Wemmergill - For the love of grouse

Grouse at Wemmergill

Michael Cannon is now a man with three grouse moors, including a moor which is arguably the country's most prolific, Wemmergill. Rupert Godfrey reflects on its illustrious history and meets its owner.

Even those Guns not fortunate enough to have ever seen, let alone shot at, a grouse, will probably have heard the name Wemmergill. Its name is synonymous with grouse shooting, and, historically, the moor is often ranked as the best in the country. Covering 14,000 acres of varied terrain, it provides grouse drives of every type, and is almost unique in having a named drive - Shipka Pass - which is almost as famous as the moor itself. 

Owned by the Strathmore family until 2006, when the freehold was purchased by the incumbent tenant, Michael Cannon, its records go back to the great year of 1872 when Frederick Milbank, in his first year as tenant, led a party of six Guns who shot 1,037 brace on August 20, followed by 603.5 brace and 552.5 brace on the following two days.

On the first day, Frederick Milbank, using three guns, killed 364 brace himself - nearly double the bag of the next best Gun - including an extraordinary 190 birds on the Corbus drive, which only lasts 25 minutes, and still remains a record for one Gun on a drive (although it is said that Jack Dawnay would have beaten it on a drive at Langholm in 1911, when he ran out of cartridges having killed 181!) On the eight drives undertaken, he killed 48, 76, 92, 29, 140, 190, 111 and 42 grouse.

Frederick Milbank wrote in his diary: ‘In a good season, no-one, without seeing them, can have the remotest idea of the enormous number of birds.... There are no moors in England and Scotland that can show half the number of birds on them, as can Wemmergill.' On that day, the first shot was fired at 8.20am, and they finished at 8pm, so the beaters and loaders clearly had an early start and a long day! During the season, 8,352 brace were killed, including neighbouring Holwick moor.

The next noteworthy event in the history of Wemmergill came on August 12, 1895, when the Kaiser came to shoot. Having taken on the tenancy in 1887, Lord Westbury was host to the German Emperor, who was himself staying with Lord Lonsdale (known as the Yellow Earl, after the colour of his carriages) at Lowther Castle. From there, the party took the train to Kirkby Stephen, and from there, a horse-drawn coach to Wemmergill Hall, where they arrived at about 11am.

From there, some of the party, including the Kaiser, walked over a mile to the Shipka Pass drive (so named by a military visitor who claimed that it bore a striking resemblance to the pass often mentioned in accounts of the Russo-Turkish war of the 1870s). The walk was not without incident, as one of the Kaiser's aides was thrown when his pony stumbled, and badly gashed his head. Later the cart carrying the lunch was nearly washed away, while crossing one of the streams swollen by recent heavy rain.

The Kaiser's butt had been equipped with a camp stool, and also a wooden fixture, rather like a billiard cue rest, attached to the side of the butt as a gunstand. This was to help the Kaiser who had a withered left arm, and generally shot one-handed with 20 bores. On this occasion, he was using three guns, and ‘brought down, it is said, more birds than any of his colleagues' (these words were almost always used, diplomatically, when a  VIP was shooting).

Rain fell in sharp, drenching showers, and after two drives, the party adjourned to the Royal Pavilion which had been erected at the top end of the Pass. After an informal luncheon of lobster dressed with truffles and prawns, the sun shone, and shooting continued till 5pm, when the party returned to the hall. No official count of the bag was given, but it was said to be only between 50 and 60 brace (only 950 brace were shot during the whole season).

Shipka Pass (its real name is Soulgill) used to provide four consecutive drives. Now generally reduced to three, because of the poor heather condition, due to overgrazing, at the East end means that the grouse don't fly quite as far down as they used to. While grouse purists prefer shooting on typical moorland, often with limited visibility, and rather despise gill drives which turn grouse into very fast exciting partridges, there is no denying that shooting Shipka is an extremely exciting experience, with birds not only flying across the gill, but also swinging down from the top in line abreast: with the right wind they come extremely fast, dipping and weaving through the gill.

Sir Ian Walker was the lucky tenant in 1934, for what turned out to be an extraordinary season: 11,368 brace in total, including 7,149 brace on Wemmergill alone. The first day on Southside - August 18 - produced Wemmergill's record bag: 1,348.5 brace, and, it is thought that, had the weather been better, Abbeystead's record of 1,464.5 brace in 1915 would have been broken. Sir Ian recorded:  “They came so thick, high and fast, that it was practically impossible to turn round to tell what had happened.” 

The day had started cloudy and dull, but as the Guns went down into Shipka Pass a thick mist came down for almost the whole of the next two drives. It was virtually impossible for the beaters to keep a line, and for the flankers to do their job, but luckily the mist cleared in time for the third drive over the Pass, and 581 grouse were then added to the bag, the best Gun scoring 121.

