What happens on the grouse days? This was a question posed by my student a week before he was due to go and do some days’ beating.
I thought to myself that, unless you had grown up in the countryside, you would have pretty much no idea what went on in the hills of Scotland and Northern England.
A day spent on the grouse moor is so special that you will probably never ever forget it.
Everybody arrives first thing in the morning. Soon the beaters are away as they need to be off to the hill quite promptly. They consist of students, youngsters of all shapes and sizes, some with sensible footwear, some with trainers and joggers. No doubt the 3 or 4 smartly dressed keepers in their tweeds will have weeded out the slackers; by the end of the first three days they will have turned this motley crew into a well oiled machine that will be the envy of any army training camp.
These beaters will work hard for their money, but they will also learn to work as a team member and receive payment for a job well done. I know it wasn’t yesterday but the first grouse day I attended as a youngster earned me the grand sum of ten shillings- the equivalent of 50p in today’s money, and boy did I feel proud walking home that night utterly exhausted but delighted to have earned my own money. Something which was sometimes very difficult to earn in a remote rural community.
Next to arrive are the neighbouring keepers and the very keen doggy men. Out they come from their vehicles- every four wheel drive you could think of- lined up in the field. Labradors, Spaniels and Pointers. Dogs everywhere -some of the pickers up will have six dogs at their heels mad keen to be off for the first drive of the day.
This crew will sweep the lines of butts after each drive with their dogs thoroughly searching the heather for any grouse that have been shot. Last to arrive are the guns who are introduced to the loaders- the men who will look after them for the day. Each loader is assigned to one of the guns and he will explain all the safety procedures to that man or woman and guide them through the day. Loaders are probably some of the most diplomatic people I have come across in my career and are usually very well read.
Standing in the grouse butt, your senses on red alert waiting for the first grouse to appear on the short skyline in front of you on the first drive of the day. The gun you are loading for feeling quite tense until he has a few grouse under his belt and he settles into a steady rhythm. The great patchwork of purple heather thick with pollen spread out for miles like some huge quilt. The smell of the gun oil, a crane fly on the wood of the grouse butt, the crack of the beaters’ flags as they draw nearer.
The gun I was loading for last week asked me to sum up what gave a day at the grouse that special unique quality that men and women come from all over the world to take part in; to spend a day in the heather-clad hills, amongst a plant which only occurs in Northern England and Scotland and which is more endangered than the rain forest. The strong attraction, I think, has to be the communities that have formed around these areas of special conservation. Communities that have become part of our cultural heritage; which have kept these fragile uplands alive for the past hundred and fifty years.