Grouse, the hard way
Rupert Godfrey remembers his first grouse - and his first ptarmigan - in an account written originally in February 1976.
(Photograph: Tarquin Millington-Drake)
For all who shoot, the end of the season causes a tinge of regret. Guns are cleaned and lovingly stored away, and their owners left with a list of entries in their gamebooks, and their memories. For me, the 1975-6 season will always be a special one, as it was the first year I had the opportunity to shoot as often as I had always hoped to, and one day in particular will always linger in my mind, concerning an experience that few others will have had.
It all began one Saturday, when I was devoting my attentions to the local pheasant population, and an invitation was casually dropped: would I care to shoot ptarmigan the following weekend? Being young, enthusiastic, and ready to try anything, and having only recently arrived in the north of Scotland from urban Hertfordshire, I replied that I'd love to, but what were they? I soon found out that they were birds related to the red grouse, which only lived at above 2,500ft, and, in winter, their plumage turned - through various shades of grey - to white. It was hard work to shoot them, I was told, but very rewarding.
As the week passed and I thought of dragging my unfit body up 3,000ft of mountain, my enthusiasm waned a little. Saturday morning dawned bright, sunny and clear, like so many that autumn, but it was essential for the success of our expedition that the mountain (Ben Vorlich) was free of mist. As we approached it, after a 70-mile drive, we saw it was completely clear, and the five of us were soon gazing at the slopes which rose steeply in front of us.
We each carried a gamebag, as each would carry what he shot, and I was warned that shooting a hare early in the day might not be a good idea! We began to climb, and we continued to climb... it was very steep in places, and the knee-high heather made the going heavy. Sweat was soon dripping off me and my legs were complaining bitterly. The only way to make progress was to climb 10 steps and have a breather. I saw I was not alone in adopting this method - the others were struggling as much as I was. It really was that tough.
A couple of shots rang out on the right: Miles and Andrew each knocking down a grouse from a covey which had exploded from the heather. I had never shot a grouse, never seen a ptarmigan, and nothing was getting up in front of me. Any irritation deserted me, however, when I turned at the top and saw the breathtaking view down the mountain: it was magnificent. It was the highest peak in the district, and we could see for miles. A few fluffy clouds were beginning to blow across, but they were 1,000ft below us, and just made the scene all the more beautiful.
We weren't there for the view, though, and we formed a line and began to walk along the contours of the mountain top, through the rocky scree where ptarmigan are found. This, it turned out, was almost as difficult as climbing the mountain had been, for the rocks were moss-covered and slippery, and shifted when weight was put on them - very treacherous when carrying a loaded gun. It was a major task to keep upright, and twice I fell heavily, twisting as I did, to avoid damaging my gun.
At last, though, Miles called me over, and there, 20 yards in front of him were two smallish grey birds, as they hadn't yet changed to their full winter plumage. A new problem now arose: how to keep an eye on the ptarmigan to see when they took off, while maintaining one's balance as I walked towards them.
As I had never shot one before, I was allowed first crack at this pair, but despite the fact they were only yards ahead of me, I was completely caught off guard when they did take off, and bemused by their speed off the mark, which caused me to fire hopelessly behind with both barrels. Damn! Three other shots were fired by my neighbours, bringing the first ptarmigan to the bag.
We saw one more pair, which escaped, before stopping for lunch, but we had pushed several coveys ahead of us, which promised well for our afternoon's sport. The break was a welcome one, with three grouse and one ptarmigan in the bag. The clouds had closed in beneath us, but we were still bathed in sunshine, and visibility remained excellent.
We didn't linger over our 'piece', as we were encouraged by the peculiar booming sound of the ptarmigan in the rocks ahead of us. The afternoon's sport was superb, and we all got our share of it. My first success was a nice crossing shot: the almost instinctive raising of gun to shoulder, and the certain knowledge of a clean kill. The gamebags filled steadily, though the cartridge:kill ratio was not impressive.
All too soon it was time to begin our descent, for the afternoons were short, and we had a long trek back to the cars. As in the morning, though, grouse were flushed by the dogs as we walked down, and I was delighted when one dropped to my first shot. Ptarmigan and grouse on the same day: a double first to remember!
We ended up getting slightly lost in the gloom, but eventually found the cars as darkness fell. Refreshed by a can of beer, and a wee dram, we emptied the gamebags in a heap in front of the car headlights. The total was 10 brace of ptarmigan, and 5 of grouse - a very satisfactory score for a unique day's sport.