The Man In The Next Butt looked relaxed but there was an air about him that suggested this was not a chap to mess about. Easy to be deceived by the casual way he lounged over the butt, his gun not white-knuckle gripped like the scribe’s but lying on the parapet. The only movement was the lazy waft of smoke from his Cohiba. His loader peered ahead, fingers bristling with cartridges, second gun held ready. He did not flinch as a squadron of heather flies, prettily known as St Mark’s flies, rose in front, although the scribe twitched. A whistle shrilled and a cloud of a hundred black dots, nothing to do with St Mark, burst over the skyline. The scribe went into partridge mode and gently lifted his gun, selecting a bird. As he did so it fell dead 70yd in front, as did its neighbour, another overhead and, as they streaked through, a fourth dropped behind to bounce on the heather, a puff of pale feathers drifting to snag on the woody stems. The Man In The Next Butt (TMITNB) had put down his cigar and struck like a cobra, firing six shots to the scribe’s three and had four birds down to his one. Welcome back to the unforgiving world of driven grouse-shooting.

TMITNB and the writer were two of seven standing in line in the Shipka Pass, the most famous drive on Wemmergill, one of the best moors in the land, known for its large numbers of high birds. Once they shot 1,348 brace in a day and Sir Frederick Milbank killed 190 grouse in 25 minutes. We were standing in the footprints of kings, and one butt is known as The Kaiser’s Butt, commemorating Emperor Wilhelm’s presence in the line in 1895. The legend ran that as he was inexperienced, a keeper stood with him to ensure safe conduct. A covey landed in front and ran into the heather. As Kaiser Bill raised his gun the young man informed him respectfully it was not the custom to shoot grouse running. “Nein, nein, I vait until zey stop.”

History oozed from the stones of the butts, the shooting equivalent of standing in Westminster Abbey. The first of two dozen shooting tenants since 1872 when records began, Sir Frederick Milbank observed, “In a good season no one without seeing them can have the remotest idea of the enormous number of birds. It then only requires the shooter to hold straight to make certain of a very large bag. There are no moors in England and Scotland that can show half the number of birds on them as can Wemmergill.”

His boast is supported by the 100-year average for the moor, a staggering 1,871 brace. The great years of 1934 and 1872 were especially prolific with another tenant, Sir Ian Walker in 1934, reporting in The Field his bag of 23,636 with a daily average of 730 head. The best week in August showed 6,926 grouse, the best day 2,697 by eight guns in seven drives on the Southside beat and the best butt in Shipka Pass where 121 were shot. Horatio Ross shot 82 grouse with 82 shots on his 82nd birthday. The record year in 1872 showed 8,532 brace.

Having a good moor is, as with any shooting estate, all about good management, much money and luck with the weather. Crows, stoats, weasels and foxes must be controlled. Heather moors are places of harsh rather than lyrical beauty and havens for some of our most endangered creatures. Curlew, oystercatcher, peewit, golden plover, redshank, merlin, common snipe, dunlin, black grouse and harriers find sanctuary on well-managed moors. As for the red grouse, the most sporting, fastest and most expensive gamebirds that fly, they are notoriously cyclical: huge gluts followed by catastrophic crashes as parasites such as the dreaded strongyle worm wipe out populations. TMITNB told me airily, “Look on it as a cull; too may grouse spell disaster. They must be hit hard for their own good.” To prove the point he raised his gun and dropped a brace as they pitched into the heather. “No prisoners,” he snapped, taking up his cigar. As the five-hundredth large covey ripped across our bows he mused, “I reckoned I had a helluva lot of grouse this year but this…” his words trailed into silence. Estate director Richard Johnson confirmed it: “This year we will have at least 6,000 brace to cull.”

The late Queen Mother’s family, the Bowes Lyons, owned Wemmergill Moor in Lunedale, Co Durham for 444 years. It has had many shooting tenants including most recently Sir Joseph Nickerson (1952 to 1987) and Sir Tom Cowie (1988 to 2002). Such a place requires massive investment if the shooting and the habitat are to be preserved.

The new owner, Michael Cannon, has the means to make that commitment, having become vastly wealthy thanks to a shrewd business brain and hard work. He might pass for an archbishop were it not for the steely glint in his eye, while his wife Sally is the one of the best shots, male or female, I know. He loves his grouse-shooting and became passionate about moorland improvement having already bought and transformed the rundown 6,500-acre High Abbotside Moor near Hawes. He instituted the largest heather regeneration programme ever undertaken and planted quarter of a million shrubs and trees. The rare black grouse – over which The Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust gets so excited – has, thanks to him, increased from two pairs to more than 70 while lapwings, skylarks and grey partridges are up by 80 per cent.

Wemmergill buildings were run down, so Cannon restored them. The maths is not for the faint-hearted: he laid out £1.5 million on keepers’ houses and buildings, £500,000 on lunch huts, £3 million on the infrastructure of fencing, heather-burning and employing a rabbit-catcher who, last year, accounted for 26,500 rabbits. Add that to the purchase price of over £5 million and we are not talking loose change.

