By Adrian Dangar for The Field
Wednesday, 12 September 2012
Grouse shooting on a revived moor. Whernside grouse shooting on its first driven day for years
In North Yorkshire people liken grouse moors to paintings by Rembrandt because you cannot create any more of either. However, both grouse moors and paintings can suffer from neglect and may require careful restoration if they are to attain former glories. Such was the case with the 2,000-odd acres of white grass, bog and heather that the Hon Tom Watson, his triplet brother, Lord Manton, Adrian Speir and Ralph Congreve combined to purchase four years ago on the Atlantic-facing slopes of the northern Pennines.
"I was tipped off that a once-productive moor could be bought for a reasonable price, although only 40% of it remained as heather," Tom Watson explains as we drive through Wensleydale en route to Whernside's first driven day at grouse for several seasons, although the previous owners usually managed to go grouse shooting and shoot a few brace each year on the Twelfth.
Watson first visited Whernside on an especially bleak day early in May 2007. "The high ground was white with snow, it was blowing a gale and the rain was coming down in stair rods," he recalls. "I didn't even get out of the car. But we knew the moor was once part of a much larger estate frequented by King George V, who used to arrive by private train at nearby Dent station."
Owning a grouse moor for grouse shooting must be every shooting man's dream, so it is hardly surprising that the quartet made a spontaneous decision to go ahead and "deal with the problems later". They inherited the goodwill of a young part-time keeper, but also a multitude of challenges to overcome before Whernside could be restored to a productive grouse moor for grouse shooting, let alone one fit for a king.
The first was access or, rather, lack of it, which may be why the former owners avoided the moor after August, for it is a steep, rough and boggy climb in on foot from the nearest public road. We have left Yorkshire behind and reached the Ribble system in Cumbria when Watson points to a dark green carpet nestling in folds of the hills ahead. "That's Blea Moor," he says, "Whernside lies just beyond the farthest trees and our first stroke of luck was being able to purchase those additional 300 acres of forestry from the executors of the former owner. Blea Moor not only provides sanctuary for vermin, but also holds the key to reaching the moor via well-established tracks."
The new owners acquired a licence to fell much of the mature timber there, and used the proceeds to extend an existing forestry road right up to the heather line, although it was not possible to construct a conventional track across the SSSI that comprises most of Whernside Moor. Instead, for several hundred yards, our small convoy of 4x4s slips and slithers along a unique biodegradable mat track (installed with the cooperation of Natural England), after which the terrain becomes too steep and wet for further progress. Several locals who have turned up to help beat as we are grouse shooting, flank and pick-up are already striding uphill for the 9.30am rendezvous, others cadge a ride with the beer in the Argocat, but for the rest of us its Shanks's pony all the way to the lunch hut.
"At least it's not raining," enthuses one of the guests on reaching the charming stone-built hut. "Soon will be," comes the verdict from within but, for once, rain does not materialise on a moor that gets some 80in a year. Beaters vanish into the hills, Watson gives the sort of pep talk that should precede every day on a grouse moor, and we draw for butts.
The view from mine is across a green valley to the former royal station, the highest in England and a stopping point for the Settle to Carlisle train. The track shows as a faint grey line etched into the hillside, boasting borders of bright purple wherever fencing has excluded sheep and allowed heather to flourish. Whernside is an island moor and the nearest keepered ground - at Mossdale - starts at the summit of a distant black hilltop.
Everyone watching the space between purple-brown moorland and blue-grey sky knows that this driven grouse shooting day is the fruition of four years' hard work, and something special. Such thoughts are abruptly banished by the first shot, and I see a grouse bouncing on heather at the far end of the line. There is no time to spectate as the drive suddenly hots up and birds come pouring through the line. It may be August but these are strong coveys of high-altitude grouse, fleet of wing, sharp of mind and determined not be killed.
And then the grouse shooting over so much quicker than it began. A series of horn blasts commands us not to shoot in front, and moments later a motley collection of canines is unleashed upon us as collies, terriers, dachshunds, pointers, spaniels, labradors and even a whippet called Blossom search for the spoils. The grouse shooting has been evenly dispersed along the line and there are smiles all round when we learn that both of Lord Manton's guests have shot their first driven grouse. From the handful he is clutching, the former riding master of the Household Cavalry, Dickie Waygood, appears to have shot several. The chef d'équipe of the British dressage team rests his hand on his host's shoulder and simply says, "Thanks, that was awesome." Lord Manton's other successful guest, Pedro Urquijo, an experienced wild-partridge shot in his native Spain, has been grouse shooting but not the driven variety. Becky Duff and her energetic cocker spaniel gather my contribution most impressively from sieve beds a long way behind the butts.
For the third drive it's an uphill slog past lime-green bogs and in and out of peat hags to a new line of beautifully constructed butts. "Unless you lot hurry up we won't fit all the drives in," Watson bellows at guests toiling in his wake at the start of a 20-minute yomp. The threat works a treat and everyone settles to the task, arriving at the summit with faces shining like wet stones. Adrian Speir, whose sons, Edward and Harry, are shooting, joins me to explain a crucial measure taken to improve the moor. "There was no heather at all on this high ground when we bought the moor," he says. "All the purple you can see today is a direct result of negotiating with farmers to reduce the amount of sheep overwintered on the moor. It helped that we were able to provide them with winter keep on our low-ground estate and Natural England assisted."
Once devoid of heather and spurned by grouse, the next two drives are a revelation, with numbers exceeding those suggested by the July grouse counts. When I remark on a couple of unusually large packs for this early on in the season, the headkeeper, Tim Cowin, explains, "Grouse up here soon pack up once you chase them around a bit." Cowin works as a joiner and is assisted on the moor by his cousin, Alistair, and farmer's son, Harry Ellison. "At this time of year there's probably only one night a week when I am not out on the hill," he says, before adding in the reserved manner used to temper optimism by all grousekeepers, "I'm quite pleased with those last two drives. We saw a few more than I expected. Taking the sheep off has really allowed the heather to get going. But it won't get rank up there; the wind will see to that, although I hope Natural England will allow us to do some burning once it's well established.
It has fallen to Adrian Speir to produce lunch and he does us proud at a gathering that includes the middle Watson triplet, Vicky Westropp, and her husband, Harry. The Westropps are Belvoir subscribers from Leicestershire and the chat moves seamlessly between shooting and hunting, for the senior triplet, Milo Manton, is also a frequent visitor to the Shires.
Ralph Congreve informs me over coffee that Whernside is one of the three celebrated high peaks that straddle the Yorkshire/Cumbrian border. "I hope my daughters all shoot their first grouse here, as developing and improving the moor into something all our families can enjoy is what this place is all about," he continues. "It's not just about grouse shooting; we all love to come up here and help with jobs throughout the year."
After lunch fresh ground is taken in for two more busy drives, and my day is made when my 15-year-old terrier bitch slips her lead and retrieves to hand a strong runner during the closing stages, which no one seems to mind. Once the real pickers-up have finished their task Watson announces that, with 42 brace and a snipe, we have surpassed the record bag of 41 brace set during Joe Elvey's 36-year reign as part-time keeper. The 89-year-old former postman, who once killed nine grouse with nine consecutive shots, has been with us all day, and is far too polite to malign the skills of our team of guns, but I think the grouse shooting record would have been broken by a greater margin had we been half as effective as Joe in his prime.
With up to six driven grouse shooting days per year a realistic ambition, such glories are all to come, although I suspect that targets are irrelevant to the owners. The dividend on their investment is fun for all the family and the opportunity to put something back into the sport they love - and they've made a pretty good start.
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