One interesting procedure had been adopted by Sir Ian: that of asking each Gun how many birds were claimed on each drive, and accurate records were kept. He also ran another moor - Hunthill - where a dog man lay hidden behind the butts and picked up over 700 birds during their best season, and birds picked exceeded those claimed by 103. At Wemmergill, this was not possible, due to the number of return drives, and the birds claimed exceeded those picked by 675. Interestingly, the last time I shot Shipka Pass, we were asked at lunchtime how many birds we thought we had shot and had picked. The total - 65 brace claimed - was exactly the number picked!

That first day in 1934 was not a one-off, as the following week 3,463 brace were killed, with a day on Northside breaking the 1,000 brace mark again! There were 31 days all told that year, with an average bag of 367 brace. The weather was consistently poor, with south-westerly gales and rain. It is interesting to see from the records that 1931 had been an awful season with only 43 brace shot on Wemmergill, and in 1932 there was no shooting at all. 1933 had shown a remarkable bounce-back with 3,725 brace.

The postwar years saw the start of the Nickerson era at Wemmergill, with Sir Joe being the tenant from 1952 until 1987, the last eight seasons jointly with the estate. Bags grew steadily rather than spectacularly, and it was only in the early nineties, with Sir Tom Cowie as tenant that a series of excellent seasons occurred.

The history of Wemmergill then changed dramatically, when, having initially taken on the tenancy in 2004, Michael Cannon was offered, and purchased, the freehold of the moor, together with several low ground farms - 17,000 acres in total. Major investment has begun, with extra keepers being taken on, and work begun on heather regeneration where over-grazing has done serious damage: most noticeably at the east end of Shipka Pass. The owner is also responsible for one of the largest heather replanting schemes on another moor, High Abbotside in Yorkshire, and it is likely that results will be swift.

After an excellent year in 2004, with 6,800 brace shot, there was a near wipe-out in 2005: the same ground was driven in 2005 which had produced a bag of nearly 400 brace in 2004, and the Guns estimated they had seen no more than 70 grouse all day, from over 3,000 acres. 

However, last year saw the start of a revival, and the spring counts this year are encouraging, with worm counts low. If the weather has been kind during May and June, a good season is anticipated.

Michael Cannon and his moors

Michael Cannon's love affair with grouse started proper in 1996 with the joint ownership of Stags Fell moor with Richard Johnson. Richard, a Haws solicitor with a passion for grouse, had bought the Simonstone estate in 1981 which embraced grouse moors Stags Fell and High Abbotside, as well as Cotterdale, which they subsequently developed as a top class partridge and pheasant shoot. Richard sold Michael a half share of the prolific Stags Fell, before selling him the neighbouring barren High Abbotside, near Hawes, which had been a productive moor until the Second World War. Michael's business career has been a series of turnaround projects, mostly with pub chains (at which he really does have the Midas touch), and he's applied the same optimism, drive and investment to his moors.

He counts himself as fortunate to have met up with Geoff Eyre, who, in the Peak District, has led much of the pioneering work done on heather regeneration, for which he deservedly won the Purdey Award last year. 

Geoff's methods were adapted by Michael and his team for the high and exposed conditions in Yorkshire, where 2,200 overgrazed acres - nearly four square miles of largely rough grass - has been reseeded. Michael said: “My keepers and support staff have put in a huge effort to accomplish this, and, together with the temporary removal of the sheep from the area, the reseeding is already producing results, with grouse spreading onto the new heather. We've got a short-term target of 500 brace, and we'll build on that – it's very exciting, starting totally from scratch and seeing what can be achieved. And it's not only the red grouse that benefits – blackgame are increasing significantly, and all the other ground nesting birds.

“Wemmergill is a different project, but with the same objective – to get the moor and its heather back into prime condition. I couldn't believe that there wasn't more interest when the tenancy originally came on the market, and when the opportunity arose to buy the freehold as well, I didn't think twice! But it's a huge undertaking. As much as 53% of the moor is in unfavourable condition, according to Natural England's own assessment.” 

Poor maintenance, overgrazing and over-enthusiastic drainage in the past are apparently all to blame. Michael's control over the whole moor and its farms, together with Environmental Stewardship initiatives, mean that a new relationship with the graziers can be implemented, and efforts made to control the areas where the sheep tend to concentrate in winter. Most keepers believe that the main heather damage is done in the winter months, and, if this can be minimised, the heather returns remarkably quickly.

Michael concluded: “I'm certain that all the new measures we're putting in place will help get the heather back to its best possible level. It's a fantastic moor, and I'm excited every time I see it. I want to maintain and preserve its place in shooting history, and build the grouse stocks back to their optimum level. It's a fantastic challenge!”

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