The Upper Tees valley changes from neat green fields and chocolate-box houses south of Middleton village to sweeping vistas of wild moorland where the only signs of habitation are a sprinkling of white farmsteads standing bright as snowdrifts against the muted backdrop of the fells. These disparate farms and the wild country surrounding them belong to the vast Raby estate in Co Durham, where we meet on what the locals call “a proper back-end day”, one of scudding clouds, tough wind and a fast-shifting light that alternately illuminates and darkens the northern Pennines, home to some of the finest grouse moors in the world.
We may be in prime grouse country but today is all about trying to round up a variety of wild game attracted to the bog, bracken and rough pasture that fringe the moor’s edge. As headkeeper on Upper Teesdale for the past 30 years and the recently appointed chairman of the National Gamekeepers’ Organisation, Lindsay Waddell is a familiar and much-respected face in the shooting world. “We have as much marginal hill land as heather moorland,” he explains, “and the wet, rushy ground provides ideal habitat for all sorts of wild game, which benefit from the predator control we undertake on behalf of the grouse. Hopefully we will ambush some wild pheasants today, but they vote with their feet up here and move off quickly at the slightest hint of danger.”
The vehicles pull up some way off the ragged bog that is to be driven first and the guns are cautioned to keep quiet as they creep downhill to take up position behind a dry-stone wall. The excited chatter subdues but not sufficiently for Lindsay, who frowns as he draws a forefinger across tightly pursed lips – the effect is immediate silence. There is something of Montgomery about the headkeeper’s fit and wiry frame and the manner in which he whispers detailed instructions for the im-pending ambush into his radio. His four beatkeepers and rabbit-catcher, Norman Ornsby, move stealthily into place on the far side of the bog and begin their slow walk towards the line of concealed guns.
No one knows quite what to expect from the dense sieve beds in front of them, but the tension is broken by a snipe spiralling up from the green canvas, white breast glinting in the sunlight as it flits unscathed over the guns. Soon the air is full of twisting white specks and the sound of shots drowns their grating calls. Four duck lift next from a hidden sheet of water in the rushes, their flight slow and cumbersome by comparison, and finally a cock pheasant skims through the line at head height to signal the end of the first drive.
This sort of wild and unpredictable shooting – short on quantity but long on excitement and quality – is what draws writer Chris Catlin and five friends back to Upper Teesdale each autumn. For Irvin Metcalf, whose father was a tenant farmer on the Raby estate, this is also a return to the landscape of his youth and the moors where he used to help out as a beater during school holidays. He speaks for all when he tells me, “This is how shooting used to be, with wild birds and an element of surprise. There is a huge difference compared with the reared birds I am used to in Lincolnshire. I am not a numbers man and would much rather shoot one good bird than 15 moderate ones.”
There is no such thing as a bad bird up here, although one of the morning’s best is a hen pheasant that stands on her tail and rockets skywards during the second drive. The rule on this shoot is “cocks only”, but this is such a good one that Lindsay shouts out the command – “Go on, see if you can reach it!” – and Jim Sneddon duly obliges with a fine shot.
To reach their positions for a later drive and the possible bonus of an October grouse the guns have to climb a steep slope, which James Fuller scrambles up and down like a mountain goat as he assists the less fit members of the party up to the heather line on what feels like the roof of the world. On the high-altitude northern Pennines the heather does not get going below 1,400ft and flourishes up to 2,200ft, providing the potential for exceptionally high grouse populations in a good year.
Even in an average season the moor produces around 20 driven grouse days, although this can more than double in a bonanza year such as 1998 when one of the moor’s four beats yielded in excess of 5,000 brace. As I contemplate the unimaginable, a covey flushed from the nab end of heather in front of us comes scorching through the line, rewarding James for his charity with a memorable shot, although the following brace tilt russet wing tips to plummet like meteorites out of sight into a steep gully.
There is more walking on the last beat before lunch, this time through rushy fields said to be full of wild pheasants – I know this
because I’ve overheard the headkeeper discussing tactics on his radio. As we wait for them to settle down he describes how his wife once observed the old cock pheasant that feeds with his hens each morning jump up on to a ferret hutch on hearing a shot, and then crane his neck for a better view. “As soon as he twigged there was a shoot going on he abandoned his vantage point and legged it for the hills as fast as his legs could carry him,” Lindsay chuckles, with just a hint of admiration. Having heard this tale I am not in the least surprised when hardly any of the pheasants reported as going into the next beat are ever seen again. Instead we are treated to the sight of several good coveys of English partridges, off limits this year having suffered at the hands of a torrential downpour in midsummer. I feel a pang of sympathy for Chris as a lovely covey of greys lifts 100yd in front of him and, gaining speed and height, peels back over his head chortling merrily as only partridges can. He watches the fast-disappearing birds with the bemused look of a hungry man who has just seen a juicy steak snatched from under his nose.
The guns have chosen not to shoot rabbits today, but could have filled their boots had they wished as virtually every tussock conceals a coney to tempt well-disciplined gundogs into disobedience and provide Norman with a never-ending task. Such dedicated rabbit-catchers are rare; even rarer are those that eat what they catch. “I like them best in autumn when the kidneys are covered in a thick, creamy layer of fat and the fur along the spine has a nice black sheen,” Norman grins. “They’re that good you can nearly eat them raw.”
For lunch Chris passes round beef rolls rather than rabbit sandwiches and enlightens me on his latest project – a shooting anthology, the proceeds from which are to be used to introduce youngsters to the sport.
The sight of several blackgame after lunch initiates a discussion on just why they have flourished so successfully in Upper Teesdale, where approximately a third of the entire English population is said to live. The virtual certainty of seeing these magnificent birds during a day’s shooting here is a huge bonus – although you will not have the chance to add one to the gamebag as surplus birds are relocated under the blackgame recovery project to replenish other upland areas.
One reason for their success is that marginal hill land provides ideal habitat for the species; another is the constant suppression of vermin. “We put as much effort into controlling predators on the lower ground as we do on the moor because this is where most of the vermin is produced, including stoats, weasels and rats,” Lindsay says. “But favourable weather during the breeding season is also crucial to sustain a high population of wild game.” Surrounded by other well-keepered moors and with the nearest forestry many miles distant, foxes are rarely a problem.
The day continues with stunning drives in which woodcock, snipe and duck play leading roles but by three o’clock there are still very few pheasants in the game cart. Clearly this day belongs to them, and perhaps for this reason the pheasants are abandoned and the guns treated to another crack at the king of gamebirds for the final drive of the day. The setting is a deep moorland ravine where we wait for perhaps 10 minutes – the longest period of inactivity since the day began – before the first covey suddenly appears, scything across the ceiling of cold, clear sky like a shower of black bullets. Not everyone is as quick off the mark as Jim, who will doubtless cherish for a very long time the memory of a spectacular right-and-left at driven October grouse.
It would be hard to finish on a better note, and as we leave the hills the guns are glowing with the satisfaction of a day spent about as close to nature as it is possible to get. They have covered miles of breathtaking country in pursuit of genuinely wild game where, for once, the size of the bag has been of no consequence.
Only the headkeeper is not entirely satisfied. “The pheasants have lead us a complete dance today,” is his verdict, “but we will get our own back. They live a long time up here and we will catch up with one or two of them before the season is finished.” Those lucky enough to be part of that exercise can look forward to superlative sport.
Days are scarce but to shoot at Upper Tees-dale email Raby Estate