“A gentleman will be wearing tweeds weathered to the same consistency as the suit of armour his ancestor wore at Agincourt.”
The twelfth of August, known as the Glorious Twelfth, the first day of grouse hunting season was established by the Scotch Game Act of 1773.
In honor of which, and in order to keep it in print, NYM is republishing Gerald Warner’s 11 August 2008 Telegraph essay, “Better to kill a fellow gun than wing a beater.”
This week sees a significant date in the British sporting calendar â€” and it has nothing to do with the Olympics. The Twelfth will inaugurate the grouse-shooting season, though it also becomes legal to take a pot at snipe and ptarmigan if that is your bag. For dedicated sportsmen, the driven grouse, flying high, is the quarry of choice.
Grouse shooting is still conducted on some scale, despite the problems that have afflicted it in recent years. There are 746 upland properties in Britain, covering nine million acres, that shoot grouse and 459 of them are grouse moors. The sport supports the employment of 700 grouse keepers and represents 12 per cent of total United Kingdom shooting provision, which contributes Â£1.6 billion to the economy.
So we are talking about a significant economic activity. That, however, is not the atmosphere on the moors, among the participants in a sport that, second only to hunting, is the essence of Britain (one feels compelled to eschew Gordon Brownâ€™s horrid, synthetic neologism â€œBritishnessâ€). The heather is in bloom and there is a feeling of keen anticipation. Of course, the shooting will actually be better in a monthâ€™s time, when the birds have been fully nourished and matured, but the Twelfth has a ritual significance that cannot be gainsaid.
This is still rather a smart sport: even the grouse has a double-barrelled name: Lagopus lagopus scoticus. There is a correspondingly acute awareness of social nuances among the guns themselves. A novice kitted out in brand-new knickerbockers and deerstalker might as well wear one of those conference badges saying â€œHedge fund managerâ€. A gentleman will be wearing tweeds weathered to the same consistency as the suit of armour his ancestor wore at Agincourt.
If he has been obliged to replace his Barbour since last season, he may take the precaution of driving his tractor over it several times. Nor should the olfactory sense be neglected: if you cannot out-stink the wet gun-dogs, your bona fides may be suspect. It should be noted, too, that protocol dictates that shooting another gun dead is an unfortunate accident; winging a beater or, worse, a keeper is unforgivable.
It is not necessarily ill-bred to shoot a human quarry: some of our best-born sportsmen had form. The Duke of Wellington was more lethal on the moor than on the battlefield. While visiting Lord Granville in 1823, he accidentally shot him in the face. When shooting at Lady Shelleyâ€™s, he hit one of her tenants who was hanging out her washing. â€œMy lady, Iâ€™ve been hit!â€ moaned the victim. To which Lady Shelley replied: â€œYou have endured a great honour today, Mary â€” you have the distinction of being shot by the Duke of Wellington.â€ More recently, Willie Whitelaw notoriously winged a keeper and simultaneously shot an old friend in the buttocks, after which he courteously gave up shooting.
Shooting, like hunting, has its distinctive humour and literature, including the cartoons of Mark Huskinson and books such as Douglas Sutherlandâ€™s The English Gentlemanâ€™s Good Shooting Guide. The classic works of fiction are surely JK Stanfordâ€™s chronicles of that veteran sporting gun Colonel the Hon George Hysteron-Proteron, known to fellow members of his club as â€œThe Old Grouse-Cockâ€, whose game book ran to 20 volumes after he had shot â€œabout 200,000 headâ€.
Such prolific slaughter would be condemned today. A common complaint is that roaring boys from the City are ruining shooting with their vulgar drive for extravagantly big bags. Over-shooting may be frowned on, but historically there are precedents that are far from plebeian. By the time the 2nd Earl of Malmesbury died in 1841, he had killed 10,744 partridges, 8,862 pheasants, 4,694 snipe and 1,080 woodcock â€” but no grouse: in Georgian times, it was wall-to-wall partridge. In accomplishing this record, he had fired more than four tons of cartridges.
In the succeeding generations the 6th Lord Walsingham shot 1,070 grouse in one day on Blubberhouse Moor in Yorkshire in 1888. He fired 1,510 cartridges during 20 drives and twice killed three birds with a single shot. In the following January, he shot the most varied bag ever recorded: 191 kills of 19 different species, ranging from 65 coots to a rat and a pike shot in shallow water. The seal of royal approval was given to large bags when George V downed more than 1,000 pheasants in one day in 1913.
The scale of events on Tuesday will be much more modest. Ticks, parasitic worms, floods and raptors have taken a heavy toll of the grouse. In Scotland, long regarded as the doyen of upland game terrain but plagued with problems, this season is predicted to be slightly better than last, but it is very patchy. Grouse stocks are reported to be up by somewhere between 20 per cent and 50 per cent in the Lammermuirs, but further north the ticks have done a lot of damage.
Yet the devotees will have their sport, rewarded for all their efforts by that heart-quickening moment when the sky first fills with the quarry. It is the timeless experience that, years ago, caused the Duke of Sutherlandâ€™s loader to exclaim excitedly: â€œGrace, Your Grouse!â€
A more modern complement to the outdoor sport is the competition among restaurants to be the first to serve grouse on August 12. In 1997, this reached a new pitch of extravagance when the first birds shot on a Scottish moor were rushed to Heathrow and transported on Concorde to New York where, thanks to supersonic flight and the five-hour time difference, they were served to diners at the Restaurant Daniel the same day. A similar extravagance featured a courier parachuting into the grounds of a gourmet hotel to deliver grouse.
The Twelfth is a day for extravagance, nostalgia and enjoyment. Hereâ€™s to good sport for now, and the perpetuation of a great British rural tradition.