The number of grouse shooting accidents on grouse moors has increased significantly in recent years. This may, in part, be explained by the fact that there have been more grouse on the moors of northern England and Scotland over the past four or five years. However, the number and severity of grouse shooting accidents leads me to believe that there may be additional reasons for the rise.
Those of us who shoot grouse must look hard at what we do in the butt or this rise could continue (grouse permitting) and, at some point, even prove fatal. At least one police force in the north of England has confirmed that it is treating shooting accidents reported to it extremely seriously, and it will take a hard line with the perpetrator – the presumption being either temporary or permanent removal of his or her shotgun certificate.
There have always been grouse shooting accidents on grouse moors. Because of the height that grouse fly at and the way they approach the butts, grouse-shooting is inherently more dangerous than any other form of driven-game-shooting. If you are inexperienced shooting driven-grouse (having shot perhaps fewer than six driven-grouse days), having an experienced shot or loader stand with you makes sense. It is unwise for any novice grouse-shot (irrespective of how many days pheasant- or partridge-shooting you have had), to shoot double guns until you have had at least half-a-dozen grouse days. Similarly, a loader on double-gun days is exactly that – he or she cannot keep you on the right track while busy loading the second gun.
Sadly, I am not able to give advice as to how to shoot well, but here are my 10 tips on how to shoot driven grouse safely.
While competitiveness is great on the sports field and in a business environment (to help pay for expensive grouse-shooting, for example), it is unnerving and dangerous when it comes to the fore on a grouse moor. Everyone would like to be a good shot. However, the most important thing is to be a safe shot and excessive aggression, competitiveness or greed are not conducive to being a good neighbour, let alone a safe shot.
Many people who now shoot grouse were not fortunate enough to take up shooting at an early age. As a result, there are fewer and fewer people on the moors who learnt their sport through walked-up shooting, boundary days and the like. Instead, many of us have been taught to shoot later in life by qualified instructors. Sometimes these instructors attend a day’s shooting on the moor. This can be an excellent way of giving a novice gun confidence while ensuring that he or she does everything that they should do on the day, including shooting safely.
I have noticed a tendency in recent years for instructors in the grouse butt to suggest to clients that there is no such thing as “your neighbour’s grouse”. In other words, every grouse in range is yours to shoot at. This is nonsense. The etiquette of not shooting your neighbour’s birds on a low-ground shoot still applies when on a moor, and it is far easier to shoot your neighbour when you shoot at a bird or covey of birds going to him or her. Where grouse are crossing (flying down the line rather than coming into your neighbour’s butt) it is acceptable for you to shoot at them when they are within range and it is safe to do so.
Nowadays, canes, sticks or safety frames are visible on most moors. This was not the case 30 years ago. The purpose of canes, or any form of frame (movable or, indeed, on occasions fixed to the top of the butt), is to show guns where the neighbouring butts are and, with the more comprehensive frames, to help prevent you from shooting down the line at your neighbour and beyond. However, it is folly to believe that a safety frame, let alone a cane, will prevent you from shooting your neighbour. You, and you alone, must make the final decision when and whether it is safe to shoot. A cane or stick does no more than indicate the general direction of where the adjoining butts are. A frame, theoretically, has the ability to block out the neighbouring butt, but if you are at the front of the butt shooting incoming grouse and you extend your left hand and effectively reach around the frame, you can easily shoot down the line and even into the adjoining butt and beyond. The frame, wherever positioned, will not present an obstacle to an overly enthusiastic gun.
The positioning of the frame is essential and it is down to you, the gun, not the loader, to put and keep it in the right position. One of the dangers of having such safety devices is that people rely on them. Several times I have heard people saying that they couldn’t pos-sibly have been the one who perpetrated the dangerous shot, “because the frame was in the way”. Using a safety frame will probably help you to shoot more safely. However, it will not stop you from shooting your neighbour if you have a mind to do so.
The best safety advice to follow when in a grouse butt is that if a gun only fires to the front in the 90-degree arc between A and B (that is, 45 degrees either side of the mid point), then there is no chance of any gun shooting his or her neighbour.
The greatest likelihood of a dangerous shot occurring is when you shoot at incoming grouse too close to the line of butts. You have probably shot your first barrel too late and by the time you are ready to fire your second, the birds are too close to fire it safely. Some years ago, I remember a young nobleman shooting a retired ambassador in just this way.
The same occurs behind: the safe arc of fire is between points D and E.
Many accidental shootings occur once the first horn blows. This is because, at this time of the drive, grouse often flush in singles and the competitive gun is over-keen to shoot the bird as it flies between the butts and before his neighbour can shoot it.
