It is the finest driven gamebird in the world but are there really different types of grouse, asks Sir Johnny Scott, and if so, which one is the toughest?
Types of grouse is a passionately debated point. Are there distinct subscpecies of our favourite gamebird and, if so, which is the toughest? Sir Johnny Scott investigates whether Scottish grouse really are tougher to shoot than those across the border.
For more on our favourite gamebird, read George Digweed’s guide to grouse before setting boot to moor.
TYPES OF GROUSE
The uplands of northern England and Scotland have their brief moment of glory in August, as Britain’s 11 million acres of heather moorland – 75% of the world’s remaining resource – burst into honey-scented flower. There is no finer or more magnificent sight than the great swathes of purple-clad hillsides, broken here and there by the black mosaic patterns of this spring’s managed burning, where, in the words of Robert Burns: “the moorcock springs on whirring wings”. An extraordinary little creature, the red grouse. Endemic to Britain, it is the finest driven gamebird in the world, hardy, unpredictable and blissfully unaware of the astonishing amount of attention it attracts. No other animal on earth can receive the same degree of annual press coverage – both positive and negative – or have such a volume of learned literature devoted to it. None can cause such swings of elation or despair, ecstasy and anguish; have such anxiety expended over its wellbeing; acquire the mystique and social status that draws sportsmen from all over the world; be responsible for a landscape rich in colour, wildlife and biodiversity; or provide a vital revenue to some of the poorest and most under-populated areas in the country. If red grouse were to disappear, the economic impact would be incalculable.
Hardly surprising, therefore, that such a remarkable bird should be the source of considerable differences of opinion as to its relative merits north or south of the Border, to the extent that there is even a body of opinion that insists that one Scots grouse is worth four Sassenachs. This is far too broad a generalisation to be taken seriously but nevertheless there is an assumption among some people that Scottish birds are harder to shoot than English. When one takes into account the distance and variation in climate between a grouse moor in Inverness and one 400 miles farther south in Derbyshire, this hypothesis seems to justify further scrutiny.
I asked the opinion of Robert Rattray, the senior partner of Galbraith Sporting Lets in Perth, with his extensive knowledge of grouse moors throughout Scotland, whether Scottish birds were a hardier breed than those south of the Border: “It all depends where you are, of course,” he told me. “Perhaps on the more extreme areas of the north-east, where the ground is higher and steeper, the grouse could be said to be tougher and fly harder, simply because everything is that much harsher: the terrain, the peaks and troughs of weather, severity of the winter, shorter growing season and a higher mortality rate leads to the survival of the fittest.” These are the heart-stoppers that come corkscrewing round the side of a 3,000ft hill when one is in a butt halfway up a near-vertical slope on somewhere like Invercauld, Edinglassie, Candacraig or Dorback near Tomintoul.
THE IMPACT OF WEATHER AND LOCATION
Does weather and location make Scottish grouse a harder flying bird compared to English? Jonathan Kennedy of CKD Property Advisors and one of the finest grouse shots of the age, tells me that with a couple of exceptions, grouse on moors in the North Pennines – such as Gunnerside, Holwick, Wemmergill or Weardale – are as good as any in Scotland. Having seen hordes of grouse with a breeze behind them swarming towards the butts at High Crags on Wemmergill, 2,400ft above sea level, I would have to agree.
Topography is everything; grouse are territorial and hefted to certain areas within a moor, and how they adapt to flying in their natural environment, steep or flat ground, will influence the way they perform on a driven day. Loosely speaking, grouse are ‘softer’ on lower altitudes but there are moors on both sides of the Border where the grouse are ‘tamer’ and, indeed, there are drives or lines of butts within moors, where grouse are presented to provide completely different shooting challenges.
Mayshiel in the Lammermuirs is an example; the ground is undulating and gently sloping where Mayshiel itself marches with the Earl of Haddington’s Johnscleugh and grouse here seem to skim inches above the heather at unnerving speed, rocketing 20ft into the air as they reach the butt line. Move through the estate to the beats on Fasney and you are in an entirely different landscape, which could be anywhere on any of the steepest ground in the Highlands. In particular, the famous line of almost perpendicular butts known as Cardiac Climb, where the grouse come at all angles, swooping like swallows round the side of the hill and whipping over guns at the last moment.
