|The days between Goodwood and the Twelfth are agreeably busy. Soon the air will smell of frost, of oak leaves, of wet soil under a southern wall. The nights are drawing in. Great splashes of yellow will appear in the crowns of the elms. We get the scent of crushed crab-apples from the path trodden under the fence. The last few birds will be left behind in the glen that rests for another season.|
WE move in an atmosphere of fishing-rods and guns, shooting-sticks and golf clubs. Rumours about the grouse prospects are mixed. In the gunmaker's we hear whispers of heather-beetle, reductions of staff, shortage of keepers, increase of vermin, snowstorms in the spring, and so on. Certain areas are pin-pointed as patchy, others as fair to middHn*. The only consolation is that the game-book entry is not everything. The most important things in the bag are often incidental memories. The very act of handling our guns recalls the silence of the moors, a silence broken by the unceasing trill of trickling water, the hum of insects, the scent of heather honey on a Highland night, the mew of a buzzard, the challenge of an old cock grouse. The most graphic perhaps is the memory of the hush before a thunderstorm. The dead stillness in the air that perceptibly affects wild life. An arch of black mist, with ragged fringes trailing the moor, dragging onward with gathering speed, and beneath it a blank wall of coming rain. As the first big drops begin to spatter, a sudden gust of wind blows fiercely, a flash, a stunning detonation, a rumble as of mountains moving, a rending crash echoing from cloud to cloud with majestic rolls. Then, like a benediction, it departs. There are longer intervals between the lightning pulses. A rainbow crosses the trailing fringes of the storm. The glens send up a delightful reek of timely rain. A faint low peal murmurs in the distance. Wild life returns.
Such thoughts are inspired by our guns. The first drives of the new season soon make them reality. The head-keeper shakes hands with old friends. The gillie with the pony is there to take charge of the cartridges. The party consists of eight guns. On the skyline the beaters wait for the signal to march. Lots are drawn for the butts. The centre ones are usually preferred to those on the outside. A great deal depends upon whether the flight of the birds has been studied. Grouse have a natural flight, and if there is no wind they will invariably go the same way, and the butts should be placed accordingly. Even if we are unlucky, it will only be for one drive. We move up two places for the second drive, and the same again for the third drive.
There is no talking and no excitement: all are veterans who know exactly what is expected of them. We settle ourselves on a shooting-seat with the barrels of the first gun resting on the edge of the butt. The peat smells familiar. The other butts on either side are about eighty yards apart on a straight line. We glance at the loader behind with his open bag of cartridges. A preliminary shuffle shows whether we can swing freely. Black specks can be seen in the distance, rapidly approaching. We speculate whether the birds will come to the right or the left of that rock. Plenty are sweeping over. An old cock swerves and comes down the line, so high that it is safe to fire at him. The man above us in the next butt misses with both barrels. We follow suit, thinking that he must be out of shot. But the man below us crumples him up, taking him well in the beak. Another bird comes whirring straight at our butt. It reaches the marking-stone, but still looks out of range. We wait a second. The trigger is pulled. Missed. The second barrel. The bird crumples up. Nothing can dim the thrill of the first of the season. A shrill whistle warns that the beaters are approaching. The drive is over. The pick-up begins.
We walk to the next line of butts, crossing a deep ravine, and trudge up the steep slope beyond. The highest butts are over 1,500 feet above sea level. No shooting between drives. The view is impressive, a vast expanse of undulating heather. It is hard to realize that a few hours earlier we were part of the confusion of Euston. We reach our butts and have a long wait, for this is another feeding drive. The sun is strong now, and a faint steam rises from the damp heather. Down the gully the view stretches for miles taking in tumbling backs, pools, and patches of rock. Warning whistles come from the butts on each side. The birds are coming fast now. A short right and left then a miss then one two miss four. High and fast down the line of guns. When the drive ends, warm gun-barrels are rested on the butt-edge. A glow of satisfaction anticipates with equanimity the stolid question... "Anything to pick up, sir?"
Lunch by a peat-stained burn. Cold grouse eaten with our fingers. Whisky and water out of horn cups. Coffee served with a chasse of sloe gin. Food rarely tastes so delicious.
It is interesting to compare the pleasures of the moment with those of the past. Sport with the gun has long been a favourite in these islands, yet how many men who shoot have heard of Colonel Peter Hawker. He is unread, but he was the first great writer and practitioner of the sport as we know it today. His book 'Instructions to Young Sportsmen' in all that relates to Guns and Shooting is described by Sir Ralph Payne GaUway as without an equal for terseness, accuracy and original observation. It is an acknowledged classic, but I find more entertaining the book by Colonel George Hanger, published in the same year, 1814, and entitled 'To All Sportsmen' particularly to farmers and Gamekeepers. His detailed advice has a somewhat full military flavour; for instance he recommends that, in order to be sure of keeping poachers out of your wood you should mount a six-pounder cannon on top of your house, and fire a few rounds of glass marbles and perforated clay balls into the wood by night, two or three times a week. Somewhat old-fashioned advice; even so we are in direct succession with such figures, a claim equally applicable to Tom de Grey, the sixth Lord Walsingham, who performed a feat on 30th August, 1888, which will probably never be equalled. On his own 2,000-acre moor at Blubberhouses in Yorkshire he fired 1,500 cartridges and killed 1,070 grouse in fourteen hours eighteen minutes. There were twenty drives and he used a pair of light Purdy hammer guns, not ejectors, firing three and a quarter drams of black powder. Once during the day, when there were only three birds in sight, he killed all three with one shot. There are many other exceptional examples; among them must be placed the feat of Sir Everard Hambro, who, in Wigtownshire in the 'nineties, killed eighteen blackgame with one barrel. Skill and age go together in the case of Horatio Ross, who is alleged to have killed eighty-two grouse with eighty-two shots on his eighty-second birthday, and the late Lord Ripon who killed 420 grouse in one day at the age of seventy. Most remarkable of all is probably the bag of 2,929 grouse killed in one day on 12th August, 1915. It happened on Lord Sefton's Abbeystead and Littledale Moors in Lancashire. In three days, eight guns, joined by one more on the last day, bagged 5,971 grouse. The season's total was 17,078 grouse all shot on roughly 17,000 acres. The eight guns consisted of the Earl of Sefton, Major the Hon. J. Dawnay, the Hon. H. Stonor, Captain the Hon. T. Fitzherbert, the Hon. J. Ward, Mr. de Oakley, Major the Hon. E. Beaumont, and the Hon. H. Bridgeman.
Yorkshire can claim to have introduced "grouse driving" when, roughly 150 years ago, Squire Spencer Stanhope found it was less tiring to sit in a sand-pit with a double-barrelled muzzle-loading gun and wait for his sons to drive the grouse over him. This driving principle was further developed by Squire Stanhope and the Bishop of Durham on a more organized scale on Horsley Moor, their lead being followed by Lord Savile, who erected some butts at Rishworth Moor.
Our pleasures are identical. Soon the air will smell of frost, of oak leaves, of wet soil under a southern wall. The nights are drawing in. Great splashes of yellow will appear in the crowns of the elms. We get the scent of crushed crab-apples from the path trodden under the fence. The last few birds will be left behind in the glen that rests for another season.