Lord James Percy
Lord James Percy on growing up at Alnwick, his most prominent sporting memories, and the people and events that have influenced the way he views our countryside today.
Where does your love of the countryside and fieldsports come from?
I had such a happy and charmed childhood, virtually all of which was spent messing about on the River Aln, Coquet, or in the Park at Alnwick. My Dad would often take me with him on his daily errands (primarily to open the gates) and we would look at trees, fish, talk to everybody going about their business or picnic with mother up on Alnwick Moor, looking out onto the Cheviot Hills to the west.
From about the age of 12 onwards, I spent a lot of time with Brian Petrie, one of the Alnwick keepers, learning to trap, scythe, feed, scout for pigeon flight lines, make hides and lay out decoys. I have a slightly restless side that seems to only be truly at peace in a snowy wood waiting for pigeons or on a faraway riverbank on a warm summer’s evening. My people – and by that I mean family, friends, local Northumbrians, ghillies, keepers, soldiers, farmers and shepherds – are what makes my heart lift when I come back north, and I guess, therefore, that it was the people of my childhood that sparked such a passion.
Five words that sum up our country sports...
Instinct, romantic, tradition, comradeship, and memories.
Who taught you to shoot and fish?
My father and brother Ralph taught me to fish for trout on the river Aln when I was little, but lately I have realised how little I still know. There is a huge gulf between knowing how to cast and knowing how to fish. The guys who really know how to catch fish are the retired miners from Northumberland – worlds apart from being plonked into the head of a salmon pool with a floating line and a silver stoat.
My old friend Robbie Douglas Miller showed me how to fish the River Shin, and that made me realise how much more to it there is than just casting. When I owned a bit of the river Till, ‘Billy’ used to do the banks for me and, in return, fished when he wanted.
He used to catch 30-odd sea trout and a few salmon every year, while for ages I only used to catch a handful; he knew how to fish and I didn’t listen!
The person who taught me to shoot as a child was the retired Alnwick headkeeper Albert Thompson who constantly drummed into me to “shoot where it’s going to, not where it’s coming from” and “swing, swing is the golden thing”. Also “get your feet right that’s half the battle, ye buggor”.
Albert was gruff and irreverent, and once complained to the Queen that his sheets at Balmoral were bloody damp! And, on inspecting a tweed-clad Viscountess of gargantuan proportion, announced: “Bah hell! I wouldn’t like to jump into bed wi yon!”
Can you remember your first live quarry?
Yes, quite clearly. It was a skemmie pigeon which I shot with a .22, aged 7, off the old ruined hothouse roof of what now forms part of the Alnwick Garden. My first trout, caught on the River Aln, was barely lb and I remember it flying past my ear when I struck!
What was it like growing up in Alnwick Castle?
At the time quite normal, but looking back, I realise what an incredible place it was and is. When released from the nursery by Nanny,
I would visit Johnson the electrician, get scolded by the housekeeper, see Bob and Willie who stoked the boilers, and drink sweet tea without milk. It was more Downtown Abbey than the programme itself but against a background of post war and 105 per cent tax. The jackdaws, starlings and pigeons in all the towers used to get drilled on daily airgun patrols, and a bike ride down to the river with spinning rod (occasionally fly) would yield a wild brown that my dad liked cooked in oatmeal.
What is your most prominent sporting memory from childhood?
I think it is of when we would go to Drumlanrig in Dumfriesshire in the 1970s – a place of unrivalled beauty and an unequalled sporting paradise. Specifically, sitting between my father and the bearlike figure of Squire Riddell on the middle seat of the Land Rover in thick mist on the Drumlanrig moors. I can still hear the whine and slap of the windscreen wipers and smell the wax of the Barbour coats.
Was your father a good Shot?
He was a very tidy Shot, particularly at grouse and pigeons, but he really majored on hunting.
And the next generation? Is the legendary Percy sporting reputation in good hands?