There is an increased risk of danger when the grouse does not fly directly away from the butt line but angles down it. The then senior partner at a large firm of stockbrokers put three pellets in me and six into my loader when shooting at just such a bird.
It is fundamental that you never swing through the line. Shooting in front, stopping the swing, lifting the gun over the butt line and then realigning it on birds flying away behind will ensure your neighbours don’t feel vulnerable (there is nothing worse than looking down a pair of barrels) and will make a major contribution to your shooting safely.
There is a natural tendency when you are shooting out of the front of the butt to stand as close to the front as possible. There is nothing wrong with this.
However, to be in exactly the same position when you shoot at a bird that has gone through the butt line, your right heel would have to be almost touching what was the front and is now the back of the butt wall. What generally happens is that once the gun turns to shoot behind, he or she moves at least half a pace, and often a pace, “forwards”, thereby altering their safe shooting position, which is where the safety peg or frame is positioned for shooting out of the front of the butt. This means that it is much easier for the gun, having moved, to then shoot down the line at a bird flying away behind.
In reality, if you move your feet when you are going to take a shot behind, you should ensure that your safety frame is wide enough to allow for this, or reposition the frame to take account of your new shooting position.
If you are in a line of butts on a bank, it is essential that you recognise the fact that the butts farther up the bank (and it may be much worse for the butts two or even three away), are much higher than you are and therefore even though you think that the shot is perfectly safe above your neighbour’s butt, falling shot could easily rattle around the higher or, indeed, lower numbers. This is at best unnerving and at worst painful.
Many people who shoot have an imprecise knowledge of how a cartridge works. If you want to see the effects of shot, go and shoot a shotgun on a still day into a lake or other stretch of water . You will find that although the main thrust of the shot is in one direction (where you aim), there are often pellets that deviate from that direction of travel, sometimes to a surprising degree. These are called “stringers” or “fliers” and are often caused by the lead being distorted as it ricochets off the barrel wall.
You need to be aware that even though you believe the shot you are taking is safe, if you take it too close to the butt line (behind or in front), you may inadvertently shoot uncomfortably close to or even hit the neighbouring butt because of these malformed pellets. So leave considerable margin for error to take this into account, as these errant pellets can take out an eye or inflict a nasty injury just as easily as a perfectly formed one.
It is vitally important that you understand range. Many people who have used a shotgun for a long time believe that it becomes ineffective over a certain distance – usually 50yd to 60yd unless using a very powerful cartridge. The Clay Pigeon Shooting Association advises that the safety margin when you fire a 12-bore shotgun should be 275 metres. This includes a good margin for error, but with many combinations of cartridge and choke, you could still blind someone at more than 150yd.
It is essential that everyone understands where it is safe to shoot when you are one of the outside butts. Very often it is guns in butts number 2 and 8 out of a line of 1 to 9 who have the hardest job to shoot safely, whereas the two ends butts can often shoot safely once the grouse are clear of the flankers. It is the next butts in that offer a much more constricted safe angle of fire.
Every year flankers get shot and this is almost always because guns are either greedy, have not paid proper attention (or made the effort) to find out where the flankers are, or because they have no real understanding of how far pellets travel.
It is the same with beaters. For those guns who insist on shooting at beaters when they are only 150yd to 200yd out, I would urge the guns to swap places. I can assure you that it is not much fun being shot at at that distance.
Finally, perhaps the biggest change that I have seen in my shooting lifetime has been in the attitude towards alcohol being drunk on shoots. At a time when we consume considerably less alcohol when driving, it does seem strange that otherwise perfectly sensible men believe that it is prudent to consume often quite considerable quantities of alcohol during the morning and at lunch-time on a shoot day and yet in the afternoon continue to shoot at probably the most dangerous gamebird in the UK. No reputable shooting ground allows people to shoot after consuming alcohol. Why do we ply our guests with alcohol during the shoot day, rather than waiting until the end?
There are few statistics about shooting accidents, but the one that I think is fairly clear cut is that there are more accidents in the afternoon than in the morning on grouse shoots. I believe there is a correlation between that fact and excessive alcohol consumption at lunch-time. In such circumstances, it could be difficult to defend yourself having shot the occupier of the neighbouring butt when you have more alcohol in your body than you would legally be able to have and still pass a breathalyser test.
A glass of wine in moderation is fine. Anything over this does not seem sensible.
I would strongly recommend that anyone who goes out on a grouse moor and is near a shooting position wears high-quality, shot-proof glasses. It takes only one pellet to lose an eye. Grouse-shooting is, to my mind, the most exhilarating and challenging form of driven-game shooting in the UK. It is incredible fun but any lack of concentration or “over-enthusiasm” could ruin someone else’s life – and it will almost certainly do the same for the person who pulled the trigger.
More grouse shooting in The Field