The new glory days of North Yorkshire grouse
Maybe if I had been to the manor born, so that strolling onto a British grouse moor was second nature by now, it might be different. Instead, two thoughts always invade my mind on the rare occasions when this happens.
First is, Oh, don’t let me make a complete jackass of myself . . . and just like that I am transported back to the Little League ballfields of 1960. I’m trotting slowly into the outfield and praying that one of the big kids, those steely-eyed 12-year-olds who are already shaving, won’t slam the ball in my direction, forcing me to put my meager skills on display.
In this analogy, as I stride toward my butt with outward confidence, chatting with my loader, I am eyeing the line to see who’s drawn the pegs alongside. Is it that banker from the City with the Aston Martin and the brand-new Boss 20-bores? The Saudi sub-prince who’s so far from the throne that his plane is just a 737? No, it’s Sir Gawain Farquhar-Rowbotham, Lt. Col., Life Guards, ret., swapping a go on his moor for a day here.
As usual, the grouse-shooting classes are well represented. Maybe the birds will swarm them instead. Maybe when I miss, someone down the line will think it was one of them.
Not likely. Red grouse brains are pea-size, but the species’ survival instinct and eyesight are like a wild turkey’s—backed up by the speed of a missile, the aerobatic ability of wood pigeons and the Red Baron’s tactical awareness. Grouse sense the weak spot in every line, and then exploit it without mercy.
And then, after I’ve missed my first few barrels, the second theme for my day emerges: Hey, no fair! Come back; do it again. I’ll be ready next time!
But there is no “next time.” We could stand in the same grouse butt every day for a month and never see the same birds come over the same way. It is uncanny. It is to laugh. It is to cry. It is the toughest shooting on earth, and it happens only in remote corners of this small and crowded kingdom.
I never developed much affection for baseball, but shooting driven red grouse is right up there with—I can only imagine—lapping clotted cream out of Nigella Lawson’s navel. When an invitation comes my way, all I remember are the few brilliant shots I’ve made on genetically retarded grouse. The pitiable performances, the nerves, the jetlag and constipation, the gnats of August, and the icy rain and howling winds of October have faded from my mind. Driven grouse! Yes!
This must be the mindset that owners of grouse moors rely upon; it was mine when I pulled up on the cobblestones in front of the Black Swan, a cozy, creaky pub hotel in Helmsley, North Yorkshire. Helmsley is a sensible-shoes kind of place, an ancient market town where the tourists up from London in their BMWs are instantly recognizable as they loot ye olde shoppes.
The Swan is the headquarters for shooting on nearby Snilesworth Moor. Guests stay there, eat there, meet every evening there in a private room for cocktails. The host is an American, Bob Cieslukowski—successful entrepreneur, gun guy, crusty ex-Vietnam Marine, and possibly the savior of North Yorkshire’s legendary grouse moors. His take-no-prisoners attitude about, well, everything, leads me to think of him as Maximum Bob. MB took over the shooting at Snilesworth in 1997 and has been doing it his way ever since. (He once ordered the owner of the estate off his own moor.) Each morning in the Land Rover I plied Bob with questions, starting with: What possessed you to take on a grouse moor?
“I ask myself that a lot,” he said. “I’d been shooting grouse for almost 20 years when the opportunity came up. I had just sold my company and retired. I wanted something that would keep me busy without the headaches of being on corporate boards. The idea of my own shoot and the challenge of bringing back a once very productive moor was just too good and exciting to pass up.
“The first five years were a bit frustrating, but Jimmy kept telling me it would come right. When it did, it was one of the most satisfying things I’ve done.”
“Jimmy” is James Chapel, head man at William Powell Sporting agency. James is tall and polished, well spoken but generally quiet, a veteran of the driven-game game.
(In an agreeable coincidence, at my grouse baptism—20 years ago, on a moor called Knarsdale—James was my loader. He was just starting out with Pennine Sporting, a joint venture between a land agent named Mark Osborne and Sir Edward Dashwood, who were also partners in E.J. Churchill Gunmakers and the West Wycombe shooting ground, down in Buckinghamshire. When they parted, Sir Edward kept Churchill’s and West Wycombe. Osborne kept the sporting agency and changed its name when he bought William Powell, the esteemed Birmingham gunmaker with a huge countryside mail-order business. James stayed with Osborne and, alongside managing and co-owning the sporting agency, has become Bob Cieslukowski’s booking agent, right-hand man and occasional loader.)
For the privilege of shooting at driven grouse, figure on paying your share of around £150 ($250, more or less) per brace . . .
William Powell Sporting has been helping manage the shooting at Snilesworth since Maximum Bob took the lease. The estate’s 11,000-plus acres include 6,600 acres of heather moorland—red grouse habitat—and 1,400 acres of low ground that are used for pheasant and partridge shooting.
A military man named George Herbert Peake bought the property in the 1890s, and his family still owns it. Without noble rank or political weight, Maj. Peake never made the big leagues of Edwardian shooting. After a career in government, his son Osbert became the Right Honourable Viscount Ingleby, but by then it was too late; Ripon, Walsingham and the other heroes of grouse shooting, not to mention their patron, Edward VII, had long since passed on.
