The popularly held belief that grouse shooting is all about elite individual interests is completely wrong, says Marcus Janssen. At its core is a sense of community and a camaraderie between Guns, keepers, beaters and pickers-up.
(Photography: Jonathan McGee)
The tiny village of Blanchland in Northumberland and the neighbouring community of Hunstanworth have a total population of just 260 people. Like countless others, Blanchland is a piece of rural England featuring a church, post office and hotel, and not a lot else. But at 7:45am on a Wednesday morning in late September, it is abuzz with men and women of all ages, shapes and sizes. Donned in tweed, waxed cotton and camo, they are all gathered in the village square, waiting for the arrival of the beaters wagons which will take them up into the surrounding fells for the day.
On this occasion, most will be headed to Hunstanworth, a moor that marches with Nookton, Stanhope and East Allenheads, but on other days of the week, different wagons will be taking them to any number of grouse moors in the area. Working together, the headkeepers on these estates have planned well in advance to ensure they have enough beaters, flankers, loaders and pickers-up for each shoot day. Without these local communities, driven grouse shooting would simply be impossible.
Meanwhile, just over a mile away, a team of nine Guns are beginning to gather at the home of moor owner Daphne Scott-Harden. Among them is Adrian Blackmore, the Countryside Alliance's director of shooting, who has arranged the invitation for Olympic double trap gold medallist, Peter Wilson, to shoot that day.
“What I love about shooting – and people often focus on the birds, height, the bag, etc. – is actually the people,” says Peter. “To me, the company, the camaraderie and the sense of community is a major part of what makes game shooting so special. When I was young, I could never sleep before a shoot day and I always assumed that that excitement stemmed from the anticipation of the shooting, the sport. But I can honestly say that I still get more excited about game shooting than I ever did about clays and it is largely down to the atmosphere and sense of kinship that you get with shooting folk.”
Adrian agrees wholeheartedly. “Whether you are there as a Gun, keeper, loader, beater or picker-up, everyone on a moor during a shoot day knows that they have an important role to play,” he says. “So everyone feels involved and included. And there is really no hierarchy amongst those who come to beat, flank, load or pick-up. Yes, there are those with more experience than others, but that is shared willingly.”
Although most days are let at Newbiggin & Hunstanworth – mainly to friends of the Scott-Harden family – it is very much a family-owned and family-run moor, with the ninth Gun on each shoot day almost always filled by a family member. The emphasis is placed on the enjoyment of the day, and being with friends in spectacular surroundings. And on this particular occasion, although the team of nine have come from near and far (some have travelled no more than a few miles, while others, like Micky Tylor and Simon Baxter, have come from as far afield as Cornwall and Dorset), all have one thing in common – a love of shooting and all that a shoot day entails. “It always feels like a great privilege to be on a grouse moor,” adds Peter. “And that really has little to do with the shooting itself. These are such special environments – they have a unique atmosphere, and everyone seems to be affected by that.”
Once numbers are drawn and the safety briefing has been given by Daphne's son James, Guns, partners and dogs all clamber into vehicles and set off for the rendezvous point on the moor, where the Guns will be paired-up with their loaders.
After three excellent drives – Fowl Sike, Bolts Law and Grindstone Cleugh – all of which see some fantastic sport across the line and some impressive shooting from the likes of William (Billy) Van Cutsem, Robbie Douglas-Miller, James Townshend and David Brown, the whole party make their way to the lunch hut, an old stone bothy perched high on the moor boasting spectacular views with a dining table large enough to seat a full team of Guns and their partners. Divided into two, one part of the hut is for the beaters, and, unlike the Guns, they have the benefit of an open fire for colder days! There is no need for it today, though.
Spirits are high as stories and anecdotes are exchanged and notes compared. Indeed there is much talk of Billy Van Cutsem's performance at Grindstone Cleugh. Even Peter Wilson is impressed: “He was my neighbour to my left and was lovely to watch. On the third drive I spent more time watching him than I did shooting. Although I would take him apart on clays, he is a much better grouse Shot than me, so I can learn a lot from him.”
Lunch – a cold spread of meats and salads, followed by cheeses and fruitcake – is a leisurely affair, and, despite the exhilarating sport produced by the first three drives, there is certainly no rush to get back out and shoot the final two drives of the day. On colder days, homemade stews or casseroles are brought up wrapped in towels to keep them warm, which are then used as seat-warmers for the wives!
Daphne's daughter Lucy is also involved in the running of shoot days, helping to look after Guns and their partners. “A day's shooting is an inherently sociable affair and should feel as such,” she says, summing up the mood as a second round of coffees are poured. “Lunch is an important part of the day, and no one wants to feel like they're on a tight schedule,” she adds. Clearly, no one does.