My nieces and nephews shoot exceptionally well and, as for my children, Tom has a very quick swing and a naturally good eye, so he is coming on well. The girls might shoot, and Sam the little fellow should come on nicely too – I get drilled by a hail of well-aimed Nerf darts on a daily basis by him!
Outside of shooting and fishing, do you have any other hobbies/interests?
My work interests lie in property, telecoms and security. And building, improving and creating a sustainable conservation, sporting and economic model at Linhope is my lifetime project.
I like writing my rubbish in Fieldsports, I am never happier than when I’m in my 7-tonne excavator, building a road or ditching. I am also quite involved with 5th Battalion The Royal Regiment of Fusiliers – a reservist battalion and the backbone of the British Army – so I have ample opportunity to wear the red and white hackle, put on the body armour and blaze off a few links with the GPMG, visit amazing places, get cold and wet, and meet some extraordinarily brave people. I love playing tennis and football and we have season tickets for Newcastle United – 52,000 Geordies under one roof is some experience. I like making walking sticks to use or give away, and I am convinced that once I start, I will paint like a master!
Do you have a favourite sporting artist?
Modern day, it would have to be Rodger McPhail for his incredible observation, but also Jonathan Yule and Will Garfit. For my 50th, my brother commissioned Rodger to paint Linhope Moor with a covey of grouse doing Linhope high-altitude cruising. He had to paint an extra grouse on a tiny patch because, after he had finished the painting, he had spied a grey squirrel out of the window, tried to drill it with his airgun, hit the window frame and the pellet rebounded straight through the back of the canvas, leaving a hole!
I also love the bronzes of Simon Gudgeon, Hamish Mackie and Ian Greensitt. But my favourites are the early-Victorian romantic landscapes of sportsmen at rest with a musket, a few dogs of varying breeds, a brace of grouse, a snipe and a ptarmigan, and the laird and his keeper in kilts and Tam o’ Shanters.
Who is the greatest game Shot you have ever had the pleasure to shoot with?
The best or the greatest? There’s a big difference!
Who would be in your dream team for a day’s grouse shooting?
The list would fill 10 lines of butts – my Dad and all his old mates would be there, as would my family, my friends, all of them.
What, in your mind, makes someone a good game Shot?
Awareness, speed, hand-eye co-ordination, footwork and experience.
Your top tips for game shooting success?
Total focus. Shoot instinctively. Release your inner predator.
Who is the best fly fisher you have ever shared a riverbank with?
Probably Mick Lunn who looked after the Houghton Club as riverkeeper on the Test.
If you had to choose between rod and gun, which one would you give up?
I would give up the gun, I guess, because fishing lets you be completely chilled, takes you to wonderful places where you can be alone or with like-minded people, either near home or in the furthest muddy puddle on earth. You need skill and experience and not a little fortitude. There’s not much fuss or noise, plenty of kit to play with, and it’s just you and your quarry and so many different things to see and catch.
Is there a particular sporting destination on the bucket list that you haven’t yet visited?
I am a bit obsessed with sea trout and have never been to Tierra del Fuego. Also, I have a desire to find an uncharted river in deepest Mongolia or Russia, and to do a float trip down several hundred miles, catching salmon and trout, preferably without being eaten by a bear or shot by a native.
You and your brother are regarded as two of the finest game Shots in the UK, but who is the better Shot?!
He is, of course! If I am on good form I can sometimes hold my own on grouse, pigeons particularly, and, once in a blue moon, on pheasants. But I am given to terrible bouts of hopelessness while he rarely drops from the highest level.
Growing up, was there an element of sporting rivalry between you?
Very much so – desperate at times. He always managed to pull off ridiculous gallery eye-wipes out shooting, played mind-games with my tennis, and generally walked into a pool that I had just fished with nothing to show for it and would immediately hook something while asking what on earth I had been doing all day!
And nowadays, if you are pegged next to each other, are you ever tempted to poach the odd bird from over his head?
