I spoke to a sporting agent recently about the popularity and accessibility of grouse shooting and he made a comment that staggered me. Though the previous two years have not been good yardsticks by which to judge, he told me, “Though available grouse shooting flies off the shelves, new generations of shooters are not drawn to the sport.” With the modern trend being to book, pay, arrive, shoot, eat, drink and disappear, new shooters want ease, comfort and shooting, often just a mouseclick away. Trekking up a grouse moor doesn’t appeal to those with desk-driving physiques and when those who have never seen a sporting grouse compare the birds with the price of pheasants, it all becomes a question of numbers.
Having grown up on the purple borders of a grouse moor, I have been familiar with Lagopus lagipus from an early age. To me — and I’m sure to anyone else who has spent time in their pursuit — the comparison of grouse with pheasant is an impossible one to make. Compare, for instance, an Aston Martin with a Subaru Impreza Turbo. Both are fast, exciting and will turn heads, but, like the grouse, the Aston invariably has the edge. One has class, breeding and undeniable beauty. This is what makes the grouse the king of gamebirds and well worth trekking over bog and heather to find. It was just such a trek that awaited me as I headed north in August last year.
Deep in Haugh
My destination was the East Haugh (pronounced “Hock”) House Hotel, Scottish Sporting Hotel of the Year 2006. Set back from the banks of the river Tummel, the hotel is a mere nine or so miles north of Dunkeld and a slight diversion off that road to sporting paradise, the A9. Owners Neil and Lesley McGown have created a 12-bedroom country hotel that is a must-stop refreshment or accommodation point for those going to or from Scotland. The bar itself is a fisherman’s treasure trove — I kept having to remind myself to blink, staring at its wall-mounted goodies. Among them is a 42lb salmon caught in 1930 on the river Awe, black-and-white photographs of hobnail-booted anglers of old and a 9lb steelhead, which Neil himself caught in the Tummel. He told me that he had simply wanted to create a bar that he would want to drink in, and whatever your quarry of choice, this is a bar you would like to drink in, too. The foyer of the hotel is equally interesting: some stunning roe heads adorn the wall, complete with medals and framed certificates. It was these that I saw first, before I had the pleasure of meeting the Guns that would be shooting the following day.
Meeting the team
This 12 August team makes the pilgrimage up to Scotland every year from their respective homes in England. As is the case with so many other shooting chums, they had shot together for years and travelled all over the world doing so. As an outsider to such a tight-knit team it can sometimes be a little daunting.
Introductions were courteously and politely made to the assembled breakfasters, until the final handshake with the self-titled “Wiggy”. “There’s no need to be all official,” he told me, “we’re all here to have a good laugh. Stop looking so serious — you’re here on a jolly anyway, aren’t you? So don’t worry.” All my reservations were instantly assuaged and I knew that we were sure to be in for an entertaining day.
The car park was a mass of dogs, gunslips and men old enough to know better, hopping around on one foot trying to get their long shooting socks and boots on. There was also a good selection of cheerful Scots, who, apart from adding to the authenticity of the day and diluting the amassed Englishmen, were as eager as the rest of us to get on to the hill.
No lack of sport Atholl
The moor we were to shoot is part of the Atholl estate and keeper Dave Stewart rents the grouse shooting, the low ground and the roe and red deerstalking. With this he runs his own shooting enterprise, acting as stalker, keeper and shooting host. Though we were on the first of three planned grouse days, the bulk of Dave’s business is done during the pheasant season. The majority of days he lets are the hugely popular half-walked half-driven 60- to 80-bird days. “People just can’t get enough of them,” he told me. “It’s split between local parties and people staying at the surrounding hotels. The days aren’t too expensive and everyone gets some shooting.”
Being the youngest Gun, my place was on the far right of the line, the position sure to do the most walking. After my half of the line had climbed a small hill along the boundary fence, we were to wheel on the left-hand Gun, a distant speck across the heather. Almost as soon as we left the car park and began our day, four blackgrouse took to the skies. Gun-butts hit shoulders, but no lead left the barrels — the Guns’ quarry recognition was a good deal better than that of the dogs, which bounded across the heather as the birds took to the wing.
We didn’t have to wait too long before we saw grouse of a shootable colour, however. At Ian’s end of the line a super five-brace covey lifted in a perfect fan, calling away as they took to the air and offering three Guns the chance of a shot. I watched four birds fall from my grandstand view up on the hill, all quickly picked-up. We were off the mark.
Soon layers of clothing were coming off, too. The pace was upped as I and the beaters to my left lengthened our strides to wheel about in a giant circle, heading over a separate part of the moor that would eventually bring us to the lunch hut. All the hard work was rewarded and the grouse gods smiled down on us from above. Bob McDonald’s spaniel put up a six-bird covey as we reached the top of the hill, the birds rising and pirouetting to face downhill. As they flew, all six banked perfectly behind and my first of the day, a young bird, was cleanly picked. Only minutes later a brace broke from the purple heather to the left of Dave Humphreys, after being sniffed out by his yellow Labrador. Dave managed to get both barrels off before one of the birds banked and danced into the distance, but one fell back into the thigh-high heather. The line halted as dogs, trying to ignore the clouds of pollen filling their eyes and noses, hunted for the downed bird. To everyone’s relief and a communal cheer, which echoed down the line, it was Dave’s dog that retrieved its first grouse. That was certainly an excuse for a little champagne at lunch.
Chef Craig Somerville had ridden up from the hotel in a Shogun loaded with supplies for the immensely happy and moderately warm shooters. The trestle table was covered with game terrines, hams, roast beef, smoked salmon and an abundance of salads and chutneys. For a brief moment even Wiggy was kept quiet, everyone’s attention absorbed by food and wine.
Reinvigorated after the fruits of the East Haugh House’s kitchen we again set out after the evasive grouse. Since the morning we had covered two sides of an imaginary rectangle and we now hiked on to try to tackle the other long edge, before once more wheeling left in order to head back to the cars. Again the showing of birds was steady and extremely encouraging, both to the Guns and to Dave. “We often have grouse here when surrounding moors have very few,” he told me. Admittedly, after hearing such gloomy reports of grouse stocks, the only grouse I was expecting to see was the stuffed one in the hotel bar. As fortune would have it, birds began to show in increasing numbers at my end of the line and all the Guns got the chance to have at least a shot at an August grouse, if not to add some to the bag. As I once more rounded the corner to head back to the cars, Dave called, “This is usually a good spot.” I wasn’t sure whether or not he was telling me this to spur me on, but moments later what was to be the final covey of the day broke from heather, giving me and Steve Bradbury next door a chance for a final shot.
If it were ever possible to compare grouse to pheasant then we finished the day with 11½ brace. Credit to the Guns, who acquitted themselves admirably: the day had been a huge success all-round; we had seen a good stock of birds and everyone had managed to get a shot off. Every member of the team to be found later that evening, slightly sunburned, gin and tonic in hand, in the hotel bar had done more than earn his sport.
A month later I was back out with Dave, stalking a beautiful nine-point stag, and we talked about our memorable day in August. “Every day on the hill after grouse or deer is an adventure,” he said. “No two days are ever the same — and that’s the excitement.”
It’s true, and to do both from the East Haugh House Hotel was a real treat — with any luck it won’t be too long before I’m back in the bar, marvelling at pictures of salmon, in anticipation of another day’s sport.
This story originally appeared in Shooting Times & Country Magazine www.shootingtimes.co.uk
To contact the East Haugh House Hotel, tel (01796) 473121 or visit