The game had almost passed on too. Grouse moors had declined awfully through the Second World War and the postwar doldrums. Britain’s economy eventually rebounded, of course, and the Guns and the money returned, but grouse shooting has always seemed to be facing doom despite the millions that have been spent on research, conservation and restoration. Bob Cieslukowski’s modest initial goal for Snilesworth was to bring back the sort of shooting it had produced between 1907 and 1937, when the bags averaged 1,395 brace—that is, 2,790 grouse—per season. (Ask a seasoned grouse Gun how he did on a particular drive, and he’ll say “two” or “three and a half”—that is, four or seven birds.)
Unlike pheasants and partridge, grouse can’t reliably be pen-reared. The wild birds are finicky about food and cover. They are pushovers for intestinal worms, ticks and parasitic diseases. If it rains too much in the spring, their nests wash out. Red grouse are delicacies to every imaginable predator, all of which have their own lobbyists. The Game Conservancy Trust, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, Natural England, the Moorland Association, the Countryside Landowners Association et al.—as well as government agencies of England, Scotland and the European Commission—all have something to say (often contradictory) about grouse. Management techniques that work on the limestone moors of the Pennine Hills don’t necessarily apply in North Yorkshire, with its sandstone substrate, or Northumberland or Scotland.
Restoring fallow grouse habitat can take 15 years of patient investment and hard work, while any positive cash flow is limited to a brief shooting season, beginning on August 12 (13, if the 12th is a Sunday) and often ending in October—or earlier, if numbers are down. Sometimes a moor has to cancel its season entirely.
And finally, just as science and consensus seem to be gaining the upper hand, climate change may stack the deck even further against grouse.
Yet who’s going to give up on this rarefied sport of kings? When it can be so challenging, so addictive and so ecologically and financially valuable to the hard-strapped North?
Not Bob Cieslukowski: “In 2005 we hit the 1,000-brace mark and have averaged more than 2,200 brace every season since then.” But 2005 was a disaster almost everywhere else; some moors lost 95 percent of their birds. Then, only two seasons later and despite unusually wet springs and summers, Snilesworth set a new record: 534 brace in just one day.
Touch wood, but Snilesworth seems to be beating the historical five- to seven-year boom-to-bust grouse cycle. The 2013 season there finished with 2,350 brace and, according to James Chapel, “a large, healthy stock of breeding birds for next season.”
Compare this to the norms of yore: In Reminiscences of Scotch Grouse Moors, 1889, W.A. Adams stoically summed up his 24 years of lease-holding as “nine splendid seasons; five middling ditto; one very middling; and nine with practically no shooting.”
So what’s making the difference today? Better science? Enlightened husbandry? Lots of cash? Good luck? Certainly the first three, and everyone prays for the fourth. In any case, before Bob Cieslukowski took up the challenge, grouse shooting was fading from North Yorkshire. Now, inspired in part by Snilesworth’s recovery, there’s a revival underway.
For the privilege of shooting at driven grouse, figure on paying your share of around £150 ($250, more or less) per brace per day, plus bed, breakfast, bar and dinner, and then laying out tips in every direction—gamekeepers, loaders, house staff and so on. Veterans may have their own loaders, who might double as butlers or chauffeurs. Don’t imagine you can economize by shooting alone; a loader carries your guns and cartridges across the rough ground, spots incoming birds and marks the fallen ones, and keeps you from losing your head completely and spraying shot at the next butt and the oncoming beaters. Once in a while a loader hands you a charged gun. It’s best to have two of them—guns, that is.
Red grouse hug the contours, so a top shot sometimes can take five birds out of a swarm, at least on open ground. Shoot when the first grouse is 75 yards out—let it fly into the shot pattern—and then hand off the half-empty gun. With the fresh gun, take two more while the birds are still in front. Swap guns again, pivot like lightning and drop two more going away. Now high-five your loader and don’t forget this moment when it’s tip time.
A single day of grouse shooting requires disposable income. An entire grouse moor is a far, far greater drain on the personal exchequer, worse even than a quail plantation. A decent moor can be leased for a half-million pounds sterling per year; buying one requires shelling out about £5,000 per brace, average yearly bag. And then come the buildings, the vehicles and the shocking annual overhead, from staff to medicated grit.
Whether they are inheritors of ancient peerages, Russian oligarchs, Arab oil sheiks or American capitalists, moor men tend to cluster at the colorful end of the spectrum. Stories abound: the baronet who bought a ship for its huge boiler, which he installed in his grouse house so every guest could draw a hot bath at the same time. The Saudi with seven gamekeepers on a moor that’s shot just twice a year; he puts 20 guests into 10 butts, back to back, and drives birds back and forth over the line in both directions.
Etcetera, etcetera, etcetera.