Happily, we overcame that years ago and he is the nicest person to be next door to. I hope I am, too. But beware the long poach. One can get sorely punished. We once had an amazing grouse drive at Grinton where we made quite a bag. The coveys were coming between us on a ridge, but we never fired at the same bird all drive, except once (actually I shot it, no it was my bird, no I did, really, I was a bit quicker...).
What gun and cartridges do you shoot with?
Purdey sidelock side-by-sides and 28g Eley VIP. Or Garbi side-by-sides with 32g Eley VIP.
Do you clean your own guns?
Yes, normally, unless I persuade my son to do it.
What do you regard as the most difficult shot in the book?
Upwind grouse in a gale, dipping, sliding pheasants, or anything going slowly.
Have you ever shot with an over-under and are you not tempted to make the transition?
I’m often tempted when struggling to shoot high pheasants, and I have tried – they seem to make straight ones easier but everything else more difficult. I once shot at a pheasant in a flush, having fired at several others to no effect, and a bird about 20 feet away from the one I was swinging on rolled up – so that was the end of that.
What, for you, are the key ingredients for a truly memorable day’s shooting?
Being amongst like-minded and best pals on a day where everyone involved works as a team. The birds should be challenging, the surroundings beautiful, and the wind strong (and I should be on top form!).
And what are your biggest bugbears in game shooting?
Dangerous shooting, obviously, and any sort of flippant, arrogant or ‘can’t be bothered’ attitude. Not paying any attention to picking-up, lack of appreciation and understanding of the countryside and quarry, greed (as in constantly blazing away at birds going to their neighbour or trying to shoot everything near or far out-of-shot) and over competitiveness. I particularly dislike shouting and guffawing during a drive. And why does the sporting press insist on endless photos of eight Guns in green coats?
And in terms of fishing, do you have any particular pet hates?
Ill-mannered canoeists exercising their ‘rights’, and anglers wading in amongst the fish.
Which are your favourite salmon rivers in the UK?
The Spey, Tyne and Oykel.
Do you have a go-to favourite fly?
Gold-bodied General Practitioner.
Cockers, springers or labs?
I like fox red labs. As much as I love cockers and springers, I am not disciplined enough to train them. I like my dogs to learn to do what I need them to do without too much input on my part – labs do this naturally and once they are about eight they no longer always run in!
Do you ever feel guilty when you shoot a woodcock?
Yes, I haven’t shot one for 20 years for that reason, and the fact that I don’t like eating them. I shot a right-and-left at Alnwick and haven’t lifted my gun to one since.
How important do you think etiquette and tradition are to the future of country sports in the UK?
The sporting press always seem to bang on about the importance of etiquette – etiquette describes how everyone should behave anyway, without having to be told: be polite, say thank you, show appreciation, don’t be greedy, better spared than one shared, be respectful in your manners, and dress within the parameters of practicality. We all make faux pas from time to time – like asking the pregnant lady when her baby is due only for her to tell you it was born two months past. Tradition is vital – it is part of our heritage and teaches us how we ought to do things now.
How has your own attitude to country sports changed over the years?
My attitude hasn’t changed greatly. While I absolutely love every minute of every day, I think I get more pleasure from creating memories now, and I appreciate more and more the whole piece, rather than the pulling of the trigger. I love my days away from home; the excitement and anticipation of a trip to the Angus Glens or Yorkshire Dales, for instance, never seems to wane.
And as more antagonistic and negative elements try to destroy our way of life, so I see more and more the importance of country sports in terms of active conservation and real life – people living, loving, dying in the countryside with jobs they love, making personal choices, not plagued by some miserable desire to bugger-up other people’s lives because they think differently.
What do you regard as the greatest threat to country sports and our rural way of life?
Ignorance, intolerance, entrenched personal agendas, and the ability to disseminate polarised views via social media. Also European law, our own small element of malpractice, and burying our heads in the sand.
What, if anything, would you like to see done differently, in terms of the way our country sports are managed and conducted in the UK?
How long have you got?!
Read our exclusive interview with Lord James Percy's brother, The Duke of Northumberland, HERE.