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I am standing in a grouse butt on Arkleside Moor some 1,200ft above

sea level and scouring the black horizon for approaching birds. Men who

sweated beneath the August sun on these once-purple hills have long

gone, migrating south like the swallows to warmer and softer climes.

The wind is blowing hard from the north, stinging the face like salt on

a wound, but the sun is shining so fiercely that it illuminates the

surrounding moors as if they are a giant stage waiting for action. The

guns crouching expectantly in their butts are mere props compared to

the real payers in the unfolding drama – coveys of very wild grouse

concealed somewhere in the heather ahead of us. The guns are much too

far away to see the first birds scrambling skywards, and even though

their arrival is what each has been anticipating for every second of

the past 10 minutes, just one russet ball falls from the first silent

covey that sweeps without warning across the line. Welcome to the

high-altitude, unpredictable and undeniably thrilling world that is

late-season grouse.

Fieldcraft from both guns and beaters is so

much more important at this end of the season than during the hot days

of August when birds sit as tight as ticks on a sheep. There’s little

chance of them doing that today, even though there are 50 per cent

fewer beaters in the line than usual. Instead there is a danger that

all the grouse on one drive will lift as a giant pack and offer just a

few seconds of fleeting opportunities before strong winds gust them

over the horizon. When the moor’s owner, Martin Vallance, leads the

guns to take up position for the next drive he abandons a path through

the heather in favour of a soggy dyke bottom. Some sink to their knees

in cold, green slime but their host considers it a small price to pay

for keeping bobbing heads hidden from the beady gaze of nervous grouse.

November frosts can be cold enough to lacquer nearby Coverdale Tarn in

ice, yet once ensconced in his butt, Martin turns to me and whispers, “The

excitement of a day like this in November makes my blood run hot –

grouse are wild and observant creatures, you know, and by this stage of

the season they are as cunning as stoats. Each drive is a manoeuvre to

outwit them
.”

NO GROUSE VIRGINS HERE
Those shooting

understand that excitement only too well – why else would they risk

ice, fog and driving rain at a notoriously unpredictable time of year?

None fits the profile of fat cat or Russian oligarch so beloved by the

popular press, although Giles Shepherd-Cross has one or two in his team

that can hardly be described as grouse virgins. This is probably just

as well because, as Martin explains, there is a job to be done today

that is crucial to the success of next year’s breeding season. “You

don’t want too few birds left for breeding, but neither do you want too

many, otherwise there is a serious risk of worms and disease that can

wipe out the lot
,” he says. “Gauging how many extra days to put

on in a good year like this is difficult, and the decision is based not

just on worm counts but also experience. Unless the guns can kill

grouse the day is wasted – we are taking an important crop and it is

vital to shoot what is left down to a level that minimises the risk of

disease for next year
.” These words are echoed by Dick Murphy who,

as a partner in CKD Kennedy Macpherson, is involved in the management

of some of the premier grouse moors in northern England. “Our scheduled days finish in September,” he tells me, “but

once they are over in a good year like this one we need teams of guns

that can really perform, are available at relatively short notice and

don’t mind taking a risk with the weather.

KEEP THE DIARY FREE
For many the attraction is not just superlative sport, it’s the affordable price. “I couldn’t possibly justify the expense of driven grouse in August,” Giles tells me, “but when I was offered the chance of a discounted day with no overage or underage I didn’t have to think twice.”

Neither did the eight friends he asked to join him on the basis that

each paid his share, although Giles admits the day could still look

expensive if his team shot only a small bag. If this sounds like your

idea of the perfect early Christmas present don’t hold your breath –

while the price falls as the season progresses, days tend to be offered

to those known by the moor’s owner or agents to be reliable, proven

grouse-shots.

Yet, according to Adrian Thornton-Berry, who

manages Arkengarthdale moor and owns Dalesport Sporting Agency, finding

a suitable team of guns isn’t straightforward. “Persuading eight

keen shots to set aside the same dozen dates during late autumn on the

off-chance that there may be some grouse days available is another

matter altogether. I know just one man who has the balls to keep his

diary completely free from partridge and pheasant days at that time of

year, and this season he has been rewarded by 25 days of superb driven

grouse-shooting – it’s a case of feast or famine
.” For those

willing and able to take the risk, Adrian suggests contacting one of a

dozen or so men whose lives revolve around grouse and moorland

management in the Pennines, but he attaches equal im-portance to

honesty. “You are there to kill as many grouse as possible,” he emphasises, “and

the guys that shoot the straightest usually end up getting a reasonable

deal. If you are not an experienced grouse-shot it is best to work your

way in gradually and be honest about your abilities. Nothing winds us

up more than guns that can’t deliver
”.

On the second drive the birds refuse to fly over all but the top three guns, relegating the lower five to the role of spectators. The expansive view to Little Whernside, glowing like a beacon in the weak November sun, and moorland spliced open by a green splinter marking the head of Coverdale prompts James Shepherd-Cross to observe, “We think we live in an overcrowded island, but you can come up here and spend a day without even seeing another house.” The views may be clear but the birds on this drive are almost impossible to see against the backdrop of winter heather – a diamond sparkle of white underwings is the only clue to a rising covey. Every hint of life from the canvas ahead – the tremble of a beater’s flag, the bounce of a questing spaniel – causes the grip to tighten on gun stocks down the line.

OUT OF THIS WORLD
The disciplined hush of morning gives way to raucous chatter inside the wooden lunch hut, which is decorated with documents, letters and poems chartering the estate’s rise from overgrazed upland to a productive grouse moor. Pride of place is reserved for a plaque inscribed each year with the name of an individual who has made an outstanding contribution to the shoot, including Alan Wood, “The Terminator”, who is a man very much in the market for November grouse and guaranteed to deliver what is demanded of him. “These days are not often in the public domain,” he tells me, “and right now in October they are still fetching top dollar, although I am expecting the price to drop soon. The birds are beginning to pack up on many of the Pennine moors and the owners need guns that can hit their targets. You have to really go for it – grouse-shooting is exciting in August but at this time of year it’s absolutely out of this world.”

SPECKS OF PEPPER
On the last drive we see one of the great packs of grouse for which the Pennines are famous rising from the heather like a swarm of bees, but thumping hearts subside as the north wind buffets them to safety and I watch the disappearing birds fade until they are no more than specks of pepper merging with the darkening skies. What birds remain leave it until they are almost within range before banking skywards and curling back over the line of furious beaters, oblivious to the frantic flag waving that is taking place beneath them. “That’s November grouse for you,” says headkeeper Karl Alderson. “They’ve been shot at enough times to know the score, and this wind is all the encouragement they needed to go the wrong way.

Karl and his boss are satisfied by the bag and there will be no more shooting on Arkleside this season. “I think we are where we want to be now. What’s left is our breeding stock for next year,” Karl announces as guns and beaters march homewards together across the moor with heads bent low, furled flags still rattling in the howling wind.

Grouse shooting at Wemmergill