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Summer – The Glorious Twelfth
It is a fine morning with a tentative sun casting a confusion of light and shadow over the dale. A little overnight rain shows the rabbit tracks on the cropped turf. From behind a gorse bush a solitary sheep lifts her head to stare at me before returning to graze.
Rather rashly I have agreed to spend the day grouse-beating for a friend who has charge of a small shoot. It is the first day of the season and there will be a full complement of guns.
At his farm, all is hustle and bustle. The shooters have arrived in their 4x4s and bright coloured estate cars. Lofty Labradors and snooty Spaniels ignore the insults hurled by the rough farm dogs and sit in dignified silence.
The beaters form their own group. There is one other novice with me and our jeans and trainers mark us out from the professionals, clad in their wax jackets and walking boots. The keeper hands us flags made from squares of plastic fertiliser sacks nailed to rough sticks.
Weather conditions are perfect with no wind to disturb the birds’ flight so after a brief consultation with the guns, the order of the drives is settled. We beaters move off up the road to take up our positions on the first drive. This gives the guns time for a last cigarette or a crafty nip from a hip flask. I am left at the back of a high stone wall…my objective is to reach a gap in another wall some considerable distance up the moor.
“Keep down until you hear the whistle, then over this wall and make steady for that gap”
Actually there are several gaps although I don’t like to mention it and I hope I’ve fixed on the right one. The keeper disappears leaving me in anxious solitude.
The sun vanishes and it is suddenly chilly and a smoke-white mist has crept unnoticed up the valley enshrouding everything. There is complete unnatural stillness. I shiver as I imagine walking blindly into the line of guns.
A shrill whistle blast splits the silence. I try to visualise the now invisible gap ahead of me as I scramble over the wall and push on through rough benty grass.
“Are you there?” a ghostly voice floats over to me.
“More or less” I reply, stumbling over a thick tussock.
Our flags crack like whips; we call out, guiding each other. A soft sucking bog covered in vivid moss pulls at my trainers and brown slush seeps through to my socks. Clumps of long reeds brush at me and my arms ache as I wave my flag in a sort of hysterical semaphore.
Without warning the mist lifts and reveals the ragged line of beaters. We make hasty crab-like adjustments to realign. There is a sudden whirr of wings as a brace of grouse rises at my feet, startling me. More follow and they fly fast and low up the moor towards the guns. Then, the loud report of a twelve bore followed by volleys of shots in quick succession. A few yards further and abruptly we stop. My gap is reached. The guns emerge from behind stone butts, leaving spent cartridges on the top of the butt walls to mark the direction of fallen birds. The first drive is over and we are all in one piece.
The beaters cluster together; we munch our elevenses and watch the dogs as they retrieve. One dog forgets his manners and refuses to part with his booty. His embarrassed owner tries various remedies including lifting him by the hind legs and waggling him. Eventually with ill grace the dog yields the mangled grouse.
The day is warming up now and off come the jackets and anoraks. The regular beaters swop tall tales. One tells a story about a notorious gentleman whose habit was to follow through after the birds passed over so that the beaters had to be ready to duck as they approached the butts. I laugh nervously.
Eventually the keeper draws us into line for the second drive…an easy one this over flat ground, or so it seems. But the black ling is thick and springy. It catches at the ankles making walking both hazardous and tiring. We wave our flags again and a hare runs away from us, ears flat to its back, to play Russian roulette with the guns. The keeper’s dogs whine and fret to be after it but training overcomes instinct. At the far edge of the drive a group of birds rises and perversely circles away from the guns to the safety of Dallowgill. Only a couple of shots sound and, as we gather again at the butts the guns look rather reproachfully at us.
We move straight on to the final drive. This is by far the most complicated and terrible threats are issued if the keeper’s instructions are ignored.
It’s hard going with several high stone walls to negotiate. An overgrown dyke lies in wait to trap the unwary. I stand at an appointed spot, shifting and squelching wetly from foot to foot. I must not move until I see my neighbour on the right or I will put birds up prematurely. He is a long time coming. My neighbour far away on the left is barely discernible in the shadow of the wall. I strain my eyes to the right again, impatient to be off. Finally, a figure appears over the brow of the hill signalling me to move forward. There’s much shouting and flag cracking to put the birds up. It’s a pity the fertiliser companies cannot see with what gusto we blazon their names across the dale. The keeper’s dogs cast busily from side to side, wet black noses down on the peaty earth. A bevy of birds gets up and our efforts are rewarded by a veritable fusillade from the guns.
With leaden legs, sodden feet and aching muscles, we all drift slowly back to the farmyard. The tally for this first day is made and despite that second drive there are smiles of satisfaction to accompany the hip flasks and sandwiches. We beaters receive our pay and the customary can of beer. As I trudge homeward, the derisive chuckle of a cock grouse follows me. There is one left to fly another day.
(First published as “Grouse Driving” in the Country Gentleman Magazine)