The jewel in the crown of driven-game shooting is the red grouse, aptly referred to as the “glorious grouse,” with the August opening day of grouse season being “The Glorious Twelfth.” Shooting driven red grouse is a very different game from shooting driven pheasants or partridge. Instead of flying high above valleys like pheasants and partridge, red grouse hug the contours of the land and fly low just above the heather. They are deceptively fast and often fly in large coveys, or “packs.” When they are driven from the heather, grouse lift in groups at different speeds and heights, replicating miniature fighter jets—ducking and weaving over the contours of the rugged terrain of the moors.
Red grouse are shot from butts, lined up on hills of thick heather. A grouse butt can be a circular structure made from regional stone or rectangular made from timber, and it can be either above ground or set into the ground so one is shooting at heather height. The sides are usually waist-high or higher, and there is enough room in the butt for the Gun and a loader to move about comfortably and safely.
A Gun will be positioned in one of 10 to 15 butts based on the peg that has been drawn. The loader will place two “spectacles” on the top of the butt to the right and left. These are hinged sticks that serve to remind the Gun of the positions of the butts to either side. After installing the spectacles, the loader will point out the nearby Guns—who in turn should acknowledge their fellow shooters. It is important for Guns to recognize their safe arcs of fire and those of their neighbors.
Driven grouse are typically shot using a pair of guns and a loader, although on smaller estates one gun may be the norm. The loader will be an experienced professional and will explain the uniqueness of grouse in their speed and flight and that they can change direction in an instant. When a Gun is ready to shoot, he needs to move his feet, stepping into the line of the grouse’s flight. The loader will not only help ensure safe shooting but also point out the grouse as they come into range.
The first shot should be at 40 to 50 yards; otherwise, because they fly so fast, the grouse will be on the Guns or even past them before they can pull the trigger! If a Gun lets the birds get close, the grouse will detect movement and engage in evasive maneuvers like fighter pilots. It is critical to watch the birds’ flight lines as they approach and to mount the gun smoothly, avoiding unnecessary movement and causing the grouse to jink and roll.
Choosing chokes is a matter of individual preference, and again the loader can be a good source for advice. Often the tighter-choked barrel will be used for the first shot farther out and, as the birds continue to approach, the more-open choke is used for the second shot. Then the shotguns are exchanged—the empty gun for one freshly loaded—and the next shot is taken with the more-open choke and then the tighter choke is used for the more-distant going-away bird.
Legend has it that some of the “great shots” have had four grouse dead in the air at once. Should other Guns have witnessed this, I have no doubt that the admiring team would have been proud to sign the great shots’ game cards!
A Gun’s clothes should always blend with the color of the moor. This means avoiding light colors that would make an individual stand out and wearing a brimmed cap to keep one’s face in shade. Hill walking can be tough work, so supportive ankle boots and a walking stick are always helpful. The shooting bag should hold eye and ear protection as well as insect repellant and water.
A Gun never shoots “down the line.” Whenever possible, birds are taken early, well out in front. If a Gun wants to take a shot behind, he should raise his muzzles vertically and execute a smooth turn like a guard officer and be sure it is a safe shot. If there is any doubt about what is behind the butt, the Gun should consult the loader, whose experience is invaluable. There also will be low shots, with the grouse hugging the heather before dropping a wing and passing at head height or higher. The loader will assist in making sure that only safe shots are taken.
As the beaters approach the butts, special care should be taken when shooting in front. Usually a horn will sound to alert the Guns to stop shooting in front, at which point shots cancontinue to be taken behind. It is a good practice to alert fellow Guns in case they haven’t heard the horn.
At the end of each drive another horn will sound, indicating that it is time to move to a different peg. On a good grouse day there will be four to six drives with a break for “elevenses.” And, depending on the weather and amount of daylight, there might even be a lunch served in the field or in a nearby bothy.
The pickers-up and their dogs will collect the fallen grouse after each drive, and the full count—the number of brace (two birds per brace)—will be announced at the end of the day. The number of brace will vary, depending on the size of the estate, and can be from 50-or-so for a smaller estate to 100-plus brace for a large estate.
This highly anticipated news is usually delivered at the evening dinner, which is hopefully a feast of celebration.
ABOUT RED GROUSE
Red grouse are endemic to the British Isles, and they have developed in isolation from other subspecies of willow ptarmigan, which are widespread in northern parts of Eurasia and North America. In Europe birds are hunted walked-up, with pointers and spaniels working in tandem to find and flush the grouse. In the UK this is referred to as rough shooting, and it is very similar to upland hunting in the US.
Grouse moors often occur on peat soils—either deep peat, which can be blanket bog, or shallow peat and mineral soils, which are on heathland areas. Grouse like to eat the young shoots of heather plants, so heather management, usually by off-season controlled burning, is undertaken to encourage new growth. Scotland and Yorkshire are acknowledged to have some of the top grouse moors.
TIPS FOR WALKED-UP SHOOTING
Safety first. Guns need to be aware of the ground they are crossing and always carry their guns open if walking is tough, the ground is uneven or they are faced with any type of obstacle. They also must be aware of their fellow Guns at all times. Staying in line as the group traverses the moor is vital, as is communication and concentration.
Guns need to be aware of the dogs as well. If birds flush and fly low, there may be a spaniel jumping after them. If a Gun is ever unsure of the angle of fire, he should not shoot.
Grouse will flush as singles, pairs or large coveys, but after the initial flush it’s smart to reload and be prepared, as some birds may hold in the heather and can be taken as stragglers. Of course, downed birds should always be marked, to aid in picking up.
Grouse shooting, driven or walked-up, is an adventure and an experience without rival. Any serious wingshooter should make an effort to partake in this bucket-list sport. If grouse shooting is at the top of your “must do” list, start saving now, as such wild and unique shooting is understandably expensive. The average cost per Gun for a 75-brace driven day starts around £2,100 ($2,600), with walked-up shooting starting around £1,250 ($1,550). And that’s just for the opportunity to shoot the birds. VAT, tips, accommodations, meals and just getting there are not included.
But who can really put a price on experiencing some of the most glorious shooting on Earth?