There is winged game and then there is winged game. And then there is driven grouse – it is expensive – it is exclusive but with good reason.
Thousands of man hours go into creating a habitat that will allow these ground nesting Stinger missiles to flourish. And someone has to pay for it.
Today we join a family-and-friend-day shoot in Yorkshire. We are on Bransdale moor and are guests of the Wilkinson family. Their estate and their shoot is managed by William Powell Sporting.
“Because we are involved 365 days a year at Bransdale and on our other moors we therefore have such a tremendous involvement we make sure that every single day does live up to its expectations,” says Mark Osborne from William Powell. He is the man who will be guiding us through the day – explaining the dos and the don’ts, butt etiquette and why grouse is flying royalty.
“They are really the most extraordinary birds,” says Mark. “By mid September, probably as soon as they see you lift your gun, they flare away up. Where you have shot is not where the grouse are. Really amazing – an amazing bird. Marvellous.”
Mark Osborne, in a grouse butt
Before a hard day’s shooting there is a hearty breakfast to be had at the recently refurbished Stoney Woods Manor. This amazing building has been fitted out in preparation for shooting parties to come and have a ball – on the moor and off it.
There are nine bedrooms with day rooms and dining rooms, all with spectacular views across the great British countryside. The moor itself is a 25 minute drive away – delving deeper into an uninterrupted moorland landscape. It truly is a privilege to be here.
There are nine guns today and five drives where the birds come at you at eye level, so safety is at the top of everyone’s minds. There are people everywhere. For the first drive, we let Mark get his eye in before we start badgering him about how one does things. Mark shoots four birds – the end of the line does not often deliver the best shooting but he has done well. Dogs and beaters make sure that all the grouse on the ground are accounted for.
Watch the film
The second drive is a bit more exposed and we should be able to see the birds coming at us from a distance. Mark is now in butt three. He has a chance to talk us through the set up – the action can be fast and furious. Safety remains the number one concern.
“The first thing I do is to look around me to see the topography, the line of the butts on either side and the good shooting angle in front of me and then behind,” says Mark. “The gun comes out of the sling, we put the gun in front of the butt with two cartridges in it so that we are ready, because we are live at any time. Everybody is in their butts so we can shoot whenever it is safe and the grouse are coming.
“We then get our butt sticks which are positioned by the gun rather than by the loader. These are a frame that make sure that we cannot shoot into the butts either side. So I look for a safe place to shoot. The butt stick has a window which prevents us from shooting through into the butt on that side. Then we take the other butt stick out to do the same on the other side.
The flankers are flagmen running outside from the end butts, butt number one and butt number eight on either end and they are to keep the grouse coming in as the drive comes in. “We have got some flankers right up on the ridge there,” says Mark. “They are probably out of shot, but just to be careful we will put a walking stick in front so there is no chance of us peppering a flanker either.”
Simon Ward, one of the UK’s best grouse shots
Once the beaters get to a white marker in front of the guns a horn blows telling the guns they can now only shoot birds behind – to the rear of the butt. The beaters can then come right up to the guns.
A second horn means the end of the drive and the birds can be picked. The guns should also use this disc to mark where the birds have fallen.
Time for a quick break, and an opportunity for us to speak to the man who is shouldering a lot of the pressure today – the head game keeper. For him this shoot is the culmination of not months but years of work.
“This is the first big moor I have been a head keeper on,” says Paul Wilson. “I have been the head keeper on a small moor in Scotland. So coming here this is the first moor I can really put my mark on and want to smash all records on Bransdale.
“The record is 4,200 brace for the season and we would want to get it to 6,000. I would be very disappointed if we didn’t get it to 6. And also the day record although because it is a let moor getting a team that is willing to pay for 500 brace of grouse could be quite difficult. So that maybe is not as realistic a goal, but certainly the season record is the one we want to go for.”
Do you love your job? “Yes, you have to. You wouldn’t do it if you didn’t.”
Once fed and watered, there is more sport to be had. For this third drive, we join one of the best game shots in the world. Simon Ward. Simon used to compete very successfully on the clay circuit but now concentrates on teaching sporting guns how to deal with a bird flying at just above ground level at 65mph. As we have him cornered, it would be rude not to ask him for a few pearls of wisdom.
“First of all it would be safety and the second major tip would be learn to mount the gun accurately on to a moving object,” he says. “In this situation you have got grouse coming in at eye level. If you stand too upright and mount the gun with your head up you will be looking at the grouse but the barrel will be beneath your eye. So the idea is that with anything at your eye level or below you bring your head forwards, so your balance comes over your front foot. And as you mount the gun on to the bird the gun comes up to the cheek naturally. When it comes to crunch your lead eye, my left eye, is in effect the back sight.”
We don’t get much shooting but what does fly past doesn’t need a second barrel.
Gun pointing down range: Mark explains safety measures
Lunch means a three-course meal in this wonderful carriage. Life is good and so is the food. And so is the shooting – for the penultimate drive again we join Simon. This is the drive we’ve been waiting for. With the weather cooling, the birds are flying really fast. Nothing gets past Simon.
“You can see from the film it was all fairly exciting stuff and the grouse were whizzing around left, right and centre and a few nice coveys coming through,” says Simon. “We had to pick the right bird and set ourself up for a left and right and one or two tricky ones out the back. You have seen it in the flesh there. That is driven grouse shooting in all its glory.”
For the last drive, we really push the boat out. There is a chance of using a fourth barrel – sort of – Mark is shooting a pair of William Powell Zenith side-by-sides. Why is it important to have good guns when you are grouseshooting?
“To me it is lovely to shoot with a traditional gun, the side by side,” he says. “The design of these guns is based on Holland and Holland action and it hasn’t changed for about 100 years. So that actual design of that action is nearly 100 years old and Holland & Hollands are still made today exactly like that and there is something really inherently wonderful about shooting with that traditional gun in this very traditional environment.”
If there were a place where these deserve an outing it is here and Mark believes that a side by side is actually better suited to grouse. “When you are shooting high pheasants or partridges, having that tremendous balance of that over and under which goes on a single plain and doesn’t flick about is a great advantage,” he says. “When you are shooting a bird which is jinking right to left and backwards and forward like a grouse will do, having a gun that you can put into your shoulder and move it very quickly, a side by side is that gun and is probably an advantage.”
With the odd covey coming through, the loader and guns are busy – and Mark is once again having some sport. It has been a fabulous day and we have bagged 102 brace.
Grouse shooting is deep-seated in the fabric of this country. It is high octane sport, that brings so many added benefits from conservation to cash for rural communities, and there is a super social side whether you are gun or a beater.