Accompanying a jolly party of guns on a rough day at Raby in Co Durham, Adrian Dangar understands the appeal of going after small numbers of an extraordinary variety of wild-game species.
Half of Lord Barnard’s expansive Upper Teesdale estate in Co Durham consists of heather moorland managed primarily for grouse, but the remaining 14,000 acres is marginal hill land, a bleak landscape of disparate white farmsteads, dry-stone walls and tumbling becks. Here, hill sheep and rabbits compete for grazing on high pastures strewn with sweeping beds of soft, green rushes that are home to a remarkable variety of game and wildlife.
These wild hinterlands don’t feature in the formal driven grouse days, yet, each autumn, provide up to four days of superlative sport for a handful of fortunate guns who relish the challenge of outwitting truly wild game in striking surroundings.
Head gamekeeper Lindsay Waddell’s enthusiasm as he briefs guns on a murky November morning is palpable and contagious. The group of six friends who have assembled from all corners of the British Isles for two days of wild-bird sport hang on Lindsay’s every word as he stresses the importance of stealth and silence on a day that will inc-lude blackgame, grouse and English partridge. Such emblematic species can’t be reared artificially, but thrive in these wild uplands thanks to the small team of dedicated game-keepers, who work year round to suppress vermin and improve habitat.
Guns are placed in absolute silence along side a ragged dry-stone wall for the first ambush of the day drive is too grand a description for a manoeuvre orchestrated by half a dozen beatkeepers and their spaniels a silence that’s only broken by grouse calling from the folds of misty surrounding hills.
Our approach has been so quiet that a covey of blackgame sifts undisturbed through the fields surrounding a deserted farmhouse barely 200 yards away, but they vanish as if by magic at the first rattle of a beater’s flag.
Moments later, a hen pheasant clatters up from the sieve beds and soars unhindered above the line, for cherished hens are always off-limits here. Although the dogs have pegged more rabbits on their short beat through the rushes than the guns have seen birds, it’s smiles all round 10 minutes later when a brace of her handsome long-spurred suitors is hung up in the game cart.
The shooting party is in good spirits, having been well catered for the previous evening by one of its number, amateur chef James Robson, who served crab fresh from the quayside of his Northumberland home and partridges wrapped in bacon. John East-wood speaks for all when he explains what makes these days special. ‘There’s no pressure up here and everything is relaxed among pals to get a couple of birds each drive is good enough. I don’t hit much at home in Hampshire,’ he confides, ‘and my friends have given up on me one by one’.
I don’t know whether to believe him, for, seconds later, John brings down a high cock pheasant and a difficult woodcock in quick succession. The winter migrant splashes into a fast-flowing beck, watched by one of the beatkeepers, who races with his spaniel across broken ground to secure the prize before it’s swept off downstream. On these days, every bird counts.
Sport has been so exhilarating that no one appears to notice that elevenses another trapping of the formal driven day have been dispensed with. Less time spent standing around equates to more sport and I’m sure this team of guns would not have it any other way, as they’re about to be treated to a crack at the king of game birds.
We follow the course of a winding beck deep into the hills, the stream shrinking as we climb ever higher to a stretch of moor that’s rarely visited on big grouse days. Stoats are one of the most destructive predators on the estate and the discovery up here of a freshly killed rabbit with a bright-red gash on the nape of its neck is a reminder that the war against these small but ruthless killers is never over.
The first grouse appear high as driven pheasants, black bullets against a backdrop of scudding grey clouds, and the guns get stuck in with gusto, dropping several into dank brown heather that bears no resemblance to the rich purple bloom of August. ‘This,’ beams Henry Clark, who’s no stranger to large bags on grand shoots, ‘really is the most ridiculous fun.’
We return to lower ground for the most productive ambush of the day, during which a large covey of English partridge skims through the line, chortling merrily as they gather pace. Blackgame manage to avoid us until a lone blackcock with forked tail flared dark against the sky heads straight for James McAuley. Guns had been told to spare the sombre greyhen, but shoot her gaudy mate as two good summers have swelled the population to its highest level for 15 years. The Irishman kills the bird cleanly in front, muttering ‘it had to be me’ with a twinge of regret, for, unlike some of the team, he’s shot blackgame before.
As the sun breaks through rips in the cloud to light up distant hilltops and banish grey mist, a flurry of cock pheasants stand on their tails and head for the sky; strong wild birds that are killed clean in the beak.
Lunch is a hurried affair, taken standing up with backs to the cool breeze as if both guns and beaters are eager to return to the fray. Afterwards, the wagon transporting them draws up beside a snipe bog where Lindsay sniffs the wind like a pointer and pronounces it strong enough to persuade snipe to curl back over the line.
Head gamekeeper at Raby since 1976, Lindsay is a ubiquitous presence throughout the day one moment, striding out to place guns; the next, sprinting off to join the end of the beat with his Pennine pointer, Monty. The Scotsman from the Angus Glens is always busy; whether pulling sinews from a woodcock’s thigh, conjuring up a replacement gun or inflating a flat tyre between drives, the current National Gamekeepers’ Organisation chairman has a restless energy that belies many years at the top of his profession.
A whisp of snipe comes forward; tiny birds with glinting white bellies and olive backs in quick succession as they lift from the bog before spiralling skywards like stormy leaves. Guns bent double behind a dry-stone wall stand up suddenly to take their shots; most snipe fly on unscathed, although a brace fall like stones to Russell Hanson.
Light is draining from the valley bottoms as the guns are indulged with a final grouse drive, during which large packs hurtle across a deep gill of dark interlocking spurs running down towards the distant Cow Green Reservoir; several tumble from the sky, but the bag at dusk only runs to seven different species of game.
Double figures in this department would put the seal on an epic day and everyone is eager for a duck flight during which teal, mallard and tufted are added to the bag and the score quickly rises to a remarkable 10. ‘Could have been 11,’ Lindsay tells me later, ‘but they missed the wigeon.’
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