Danby Shoot – North York Moors
Off the back of a widespread poor breeding season for the king of gamebirds, Will Pocklington visits a grouse moor in the North York Moors adapting well to the many curveballs thrown its way.
(PHOTOGRAPHY: TOM HARTLEY)
You know you’re close to prime grouse country when grit bins decorate the roadside at 30-yard intervals. So was the case as I wrestled my way up to the North York Moors National Park centre – former hunting lodge and now the meeting place for the Danby shoot – in early September last year.
A mixture of nerves, excitement and anticipation affect many of us on the morning of a shoot day – keepers and hosts included. Not surprising, really, given the oh-so-many variables which can sweeten or scupper proceedings. So off the back of a well-documented and widespread poor breeding season for the king of gamebirds, it was an interesting time to visit an area with a growing reputation for its reliable, not-so-volatile grouse numbers.
Owned by the Dawnay family since 1656, Danby Moor is split into two – the Low Moor and the High Moor – by the River Esk as it cuts eastwards across the North York Moors to Whitby, eventually spilling out into the North Sea. The 10,500-acre, three-day grouse moor is stablemate to Wykeham, Dawnay Estates’ mixed pheasant and partridge shoot near Scarborough. Both rest atop a long tradition of shooting re-invigorated by John, the 9th Viscount Downe, and his son Richard in the mid-19th century.
Today, however, the family show little interest in shooting on their estates, and you’d be forgiven for thinking this might have an adverse affect on the ambience for guests. Untamed commercialism can kill the atmosphere on a shoot, no question, but at Danby you needn’t fret. Estates director Robert Sword, under-agent David Barrett, and headkeeper Peter Snaith’s team see to that, with the help of Matthew Finch of Primoris Sporting. In fact, “relaxed” and “friendly” were well coined superlatives among guests on the day I tagged along.
This being his 13th season at Danby, Peter heads up a recently expanded team of four keepers, distinguishable on a shoot day by their scarlet ties and estate tweeds. But despite his long term at the helm, he continues to make improvements, creating new drives and adapting burn cycles for the benefit of the shooting and conservation. Tick-related problems are addressed by regular dipping of the estate’s flock of Swaledales, and the extra man-power has had a significant effect on productivity for both the grouse and other wildlife on both moors, which, as well as being commons (the current Viscount Downe being the Lord of Manor), are designated Sites of Special Scientific Interest, and managed under a Higher Level Stewardship (HLS) scheme with Natural England.
Butted for nine Guns (on most drives stone and sunken), roughly 18 days are hosted between August and early November, ranging from 125–150 brace in the first two months of the season, to 70–80 brace days later on. A schedule I was surprised to hear, amidst cancellations galore for many other moors, was still very much up and running.
Contrary to the disastrously-timed bouts of rain, snow and cold temperatures experienced across many areas in the UK last year, things were looking quite promising for Danby – the North York Moors chugging away in consistent fashion whilst elsewhere the weather wreaked havoc during the hatching period. Seasons of late haven’t been without their problems, though...
In 2014, the Low Moor was struck by heather beetle – a menace which in large numbers can cause devastating damage to large swathes of heather moorland, and in some instances its conversion to ecological deserts dominated by coarse grasses. Here, it had effectively halved the acreage the Dawnay team had to work with.
And then, of course, are the challenges which come as part and parcel of sitting within a National Park with 1,408 miles of public rights of way, used by 7 million visitors each year.
There are, for example, planning implications surrounding proposals for new lines of traditional stone butts – quite bizarre given the National Park’s SPA status for merlins and golden plover, which are unquestionably only so successful because of the management for shooting.
A more obvious concern might be the expectation of bumping into walkers on every drive. But in reality, only one group of ramblers made an appearance all day, and any disruption to the drive was negligible thanks to the communication between Robert and Matthew in the butts and Peter and his team in the beating line.
There’s much to deal with on the moors, and yet any hint of uneasiness was buried under welcoming smiles and an excited bustle among all involved from the moment I arrived.