Simon Thorp, the director of the Heather Trust from 2002 until 2018 and now a consultant on various moorland projects, agrees that grouse are perhaps a little hardier in the north-east – the temperature on the high ground in Aberdeen on 6 May this year when hens were nesting was minus -5°C compared to a balmy 12°C in the Peak District. Cold weather at that time of year is not going to bother a hen grouse, provided it warms up in time for insect activity at hatching, but southern grouse might hatch a few days sooner and have a slight edge over northern ones with earlier plant growth and increased nutritional value. To say Scottish grouse are harder to shoot is too sweeping a statement, because there are such a variety of regional and local behavioural differences.
Grouse on moors such as Danby, Egton, Rosedale, Spaunton, Bransdale, Commondale or Snilesworth, on the undulating plateau of the North York Moors are generally considered tamer than elsewhere and rarely pack as the season progresses. I asked George Thompson, the headkeeper on Spaunton for 28 years, the reason. “It is because they see so many people,” he told me. “Spaunton is 7,000 acres and we have more than 34 miles of busy public footpaths,” but terrain has an influence. The Derbyshire Peak District has just as many members of the public every day of the week and yet the grouse on the western side of the ridge running through the Peak District are known to be sharper on their toes early in the season than the eastern side. Richard May, a board member of the Heather Trust and the shooting tenant of Peak Naze; Mark Osborne of JM Osborne; Jim Sutton, the head keeper of Woodhead and Snailsden; and Richard Bailey, the headkeeper of Goyt and Crag, all agree that the difference is down to topography.
The western side is altogether wilder and much more rugged, with narrow contours, steep valleys and ghylls, and butts strategically placed to make the best use of them. Moors on the eastern side where it drops down to the River Don, such as the Duke of Rutland’s Moscar, tend to be flatter and grouse perform differently. Not that this means grouse being brought in off lower, undulating ground are necessarily any easier to shoot – you may be able to see the beating line in the distance on a flat moor and black dots of grouse, sinking and rising as they hug the contours towards you, but they are just as hard to hit when they jump out of dead ground at 60mph as they are when they come skittering and spiralling over the side of a steep slope with a short skyline.
For many years there has been a suggestion that genetic differences exist between Scottish and English grouse, which has an influence on the way they behave. I asked Dr Adam Smith, the GWCT’s director of policy in Scotland, whether there was any scientific data to support this and he told me that he had found no reference to tests between English and Scottish grouse for genetic differences that would indicate they were a sub-species. Tests between Ireland and Scotland, and Scotland and Norway, had been carried out that established various genetic differences between the grouse and while none actually says sub-species, they are strong enough to be close.
If these differences exist, then it is likely similar differences will be present between England and Scotland, but whether it is enough to establish a sub-species is a question that has been argued inconclusively for decades in numerous scientific papers. “There are clearly physical characteristics that vary between the red grouse populations,” he told me. “The almost coal-black cock birds of Donside and Deeside, as opposed to the paler birds of the Western Isles; the often very pale winter feathering on the bellies of Scottish grouse rarely seen on English ones. But are these sub-species? Probably not.” Being hatched a few days earlier can make English grouse seem slightly larger and heavier than some Scottish birds – the effect of better quality food, as English heather is generally 30% more nutritious than Scottish – but that is by no means always the case, as a variety of management and weather factors would have an influence from moor to moor.
On balance, there does not seem to be a definitive answer, but Simon Thorp made the interesting observation that Scottish grouse are perceived to be harder to shoot than English because of the romanticism and magic that has been such a major part of fieldsports in Scotland for the past 200 years. The whole adventure of going up to the Highlands, coming up from the south, or from America, Europe, Russia or Asia, arriving in northern Scotland to shoot in such a unique, stunning and majestic landscape. The spirit of this was brilliantly portrayed in two magnificent oil paintings by George Earl (1824-1908). Commissioned in 1893, Going north captures all the bustle, excitement and sense of imminent departure as a party of sportsmen, with their wives, servants and gundogs, wait on King’s Cross station beside piles of leather trunks, gun cases and rods, to catch the train north at the start of the season. In Coming south, the same party wait to board the train at Perth station a month later for their return journey and now among the luggage are heads, salmon, blackcock and grouse. Funnily enough, there is a similar analogy between the stalking in, say, Rosshire and the equally challenging stalking in Cumbria, a mere three hours from London by train.
Perhaps it is all in the mind, but there is one thing all grouse shots will agree on: whether the moor be north or south, high, low, steep or flat, when grouse are coming towards you, he who hesitates is lost.