A David and Goliath story

Despite being just 500 acres, Williamston estate produces  exhilarating driven sport to rival the big names, says Charles Bull.

Photography: Richard Faulks

The day dawned wet, no adjectives or any amount of dressing up could get round this fact, it was just very wet. The sort of persistent wetness that only the likes of Northumberland or Cumbria can provide; the type of relentless, incessant, seemingly never ending wet rain available in bucket loads, that being of an age, for me, slightly removes a little of the gloss that my favourite sport provides. Get the picture?

So after the ubiquitous heart attack shoot breakfast, the team ventured outside after donning full wet weather gear. The forecast was not good, but unlike the weather, spirits generally remained undampened in a true British stiff upper lip fieldsports sort of a way. And so from the farmhouse, the 4x4 convoy sallied forth up the hill to meet for sloe gin, team talk and peg-drawing adjacent to the first drive. Nothing unusual about this you might be thinking, could be the beginning of pretty much any driven grouse day north of Oxfordshire where I normally reside. And you would be quite right, until I tell you that this driven (note the word ‘driven') grouse moor encompasses just 500 acres of heather – about the size of one drive or so on some of the perhaps better known moors. Read on and find out how it is done…

But first, back to the day in hand. As we extricated ourselves from vehicles at the rendezvous, the weather Gods smiled and the rain stopped, so all was well with the world as we un-donned full wet gear and started to look a little more County Life (or Fieldsports of course!) with tweedy type waistcoats and checkered shirt sleeves.
I drew No. 4 and was in pole position for the first drive in a butt called the Pulpit – for obvious reasons. The beaters came round the perfectly dome-shaped moor, but the grouse did not want to play with me on this our first Saturday, (the 12th of course being the Sabbath last year). I had one optimistic shot (they all say that don't they?) at a rapidly fleeting grouse behind my neighbour and that was it. Our host and moor owner Neville Gill, however, fared somewhat better and shooting like the old grouse hand he is, downed a creditable 3½ brace in the top butt. His neighbour James Fuller also demonstrated somewhat of a masterclass in how to shoot grouse which I confess I am struggling to describe. Having shot a brace in front with a single barrel, he turned in exemplary fashion and proceeded to down another brace with a shot behind. For the uninitiated reading this, I wonder (worry) that they may think it all too easy? (Really not good for the cartridge trade). So let's just call it a double right and left and get on with the rest of the day.

The second drive saw the opposite end of the moor being driven in the contrastive direction to the first drive with a stiff crosswind. Slightly easier shooting in my opinion (although James may disagree) and I managed to struggle 1½ brace into the bag along with all the Guns who had some shooting. The third drive lies between the first and the second with a short horizon, meaning the birds are upon you at what seems like warp speed – concentration is the key!   

I was just about beginning to hit my stride and my Caesar Guerini 28 bore really started to sing. Shooting 3 brace under a moody sky, including a right and left in front, meant I was feeling that life didn't really get much better than this. Looking over the heather rolling away behind towards Knarsdale, with the folds of the hill disappearing into the valley below, this is the perfect tonic to the helter skelter rush of everyday working life.

Lunch is taken at the Cott, or bothy for those of you north of the border, and today we banqueted outside as the sun really began to make its presence felt. Whilst the hill is usually a degree or three cooler than the valley, when shooting grouse, lunch should never be scrimped on – I hate camping! With plenty of food and a glass or two of vino, even with a stiff breeze, one began to feel a little mellow and torpid. But the action must continue and we set off for the fourth and penultimate drive, which was a repeat of the first and I was in the rear line of butts. There are not many moors that have two lines of butts in the one drive and whilst I have heard of another one, Williamston is the only one I have shot. With the second line about 400 yards behind the front line, shooting in front (and behind for the front line) is not an issue from a safety point of view.

The fifth and final drive was a reverse of the second and was to be a classic and truly memorable drive for me. More shooting and more grouse made for exhilarating sport and again, all the eight Guns got shooting to a greater or lesser extent. The wind had picked up and the grouse were flying with it. You need to be taking the first bird well in front in such conditions and I managed another right and left with the first bird taken thus, dropping 25 yards straight in front of my butt and the second behind. This gives you an idea of how fast grouse fly when helped with a breath of draft, as I must have shot the first 45 yards out and still not had time to take the second in front – maybe I am just a little tardy!

So what was the bag on this postage stamp of heather? 56½ brace. Not a massive bag when compared with some of the ‘named' moors I will admit, but off 500 acres of moorland, I ask you? And when I tell you that on August 12, 1957, the bag topped 142½ brace, we have to ask how it is so consistently done. Well I will tell you.

Williamston has been in the same family since the early 1700s and the answer is that it has obviously been cherished, nurtured and most importantly loved by the Gill family ever since. Times have understandably not always been good and whilst it has, on occasion, been in hock to the bank for one reason or another, it has nonetheless remained in rude health and in the family. Times change and management has to evolve to cope – change should, in my view, be embraced, as it is the life blood of continuam. The present incumbent, Neville, is of this mind and determined to maintain the equilibrium and ensure that this small estate wipes its feet and remains in the family. Traditional values then, but with a modern slant to maintain the status quo. So point one then, the moor owner needs to love his moor.

Secondly, moor management has to be exemplary. With modern grouse moor management techniques, we must appreciate that August 12, 1957, (and indeed a record season) was a ‘bumper' year for grouse, based on the not very old seven-year cycle. That cycle has now changed for the most part with the advent of medicated grit to treat the strongyle worm. This allied with a sensible, diligent and rigorous burning regime and responsible year-round predator control, forefronted by part-time keeper Albert Ridley, helps to maintain an optimum population with a shootable surplus. One thing we do not have control over is, of course, the weather and this will continue to have an impact, but by and large, most moors will shoot most years, which as many of us will remember, has not always been the case.

Williamston is a beautiful moor, with the dome-shaped nose of it poking into the valley between Alston and Slaggyford. As we drove up the valley, it was distinctive by it's positively glowing heather in flower. Run as a small syndicate shoot to cover costs, I was lucky enough to be invited to join (dead man's shoes!) a year or two ago and unless thrown out for bad behaviour, I would never consider leaving. This is a David and Goliath story, although it is not about a battle. It is about the fact that small can be beautiful, and of course productive…

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