And if you think I’m joking about “the grouse-shooting classes,” here’s a partial list of who appeared at Snilesworth last October: a medical doctor who took up wingshooting after he received a gift certificate at Purdey’s from the House of Saud. The executive chef at Nobu, in London. A man who’d sold his construction business and was fizzing with excitement on his first grouse day. A baron from the Border Country who was an interior designer. A farmer from Cornwall in his 80s (“acreage, my boy, acreage”). A man who insures art collections and entire museums. A livestock auctioneer. An ex-army officer who started an airline in East Africa. A principal in a London ad agency whose partner is a Broadway star. Two former BBC cameramen who created an international TV production company. (Prime Ministers are no longer so well represented; shooting, particularly pricey grouse shooting, carries cultural baggage that urban voters view askance. The Royals, however, with their job security, still love grouse.)
Many shooters carried 20- and even 28-gauge guns. None were women. More than half were British, the rest Americans. The older their money and their guns, the longer they’d been shooting and generally the bigger their bags. The elderly farmer could barely toddle along, but his Hollands seemed to be radar-guided. His loader was his wife, who’d been propping him up in the wet and wind for decades. Lovely couple.
Snilesworth is a three-day moor. That is, after three days of gunning, the grouse have to be rested for a while or they refuse to behave even somewhat. One line of butts is surrounded by what could pass for golf-course rough; most of the ground is lumpier than that but not terribly steep. Clients of a certain age or fitness can be shuttled between drives in a Polaris all-terrain vehicle. I counted 38 beaters and flankers one day, by far the longest line I’ve seen anywhere; and under the direction of gamekeepers with two-way radios, the line moved and wheeled like a drill team. (As usual, when the beaters come within 200 yards of the Guns, a horn sounds the signal: No more low birds in front!) When it was time to pick up, the ground heaved with close to 60 dogs rooting through the heather, spurred on by their owners.
Maximum Bob keeps to his own standards, which means doing things right or not at all. Snilesworth’s head keeper, Jimmy Shuttlewood, showed me his professional vermin-control device, supplied by Bob: a wicked black Barrett rifle with a Nightforce scope re-barreled down to .30 caliber at the request of the police. His longest shot on a fox to date: more than 800 yards.
Word has gotten around. It’s becoming difficult to book days on Snilesworth now, even a year in advance. Bob Cieslukowski is reaping what he sowed years ago, and now others are following his lead. Nearby Bransdale, a seven-day moor of 18,000 acres, is coming on strong too, and William Powell Sporting is there also.
Ruinously expensive, almost preposterously élitist, leading to giddy highs and suicidal lows, driven-grouse shooting is one of those sporting challenges that exceeds. Tired of driving your Bugatti in the Mille Miglia? Heli-skiing in New Zealand and Japan? Campaigning your 12 Metre yacht? Grouse shooting has been keeping rich, retired folks out of mischief for generations.
Author’s Note: For more information on grouse shooting on Snilesworth Moor, contact William Powell Sporting, 01144-1295-277-197; www.williampowellsporting.co.uk.
Silvio Calabi is an Editor at Large for Shooting Sportsman.
The Grouse Habit
Like supercars and diamonds, red grouse inspire record-keeping: the fastest, the biggest, the costliest, the most. Unlike toys and bling, however, grouse bags speak not just to filthy-richness but also to skill with a gun, nearly always born of much experience.
Snilesworth Moor’s one-day record of 534 brace was set on August 20, 2007, in four drives by nine Guns: Bob Arthur, Jim Jurries, Winslow Tuttle, Gary Troyer, Joe Toot, Mark Osborne, Jonathan Kennedy, Sir Edward Dashwood and Bob Cieslukowski.
The greatest wingshot of all time was probably Sir Joe Nickerson, the Lincolnshire seed-and-feed magnate who died in 1990. Two years before, when he was 74, he was part of a team of eight that killed 550 brace of grouse on one day. That year, 1988, tied with ’82 as Nickerson’s personal best for grouse: 3,390 birds, taken with a pair of 28-bore Purdey over/unders and his personal loader.
Fred Robinson’s personal best season for grouse was 3,435, with a trio of 12-bore hammer Purdeys and two loaders. In 1923, at the age of 71, Robinson, aka Lord Ripon, had a heart attack and died on a grouse moor.
At some point blood lust seems to elbow its way into the picture alongside wealth and shooting skill. The one-day, one-man record for grouse belongs to Tom de Grey, the 6th Lord Walsingham. On August 30, 1888, Walsingham and two loaders set up in a draw between the northern and southern ends of a small North Yorkshire moor called Blubberhouses. Walsingham had four blackpowder hammer Purdeys and used different loads for upwind and downwind birds. No other Guns were present. Two teams of beaters pushed the birds back and forth 20 times. Between 5:12 am and 6:45 pm Walsingham fired 1,510 cartridges to kill 1,070 grouse. Twice he took three birds with a single shot.
Walsingham, scion of a very famous political family, was also known as a cricketer, a butterfly collector and a government minister, but shooting ate up his fortune. At one point he had to flee England to evade the bill collectors.
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