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The Glorious Year

Grouse are just part of the story
Grouse are just part of the story

With all the publicity around grouse shooting in the press, I have bitten my tongue for the past month and tried to keep out of it. There are so many flagrantly self-interested parties in the discussion around the sport that I am reluctant to fuel their excitement by engaging with it all. I’ve been as irritated by some of the rabid harrier-centric silliness as I have by the presumptuous oddities of the “You Forgot the Birds” campaign, and despite living and working with harriers, grouse and heather moorland every day of the week, the debate has become hard for me to relate to. It has passed out of my hands into the theoretical realm of politics, hearsay and a blind, avid belief in everything that is published on Facebook. When I saw that they had made a bar of soap in the shape of a hen harrier, I knew things were getting silly.

I’m not shooting tomorrow, and in fact I haven’t even dared to count the grouse on my ground or the syndicate ground. Many of the coveys I have seen while stalking have been on the small side, and the young birds are not very far on. It would only cause them stress and panic to count them before they are ready, and it does no harm to leave them for another week or ten days. I also don’t like to run dogs where there might be young blackgame until the end of August, since the poults often sit absurdly tight and it takes a steady dog not to peg them where there lie. So while I don’t know exactly how things look, I can be pretty sure that this summer has been something of a disaster. Perhaps this is only such a “disaster” because 2013 and 2014 were both such bonanza years and I am viewing this summer by comparison, but lots of the bigger moors have cancelled their early driven days and will only shoot walked up until September, by which time the later broods will have caught up.

In lots of ways, I don’t mind the fact that I’m not shooting. I enjoy the sport, but it is not the “be all and end all” of the moor. So much of the excitement of the Twelfth is generated by people who only see the hills when the heather is pink and the sun is shining; guns from the towns and cities who look forward to their days with tightly clenched enthusiasm for weeks and months in advance. I will shoot a few brace here and there in the next fortnight and things will pick up into September, but seeing the hills in every shade of weather and season takes the sheen off the Glorious Twelfth. It is a fine day, right enough, but how could you say it is better than the bright, hard frost of an early morning in April, or the deep, creaking snows of February? And while the coveys of grouse are exceptional, I would always prefer a gang of blackcock ringing like heroes in the mist, or a short eared owl over the rust-red October grass.

Life in the hills is too diverse and contrasting for the Twelfth alone to be “glorious” – the moors themselves are glorious, and they are made that way by the huge amount of work and investment put into them every year. When I visit keeper friends in Aberdeenshire, Perthshire, the Borders and Co Durham, the hills are a kaleidoscope of colour and interest throughout the year. Galloway becomes grey by comparison when I’m away – when I see packs of seventy or eighty blackcock flying together; eagles and goshawks hunting as a team; curlews and ring ousels with their youngsters mewling in the fresh heather; I see a phenomenal spread of birds and wildlife, and I see grouse shooting as the financial fuel to power it all.

A reader of this blog recently pointed out that perhaps I’m getting old. I’ll be thirty before this week is out, and the Glorious Twelfth does not bring me into the same fever of excitement it did when I was nine or ten. If anything, it’s just another amazing day on the moor in a cycle of three hundred and sixty four others. You don’t have to love shooting grouse to see the many benefits delivered by proper gamekeepers, but I daresay that the Twelfth is as good a moment as any to celebrate the heather-clad hills wherever you are.

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