Grouse shooting is often dubbed the “Sport of Kings” thanks to the birds’ wildness, legendary speed and agility. Add in some of the most spectacular scenery across the British isles, and it’s not hard to see why a day on the moor is highly prized. For sporting agent Matt Smith, based at Purdey at The Royal Berkshire Shooting School, it’s a winning combination. “Magnificent wild birds, unspoilt landscapes and spending time among hardworking country folk who have managed the land for generations is part of what makes it exciting,” he explains. But the birds’ nimbleness and tendency to fly low over the heather, also makes it extremely challenging.
To help you get ready for the season ahead we’ve turned to the experts: Smith and Gordon Robinson, head of the Purdey Sporting Agency. Here, they reveal how to prepare, what to do on the day, and the essentials to pack.
Top tips for shooting like a pro
Get in some practice
Go to a shooting school’s grouse butt before you head to the moor, advises Robinson. “Grouse shooting is a very different discipline to pheasant and partridge shooting and it takes time to learn," he says. “If it’s going to be your first time on the grouse moor, take an experienced instructor with you to ensure both safety and success.”
Safety comes first
“You will not shoot with the required confidence or assertiveness without being 100% certain you are shooting safely,” Smith explains. “Check, check and check again the positioning of your safety sticks and the whereabouts of beaters, flankers, fellow guns and pickers-up, before the drive starts, especially those who may well change position during the drive, including beaters and flankers.” Shooting low into the heather can feel entirely unnatural, which makes the sticks all the more essential, adds Robinson.
Shoot early to avoid disappointment
It doesn’t pay to linger when you’re on the moor. Smith believes speed is of the essence: “If grouse are flying towards your peg with the wind behind them, they could be closing in at speeds upwards of 60 mph, far faster than a pheasant (around 40mph) or a partridge (nearer to 30mph),” he says. “It is important to engage them early, pick out some markers in the landscape at 40 yards in front of your position and draw a line in your mind. When the grouse cross this line, mount and fire. By the time you have processed this, they will have reached between 30 and 35 yards, which should leave time for a second barrel, if required.”
Focus on a single bird
People often miss grouse by misjudging the flight and speed of the bird, but more often than not, the problem stems from not “picking” a bird, suggests Robinson. “Grouse tend to fly in small coveys and often packs of several hundred later in the season. People tend to come unstuck by chopping and changing their bird selection until it’s too late or, even worse, panic and simply ‘brown the pack’ – firing aimlessly into the middle of the covey. It is much better to pick a bird and stick to it.”
Get your positioning right
“Because Grouse fly low, following the contours of the moor, it makes it virtually impossible to shoot them overhead like a traditional pheasant or partridge,” explains Smith. But getting your position right stands you in good stead. “Guns should adopt a more aggressive stance with their weight firmly on the front foot, pushing their ‘nose over their toes’ to ensure the cheek makes firm contact with the comb of the gun when mounted and throughout the shot, preventing a miss above or over the bird. Keep your cheek welded firmly on the stock after pulling the trigger until you see the grouse start to fold!”
A 19th-century aquatint of grouse shooting, by Thomas Sutherland
Avoid stepping to the back of the butt when turning around
While quick reactions are essential, be careful how and where you move. “You generally shoot with double-guns when on the moor and will be expected to shoot out in front, then change guns with your loader and turn around to shoot the birds going away behind the butt,” says Robinson. “Stepping towards the back of the butt is the biggest safety mistake people make as it renders the safety sticks useless and also leaves you exposed at the back of the butt.”
A trio of Purdey packing essentials
For tough terrain and changeable weather, you need hardworking, breathable clothes. Top of Smith’s list are the technical Tweed Breeks. “More often than not in August and September, the temperatures can reach 20 degrees or more on the moor and wearing a pair of thick wool shooting breeks, long socks and rubber Wellingtons is enough to break you out in a sweat just thinking about it,” he says. “The Tweed Breeks are lightweight, generously cut to enable walking over rough terrain and come with unfinished hems allowing you to ensure the perfect length. Worn with ankle boots, these are the perfect choice for the moor.”
Meanwhile Robinson wouldn’t head out without the Multi-Lens Glasses, which come with four lenses in a range of colours so you can adjust them according to the weather. “They allow me to maintain maximum visibility in all conditions and ultimately ensure my eyes are protected,” he says.
Robinson also packs the Grouse Butt marker, “a brilliant device that allows you to clearly mark shot and wounded birds, ensuring that each bird is picked up. It also makes a great gift for your host.”
Discover more about the Purdey at The Royal Berkshire Shooting School.