Sparkling Speyside

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A view up the keel of a Speyside grouse – there were some even whiter than this.

I’ve touched this topic several times and provoked resounding protests and wails of fury, but it is worth returning for an even more definitive statement.

Grouse are widely revered as the King of Gamebirds, and there is no doubt that they offer some of the most exciting and challenging shooting provided by any species in the world. Within that title, there is plenty of scope for regional variation, and after a blistering day’s driven grouse shooting in Morayshire last week, it is worth reaffirming my belief that grouse in the North East of Scotland are the Kings of Kings.

Human beings have meddled in grouse genetics so often over the past two hundred years by reintroductions and artificial releases that it’s hard to treat any modern population of grouse as regionally indigenous, but there are some trends of shape and form which mark out birds from different parts of the country. Some keepers reckon that hen grouse from the west coast and Ireland are paler than their east coast counterparts, and this might correlate with grassier, whiter ground  in the west tending towards selection in the name of camouflage. There are parts of Angus and Aberdeenshire where extremely treacly (almost black) grouse cocks are very common, as well as populations of grouse in Northumberland and the North Pennines which often have white flecks on their cheeks and chins. It’s important to emphasise that these quirks can turn up everywhere, but their frequency does seem to have geographical links.

On Speyside where I have been lucky enough to shoot for the past few years, there is a trend towards small, dark grouse with very white bellies. Perhaps this is a throwback to some distant willow grouse ancestor, but if grouse can express variety in size and shape, it should be hardly surprising that they can also behave differently. I draw sufficient confidence from this idea to state that Speyside birds are without a doubt the most exciting I have ever seen in a sporting context. My driven grouse career is pretty marginal and there are many who are far more authoritative, but this supposition is based on having shot or seen driven grouse in ten British counties, from Derbyshire to Sutherland, and having watched or spent time around grouse in eight more, including Wales, Shropshire, and the Isle of Man.

The Speyside birds have an almost unquantifiable flair and added vigour, and while the difference is very marginal, for me they trump all comers. Part of the grouse’s appeal as a sporting bird is their unique brand of daring, gung-ho arrogance which invites a challenge – it’s a kind of aerial throw-down perfected by millennia of evolution. Nowhere is this more finely honed than in Morayshire, where the birds exude a gloating self-confidence which balances staggering speed with pinpoint agility.

I’m usually bogged down by recriminations for making this claim, either by those who say there is no difference or those who reckon their own local birds are superior, but it’s a genuine opinion and I stand by it. If nothing else, I would love to say that Galloway grouse are the tops, but I would be lying – I love them dearly and they offer their own exciting quirks, but they lack the speed and punchiness of the North East.

We finished the day with half a dozen brace in the bag on Friday and it felt like double that number. They rushed through the butts like flecks of grit against a backdrop of blue ice and snow, while the big-name distilleries quietly simmered spouts of steam from their chimneys along the grey, winding Spey.

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