This has not gone unnoticed in the neighbourhood. My loader on the first day, hill farmer John Mitchell, said, “Things have improved greatly since the Cannons came round here. There are more jobs and more prosperity. They have been nothing but good for these dales.” It is a view echoed by the Lord-Lieu-tenant of Co Durham, Sir Paul Nicholson who remarked, “The contribution made to the economy of the Durham dales of Teesdale and Weardale by the likes of Michael Cannon at Wemmergill and Michael Stone at Egglestone and Weardale are making a real difference to the lives of many country people living in these areas which otherwise suffer more then their share of deprivation. One hopes that those in authority recognise this and make such people truly welcome.” His words are in turn echoed by all to whom I spoke. Ion Stoddart tenant of Wemmergill Hall Farm said, ‘“The upland needs people like Mr Cannon whose passion and vision are warmly welcomed.” The words “improved dramatically” were on the lips of locals who loved their moors but were resigned to decline due to lack of investment, poor access and drainage, too few keepers, collapsing buildings and birds familiar since childhood strangled out of existence. All that changed sensationally for the better. How the marginal lands need someone like Cannon. All flourishes and the 1872 record looks unsafe as at the time of writing more than 7,500 brace have been bagged. Surely Wemmergill under Cannon qualifies as one of the great conservation and shooting projects of the century.

All well, you might think, an amazing success story where the habitat, the birds and the people bask in the sunshine of a private investor blessed with the means and passion to make it happen, contented locals and a moor heaving not only with grouse but with marginal species previously under threat. Not so. Although Wemmergill would seem to have a first-class conservation record it is involved in a major row with Natural England (NE), which used to be English Nature.

The organisation talks a good game. Its chief executive, Helen Phillips, announced in the September/October 2007 issue of the BASC magazine that “shooting and wildfowling have an important role to play in the conservation of some of the most vulnerable places in the country.” Yet its attempt to curtail wildfowling on the Humber and the claim by one of its employees that two hen harriers were shot on Sandringham – which wasn’t pursued by the Norfolk Crown Prosecution Service for lack of evidence – throw doubt on NE’s position on shooting. Those doubts are increased when someone like Cannon comes and spends millions of his own cash on practical conservation and then has problems with NE.

Cannon had to battle for two years for permission to burn heather, universally acknowledged for a century as the best method of moor improvement. Only at the eleventh hour and after a direct appeal to the Secretary of State was “consent” granted. It cost a fortune in our tax money that might have been spent elsewhere. Richard Johnson added, “They [NE] are totally unreasonable. We need to seek lengthy and expensive permission just to replace a broken fence. We have good relations with individuals but as a body…”

The current spat concerns a track. Wemmer-gill estate says one already existed but had fallen into disrepair and that, at his own expense and in good faith, Cannon had restored it so that access for management to more of the moor became possible, NE itself having conceded that 55 per cent of the 17,000 acres was in poor condition due to overgrazing. The estate says the track is made out of local stone and exists to give access to emergency vehicles to the far moor in the case of, say, a peat fire; and to allow farmers to retrieve fallen beasts and graze more widely and more thinly – all contributing to a wider programme of conservation and
habitat improvement. NE claims that some of the track constitutes new construction, no “consent” was sought and it intends to prosecute the directors of Wemmergill for what it describes as “wildlife crime”. Extraordinary, you might have thought, for anyone bar Alice in Wonderland but jaw-droppingly true, for the case is shortly to be heard in Newcastle.

The stress has placed enormous pressure on Cannon and his family and staff so that in his gloomier moments he mutters that for two pins he could sell up and go. Were that to happen the valley would be the poorer, the people would seek work elsewhere and the precious animals and songbirds – not to mention the grouse – would fade.

The crisis was temporarily out of mind on two wonderful August days run respectively by excellent headkeepers John Pinkney and John Hall. The beaters were lean and agile, cheeks glowing pink with health, the loaders in tweeds straight from a Purdey catalogue and shiny boots, always a gun ready. The charming and efficient Andrew Dent, headkeeper of neighbouring Holwick, was lumbered with the writer on day two. “On the left, Sir.” “Just behind that one, Sir,” and (only once) “Slightly risky shot, Sir.” After each drive pickers-up came from far behind with packs of dogs like the Zulus breasting the ridge at Rorke’s Drift, gathering droppers, for many “missed” birds often fall dead. Cartridge cases were collected (and counted) the moment the whistle blew, dead birds ditto and packed on trays in the cart: lunch was a civilised occasion, dogs well behaved, everybody courteous, cheerful and proud to be involved. Even the weather was kind. The two days were the epitome of what all shooting ought to be.

What the Kaiser would have thought of it is hard to say but The Man In The Next Butt, having shot a quarter of the 500 brace in the bag, had fallen strangely silent though there was a beam on his face from ear to ear. In 1934 Sir Ian Walker said, “They came so high and thick and fast, that it was practically impossible to turn around and tell what had happened.” It was the same on that spectacular day in 2007.

Grouse shooting