Hills when young and fit are merely an inconvenience, certainly no obstacle and I just loved the open space.

Grouse can leave memories that will last a lifetime.

We can all recall with happiness, joy and pride the first bird of any species we shoot. In my early 20s I visited my cousin Timmy Douglas, a wild young farmer who lived up in the Cheviot Hills and farmed sheep on a hill farm. The “in-bye” paddocks around the house gave way to white ground before rising to open moorland which stretched south across the Cheviots as far as the eye could see to the English border. Somewhere in those thousands of acres of heather there were reputed to be a few grouse.

Timmy’s neighbour had the shooting tenancy and occasionally walked up grouse with a few chums. I got permission to do so myself and wished for good luck as grouse were scarce that season. So one afternoon I set off with my trusty 12 bore; game bag over my shoulder and optimism. I had never seen a grouse let alone shot at one.

Hills when young and fit are merely an inconvenience; certainly no obstacle and I just loved the open space. Cousin Timmy did not shoot and so it was on my own that my eyes and ears took in the sights and sounds of this form of landscape new to the southerner from East Anglia.

"Ahead lay the carpet of purple that I had dreamed of seeing"

Wheatears and meadow pippets were rarely found at home but here were common, as were sounds of the curlew and raven. I flushed a covey of grey partridges that flourish on the white ground but would not be in season until the following month. Then on up into the first heather. Fingers of it stretched down the hill where grass and moorland met on outlying islands,  tough and tussocky with  edges grazed. Ahead lay the carpet of purple that I had dreamed of seeing. The solitude was immense, the space eternal, the sense of being so alive and yet so small as when gazing at the sky on a clear night.

Grouse in the heather - By Will Garfit
Grouse in the heather - By Will Garfit

Where in all this heather were grouse? At home I would hunt a hedge for a pheasant, a stream or pond for a duck but here there were no features to indicate where a covey might be found.

I walked on, following sheep tracks that criss-crossed the landscape. Suddenly ahead I saw a head appear like a periscope above the heather tops. Then it disappeared and a moment later I saw what had to be a grouse running ahead of me on a sheep track. I then saw another, there were two grouse but no others – no covey but a barren pair. As I quickened my pace so did they. For 20 yards we were in convoy. After another 20 yards I was gaining and they were in shot but they ran on.

Were these birds not supposed to be the ultimate sporting challenge as they flew so fast skimming the heather and changing flight by the slightest twist of a wing? No, this pair just trotted on ahead and then just as I was lulled by their lack lustre performance, they exploded into the air and caused surprise by their sprint for freedom away from this novice on the moor.
However, I raised my gun and in one movement sponsored by youthful adrenalin took my shot at the first bird that caught my eye.

"What thrill as I smoothed the feathers of each"

This was the nearer one following its leader which was 10 yards ahead. I was excited at the prospect of a grouse and so I was keen to make the most of this opportunity – bang! Yes, my bird fell but so to did its mate the leader. Their line had crossed as I fired and so the one shot had not only killed my first grouse but my first brace. What a prize. What thrill as I smoothed the feathers of each.

As I stroked back the eyelid of the cock the red blaze appeared above his eye and his white feathers covered not only his legs but also his feet like no other bird I had ever seen, except some rare breeds of bantam. Not the most challenging of shots at grouse but I have since experienced their cousins, driven in the teeth of an October gale when one’s eyes water as wind and snow fill the air and grouse are in their element.

However as I returned off the hill with that first brace I was fulfilled.

This article published by kind permission of The Shooting Gazette.

The Unforgettable First Grouse
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