ease of travel. They all play their part.

“We formed a syndicate to shoot the moor, which includes friends home and away. Oliver (Burge), who was responsible for involving me in the moor, has become a good friend - as has the owner of Bedshiel, farmer Andrew Elliott.

“Like all shoots it has evolved and we have a good new head keeper in Paul Percival, and underkeeper Tom Adamson. Jim Sutton, who was the head keeper who started the hard preparatory work, has moved on to a bigger job. But Paul has fitted in very well and we are all looking to take the moor forward. We also have a really good local support team, which obviously makes for a great atmosphere on shoot days.”

There is no question that the achievement is not only remarkable, but it also flies a flag for Scottish grouse, showing what can be achieved by commitment, attention to detail and not a little belief and enthusiasm. Kettelshiel is a gem.

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