A grouse keeper's diary
A grouse keeper’s role on a shoot day is as multifaceted as the working hours are long. We speak to a headkeeper from a well-known moor in England who gives us the low-down on everything that goes on behind the scenes.
6AM – Check wind and weather conditions: A grouse keeper’s day is very much affected by the wind. Grouse tend to follow particular contours and head to certain places, but wind speed and direction can make driving them through the butts easier or more difficult, so the first thing I will do is check the weather forecast to see if it has changed overnight. If it has, we may need to tweak our plans slightly. You’ve got to be as adaptable as possible and always have a plan B, C and D.
6:10AM – Exercise and feed the dogs: Many grouse keepers will have more than one dog and if shooting numerous times a week, they will often work them on a rotation, as beating every day can take its toll. Dogs play a crucial part on any grouse moor, and without the right nutrition, they won’t be able to perform properly.
6:30AM – Check traps and snares: During the shooting season, there are often still a few traps and snares to check to stay within the confines of the law (these must be checked at least once a day, at intervals of no more than 24 hours). Vermin and predator control is a big part of a grouse keeper’s job. By legally reducing predator numbers, we give the grouse – and a whole array of other wildlife – the best chance of flourishing.
7AM – Breakfast: Often taken ‘on the hoof’. Regular refreshments are important as there’s a lot of physical activity to be sustained.
7:10AM – Drive down to the lodge/hall or wherever the Guns are staying and load the vehicles: Preparation for each day is key to a relaxed atmosphere, which is crucial – even if behind the scenes it is a bit manic. Vehicles will be loaded up with food, drinks, waterproofs and radios. The comfort of our guests is of utmost importance.
7:40AM – Discuss the plan with the beatkeepers: I will communicate with the beatkeepers constantly throughout the day as they are in charge of the beating line. We all have radios, and we will always have a quick run through the plan at the start of the day before the beaters arrive. The wagon driver will also be briefed so that he or she knows where to go.
8AM – The beaters arrive: The beatkeepers and beaters will often have made their way to the first drive long before I’ve given the Guns the morning briefing. The area of ground that is taken into a drive will vary, but the beatkeepers will know how close to the butts the beating line can blank in an area before the Guns are in place. Later in the season, as grouse numbers lessen, more ground might be taken into a drive.
8:15AM – Meet the loaders: Many of our loaders are regulars, but travelling Guns might have their own loaders who accompany them. They will be told where the butt sticks etc. are, and will arrange guns, cartridges and equipment so we are ready for the off.
8:30AM – Discuss the day with the shoot captain/host or boss: The smooth running of a driven grouse day depends on a huge amount of careful planning, co-ordination and communication, so it is vital that everyone knows what the plan is, where they need to be and when. Poor communication can result in unnecessary delays which will have a knock-on effect. I will also need to ascertain whether there are any specific requests from the team of Guns and adjust the plan accordingly.
8:40AM – Plan elevenses: The chef or butler will need to know where we plan to stop for elevenses. Hospitality and catering has become an increasingly important part of a day’s grouse shooting.
8:50AM – Meet the Guns: Once the Guns have arrived, I will give the safety briefing, allocate loaders to those Guns who need them, and advise on travelling between drives. This is another chance to check there are no special requirements for the day and to answer any questions that the Guns may have; it is also important that they know what the plan is and that they’re happy.
9:10AM – To the first drive: With a close eye on the time (but staying unrushed), the Guns will walk from where the vehicles have been parked at the first drive to their respective butts, along with their loaders.
9:15AM – Check the picking-up team are in place: Ensuring all shot game is picked is very important, so the pickers-up play a crucial role. They will often sit at a good vantage point in their vehicles if a drive is going to be returned, so that they do not interfere with the next drive. Of course, on a grouse moor, safety is a big issue given the angle of fire; if the pickers-up are behind the Guns, they need to be a long way from the butts. Our keepers will radio the head picker-up if they see a bird drop that may not have been spotted.
9:20AM – The flank is placed: Once the Guns are in place, I will place the flank. The correct positioning and management of the flank is an important part of driving grouse and channelling the packs and coveys through the butts. The flank’s position often changes as the drive progresses. The inside flanker might only be 50 yards from the end butt, whilst the outside flanker may be several hundred yards away.
ALL DAY – Overseeing the drive: I will constantly be communicating with the beatkeepers who are running the line to avoid too much of a delay between the Guns getting into the butts and the first grouse appearing. Whilst managing the flank, I also need to keep tabs on how well the team are shooting, how much is being shot as the drive progresses, and also the share of the shooting.
AFTER EACH DRIVE – Picking-up: After picking the birds which have fallen furthest away from the butts, the picking-up team will line up and spread out perpendicular to the line of butts and, starting at one end, sweep the full length of the line with their dogs. On reaching the end of the line, they will arc round the end butt, re-line and do the same on the other side.