The team – none of whom had shot at Danby before – were already acquainted, having stayed in Helmsley the previous evening. In fact, for three Danish guests it would be their first time shooting grouse. “We like to encourage the Guns to make a sporting break of the experience rather than just turn up, shoot, and leave,” Matthew explained as everyone assembled around Robert for the morning briefing. “Most teams stay in Helmsley, just half an hour’s drive away,” he continued. It certainly appeared to have helped break the ice. A chatty group of Guns drew pegs before jumping into their own vehicles to trundle to Bainley, the first drive of the day.
On a clear day, the cliffs at Whitby past Mulgrave Castle are visible from Bainley’s butts. But today would be another battle with the weather – the carpet of lilac-coloured heather disappearing in a cloak of low mist as it stretched away from where the loaders positioned sticks and un-sleeved guns. It was chilly, too, as the muffled voices of beaters and cracks of flags became audible before the first grouse broke the horizon.
In fact, Bainley set the tone for the rest of the day. Grouse in ones and twos filled pauses between larger coveys and packs of sometimes 30 or more as they barrelled through the butts, well-spread across all nine Guns. Steady but not furious they came, just as you’d expect, given the terrain and time of year – a consistent theme which threaded its way through every drive but one.
Little Swang was different.
After a sloegasm elevenses on the fell, and illustrating quite exhilaratingly how thoughtful placement of butts – where conditions allow – can work wonders, the horizon here was a mere 50 yards away for most of the line. A heather-clad bank sloped gently towards the butts, and it made for adrenaline-spiking sport.
The grouse here might have been wild greys over Norfolk hedgerows. Surprised by the sudden appearance of the Guns, they burst over, curling and twisting their way through and over the line in an impressive aerobatic display. As a pre-lunch drive, it was a dream. And it gave everyone something to talk about other than the weather, which, by the time we were seated around a table-full of food in one of the three cosy stone bothys on the fell, had deteriorated into rain and thick mist.
The leisurely lunch provided the perfect opportunity to speak to some of the beaters and pickers-up, too, who were all in good spirits despite being top-to-toe in waterproofs. One such character was Rodney Natriss, an ex-bank manager from Whitby and one of the more regular, long-standing individuals to frequent the fell at Danby, picking-up with his black labs. “It is without a doubt the laid back, relaxed atmosphere that keeps me coming back here,” he said. “Of course, safety and rules are paramount, particularly on a grouse moor, but the more relaxed the atmosphere, the more enjoyable it is for everybody involved.”
Rodney was absolutely right. The air of take-your-time ease which had been maintained seemingly without effort for the whole morning, translated to a relaxed team of Guns who were happy to take the day as it came – the two drives in the afternoon both featuring spells of rain, but good shooting, too.
It was less of a simple day’s shooting, more of an experience – the history, landscape, wildlife and people all playing their part.
With such an atmosphere sustained right throughout the season, despite the curveballs hurled by Mother Nature, there’s no wonder the Dawnay team and Matthew looked so quietly confident at the start of the day.
N.B. Throughout the 2015 season at Danby, the High Moor continued to perform exceptionally well, resulting in a total bag of 2,200 brace.
Guns: Ben Thorpe, Felix Appelbe, Jon Van Kuffeler, Richard Blair, Ole Philipsen, Mads Rinke Kristensen, Austin Clews, Brian Scowcroft & Michael Peers.
Drives: Bainley, Bainley Return, Little Swang, Hart Leaps, Hart Leaps Return.
Bag: 147 brace.
The role of the sporting agent is key to many a good day’s shooting. Not just in the legwork beforehand, but on the day itself. In this respect, Matthew Finch, founder of Primoris Sporting, was exemplary.
“We tend to steer away from larger commercial shoots in favour of those that offer a quality experience in a private environment,” he explained.
“And central to being able to do this is establishing solid relationships with the teams at the estates and getting to know the shoots intimately.”
On the day itself it was a case of quiet co-operation with the rest of the estate team and subtle management of the day’s proceedings, without being too visible or getting in the way.
Indeed, when things run smoothly, and the ambience is honed to a tee, it’s those in the background, blending in, who are largely to thank.