Grouse-shooters have been looking forward to mid-August with bridal excitement since the Game Act of 1831 made it illegal to shoot out of season. Iain Hollingshead is invited along.

By Iain Hollingshead

When a friend of mine who was getting married on August 12 went to stay with the best man’s family just before his wedding, the father, a traditional sort, put him and his fiancée in separate bedrooms. “There will be no shooting before the Glorious Twelfth,” he declared.

Grouse-shooters have been looking forward to mid-August with bridal excitement since the Game Act of 1831 made it illegal to shoot out of season. This week, expectations were particularly high; after fears that a hard winter had forced the grouse on to lower ground, there were excitable reports that they had in fact been breeding better than ever.

“It seems like such a long time between the end of the season [on December 10] and the beginning of the next one,” says Bernard Robinson, a retired businessman and High Sheriff of County Durham, who has been organising a shooting party on the Twelfth for 20 years.

shooting_1696296cBut for him and his friends, the wait is finally over. It is Thursday August 12 2010. We are on Lord Barnard’s vast estate which straddles Teesdale, County Durham and Northumberland. And the guests include: a scion of the Howard family; Sir Brian Moffat, the former chairman of British Steel; a couple of self-made millionaires; the local retired GP; Gareth Edwards, perhaps the greatest rugby player of all time… and me, whose only previous encounter with the famous grouse was a dark night of the soul in a pub in Scotland.

It’s jolly nice to be invited. Unless you’re willing to yomp miles over rough terrain as a beater, not many people get to see a grouse shoot up close. These guns are forking out £7,000 a day each.

Grouse shooting is famously perilous – and difficult. In contrast to sluggish, purpose-reared pheasants, they fly fast and low. One of the group claims to have clocked one with a speed camera going at 110mph. Grouse also have an unsporting habit of changing direction at the last moment, flying precariously close to a neighbouring gun or a hapless marker.

“Whenever you’re asked on a shoot, you always check who else is coming first,” Richard Tonks, a local business magnate, says. “The last thing you want is a loose cannon next to you.”

I crouch behind Tonks for the first drive and soon see what he means. Each gun stands behind a “butt”, typically a wooden fence that offers limited camouflage and even less protection. I am only observing, but the excitement is such that I cannot stop myself calling out “incoming, two o’clock” every time I see one.

The bloodlust is extraordinary. I sense it in myself, but it is even more obvious in these alpha males with their fingers on the trigger. Under such circumstances it takes extreme willpower not to swing across the line when a grouse suddenly changes direction. Fortunately, Tonks does not hit anyone – or, if one is honest, many birds either. “Getting used to a new gun,” he says apologetically afterwards. “Still, it’s good to get some lead away.”

Between each drive (we do four in the day), there is a great deal of good-natured banter. Specsavers is mentioned a lot. Everyone is in slight awe of the genial Edwards who fells six brace (12 grouse) on the first drive.

“I suppose the hand-eye coordination helps,” he says. “And sportsmen are inherently competitive.”

After a lunch of epic proportions – crab, beef, wine, and more fruit cake than is strictly justified by walking across a couple of hills – I see just how competitive Edwards is. Despite the lashing wind, he hits a fast grouse behind him at 50 yards. “That’s one I’ll be reliving later,” he says, as if he’s just scored his celebrated try again for the Barbarians.

The head count comes in at a respectable 70 brace. Everyone seems pretty happy, in fact, which is just as well given how much they’ve spent.

All in all, it was a harmless way of keeping rich, retired people out of mischief, I reflected, as I hastily changed out of my borrowed plus fours at Darlington station. Moorland conservation keeps the local economy ticking over. And the birds, which appear to die fairly painlessly, are even tastier when you’ve been there as they fall.






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