MONITORING THE BAG: Keeping a close check on the bag throughout the day is key to making many of the decisions with regards to drives, timings and whether a certain beat might be better left for the following day or not. I will liaise with the picking-up team and whoever is in charge of the gamecart after each drive.
11:15AM – Elevenses: Time is of the essence, so although we always want our teams of Guns to feel relaxed and at ease, I have to ensure that everything is ready and served without delay. I will also use this time to discuss the drives we’ve had so far with my beatkeepers. That said, the beating line will often be blanking in an area ready for the next drive by this point.
1PM – Lunch: Lunch is another good opportunity to check that all the Guns are happy. I will also often pay the beaters and pickers-up at lunchtime and confirm who is available to beat, load and pick-up for the next day. There is rarely time to do this at the end of the day.
2:30 – Afternoon drives: These will follow a similar format to the drives done in the morning. Flexibility is key: some Guns like to finish early; some like to make a full day of it. A typical day entails two drives before elevenses, then another drive before lunch, then two further drives in the afternoon. It’s important that the whole team are getting their fair share of the shooting. If someone has been out of it, we will try our very best to ensure that this is addressed during the drives that follow.
5PM – Sorting the bag: At the end of the day, we will select a number of birds for the Guns to take home with them, and then the remainder of the bag will be sorted into young birds and old birds. This helps us to keep track of the proportion of our breeding stock that is being shot. Young grouse have softer bone structure and beaks, whilst the toenails on old grouse have a hard ridge. The primary feathers furthest away from a young grouse’s body are also pointed, whereas on older grouse they are rounded. Time-wise, the pickers-up are typically the last into the game larder, so will often have contributions at the end of the day when the beatkeepers are counting the bag.
5:30PM – Filling in the shoot cards: This is a nice way to round off the day, and gives the Guns something to take away and remember the day by.
5:45PM – Drying/feeding the dogs: This is a priority, especially in cold and wet weather. If we have a lot to do, the dogs will often be nipped back home, dried and fed as soon as we get back following the last drive.
6:30PM – Cleaning guns: The guns will be cleaned by the loaders or beatkeepers and locked away if the team are staying for the next day. Any wet clothing or cartridges are placed in the drying room.
7:10PM – Cleaning vehicles: All vehicles will be washed and cleaned, ready for the next day. This includes the Guns’ vehicles if they so wish. The beaters’ wagon will also be cleaned and refuelled.
8PM – Attend to the rest of the dogs: Once home, the dogs that haven’t been out will be exercised and fed, and their kennels will be cleaned out.
8:45PM – Dinner: We do eat sometimes!
9:30PM – Press shirt and dry boots: Looking smart is as important on a shoot day when you’re a keeper as it is for a job in the city. We are all measured up in February for our suits each year, and we wear them with pride.
Occasionally – It may be brought to the attention of the headkeeper after a drive that certain butts are flooded or some stones may be out of place – these will need sorting for the next time it is used.
And the rest of the year?
All year round – Vermin control is a huge part of our job. A single keeper will have many tunnel traps on his beat. We will run snare lines in areas where it is suitable to do so, too, and Larsen traps are used as corvids begin to become territorial in spring. We will also be out lamping for foxes a few nights a week when weather permits. All the traps and snares must be checked at least once a day, at intervals of not more than 24 hours. Of course, reducing predator numbers is hugely beneficial for a wide array of wildlife species on the moor, not just the red grouse.
Spring – New lines of butts might be built, or existing ones restored and maintained. This is done in late spring and summer – but we’re always careful to avoid disturbing nesting birds.
Spring counts are typically done in March and early April with the help of pointing dogs, and help us to establish the breeding stock we have on the ground.
Suit fitting is an annual occasion. The tailor will visit the estate and we will all be measured up for our suits which will then be made in time for the Twelfth.
Summer – Summer counts/brood counts are undertaken once the grouse chicks are able to fly – usually from the third week in July. Again, pointers are used to cover particular blocks of ground and flush the coveys which are then recorded. These counts give us a very good idea of grouse numbers and will determine the harvestable surplus which can be shot during the season.
Estate maintenance is undertaken as and when, throughout the year, although the bulk is done just before the shooting season. Tracks, lunch huts, stiles and bridges all need to be maintained, whilst traditional-style butts need returfing and strimming. We will repaint the numbers on butts, too. There are also many small jobs to do such as making new flags for the beaters.
Winter – Heather burning commences straight after the season finishes. Plans will be made for where to burn the old, woody heather so that a suitable mosaic of heather – of different ages – can be achieved. Management of the burn is key – the aim is to achieve a low intensity, quick, ‘cool burn’ in small patches, which removes the canopy but does not affect the underlying peat or soil layer.
Grit boxes and stations are replaced with medicated grit after the shooting season if, and only if, there is evidence of high strongyle burdens in the grouse population. The medicated grit helps to reduce the impact of the strongyle worm on grouse and helps prevent the cyclical fluctuation in grouse numbers caused by strongylosis.