The final two drives of the day, Dry Rigg and Lowdons Flat, are both return drives and, although they don't produce the number of birds shown before lunch, everyone gets their fair share of the shooting. Indeed, as the final horn blows, there are smiles up and down the line. John Welch, who has been loading on the moor for more than 10 years, sums things up perfectly. “It's been another great day on the moor,” he says. “But then grouse days are always special as they not only bring together people who live locally, but there's always a wonderful atmosphere and camaraderie, and you get to meet people from so many different walks of life. It's not just a job, it's a way of life for a lot of us.”
Headkeeper Rob Mitchell agrees: “On a shoot day I employ a large local workforce which can change daily from school children to pensioners, including family and friends, and the atmosphere is always the same. Although school children invariably enjoy the financial benefits of coming beating, the older generation certainly get more out of the social aspect.”
Speaking of which, the day isn't over yet. All Guns, loaders, pickers-up and keepers then make their way to the headkeeper's house for a cup of tea while guns are cleaned and the day's bag is laid out for all to admire. But then something unexpected happens. Rob's 10-year-old son, Ryan, plucks up the courage to go and speak to Peter Wilson – and challenge him to a shoot off! As everyone gathers around, an old hand-operated trap and a box of clays are duly produced and Ryan is handed his 28 bore as everyone watches on.
“It was a hell of a shoot-off!” said Peter, afterwards. “Young Ryan shot like a demon; he nailed 10 out of 10 and I didn't stand a chance. It was a lot of fun and the perfect end to what was a great day's shooting.”
Indeed, that's the thing about shooting, it plays an important role in rural communities beyond the financial benefits – though that is of course a major consideration. Shooting in places like Blanchland and Hunstanworth is not about landowners, employees, or individual interests – it really is about community.
Drives: Fowl Sike, Bolts Law, Grindstone Cleugh, Dry Rigg & Lowdons Flat.
Bag: 188 brace
Guns: Jeremy Duckworth, Billy Van Cutsem, Peter Wilson, David Brown, Simon Baxter, Micky Tylor, Robbie Douglas-Miller, James Townshend & James Scott-Harden.
Olympic grouse, with Peter Wilson
“Because I don't shoot grouse very often, I was keen to try my Olympic gun – the Perazzi MX2005 (31½" barrels with extended ported choke in the bottom barrel) – to see how it would handle the unique challenge. Although I initially thought that driven grouse would be fairly similar in principle to double trap – i.e. low and out front – I was completely wrong.
It was impossible.
“Double trap is part trick, part skill. You shoot the first clay with your left eye with a still gun – you pull the trigger the second it is released – and the second bird with your right eye. I learnt it in Italy and it took a long, long time to master. So, I tried to use the gun in a similar manner for shooting driven grouse.
“It was pretty much impossible as both barrels shoot to a different point of aim. The bottom barrel shoots 90/100 per cent high, and the top barrel shoots 50/60 per cent high (more typical for a sporting clay gun). But with grouse, you really want a gun that shoots quite flat. A lot of grouse Shots like their gun to shoot 50/50 or even 40/50. It took me a drive and a half to work that out. In the end, I changed to my more standard Perazzi MX12 for the remainder of the day and got on a lot better with that. It has 32" barrels and is choked ½ and ½.” Peter uses 28g or 30g RC Sipe no. 6s for grouse.
Newbiggin, Hunstanworth & Nookton
The Newbiggin and Hunstanworth estate is located along the Northumberland/County Durham border. Comprising three moors that also include Nookton, it is essentially managed as one moor by a team of three keepers – headkeeper Rob Mitchell, who looks after Hunstanworth, and Darren Jacques and Shane Ridley who look after Nookton and Newbiggin respectively.
Daphne Scott-Harden inherited Newbiggin and Hunstanworth from her late uncle, Captain William Parlour, who was a renowned Shot and breeder of Sharnberry English setters. Coincidentally, he was recently referred to in an article by Jon Kean in the October/November issue of Fieldsports, on the history of the Pointer and Setter Champion Stake: “The Sharnberry English setters, owned by landowner Captain W. Parlour, feature no less than five times on the Roll of Honour.”
Gladly, Daphne and her family are just as passionate about grouse shooting and dedicated to the management of the moors as William Parlour was, and the moors remain in excellent health. Indeed, the past three seasons have seen several records broken with the favourable breeding conditions experienced in the North Pennines in recent years.
Comprised of approximately 5,000 acres of heather, Newbiggin and Hunstanworth produce in the region of 30 days of driven shooting per season in a good year. And although most days are let, they tend to be taken by friends of the family or regular teams of Guns who invariably become friends.
All shot grouse go directly into the food chain and are collected from the moor by Yorkshire Game.