"The brave beaters set off, swinging on a foot-numbing route march to drive the birds towards us"
By The late John Humphreys
Thursday, 14 June 2012
The late John Humphreys writing in 1985
This man’s grouse season ended with a whimper and very few bangs. Rain and wind has been the norm this early autumn; we would not have known how to react in sunshine, so it was no surprise that the last day dawned true to form, with leaden skies and curtains of rain sweeping over the giant sponge that was the moor. We heaved a sigh of resignation and pulled on oilskins still wet from the day before, and the day before that and last week, back — it seemed to our jaundiced imaginings — to the limits of our recollection.
Once more we faced the long haul up to the top, found the line of butts and stood in them, backs to the wind, gazing out over the greys and browns of wet heather. At the same time, on the other side of the mountain, the brave team of beaters set off, through the bents, swinging on a foot-numbing route march to climb up and over to drive the birds towards us. They had a long way to go and it seemed an age before they appeared as dots on the far ridge, the even smaller black and white specks of their dogs quartering to and fro. One or two grouse came skimming forward, but more swung to the left or right across our front and passed safely out of the drive.
At last the beaters came trudging up, ashen-faced and gasping, with a raindrop depending from the tip of each nose. We had but one bird to show for that colossal effort.
The reverse drive was our undoing: it was a matter of debate whether it was worse to be a beater and plod all those weary miles, or to stand in the butt facing the rain, growing colder by the minute. The most bitter fowling day I can cope with, but on that high moor, facing a force-six wind and driving rain for an hour, I watched the colour drain from my hands as all feeling left them. For the first time in my life, I hoped that no bird would come near me and positively wished for the drive to be over.
Soaked to the skin
When the beaters finally arrived for a second time at the butts, it was hard to tell whether they or the Guns were in a sorrier plight. Some of the younger beaters were in a parlous state, soaked to the skin, white-faced and shivering uncontrollably. By mutual consent we decided that honour was satisfied and the day was abandoned forthwith.
The bag was a brace-and-a-half (it sounds much better than three), but the amount of human effort which went into procuring them must be well-nigh incalculable. However, make no mistake, we are not complaining and were all there of our own free will. Just take it as gentle boasting and an unashamed parade of our keenness and hardihood. Thus the season ended, marred by the weather but, despite the physical discomfort, the old grouse magic and the pull of that wild place were fresh, undimmed and as strong as ever.
Back home, thoughts turned to mallard, the pursuit of which called for far less effort than tramping after grouse — with duck you simply find a good lace, make a hide and wait for the birds to come to you. I hoped the fowl had returned to their usual autumn drain, for I had not visited the place for 12 months almost to the day, but as they had been using that particular dyke ever since I was in short trousers, there was no reason to believe that they would change their old habits.
It was, of course, raining again on the night I chose to go, but by that time such conditions were only to be expected. The steady downpour meant that at least the combines would not be working and the fowl would not be disturbed in their flight into the laid corn next to the reedy dyke.
A distant windmill signalled in stately semaphore that grinding was in process, a satisfying anachronism silhouetted against a grey sky. Once, 700 wind-pumps whirled and clacked away the decades, trying to keep the water at bay.
I found my dyke, a forest of clashing sabre blades of reeds, their sharp, cutting edges already spotted with rust to show that the season was changing. The water seemed far below the bank top, where a rash of yellow marsh marigolds gave a startling flash of colour in the grey and olive shadows on the surface. No need to make a hide, for just sitting among the bank top reeds could provide concealment for an elephant, so the burly form of yours truly and one big, black dog, easily merged into the frieze of waving reeds, hogweed and water docks.
The swallows swooped and hawked over the stubble and the wheatfield, the latter so well laid that a green mist of secondary growth already carpeted the flattened swathes. As the sky grew darker, they flicked in and over the dyke, dropping in to roost, clinging with their tiny, feathered feet to the wildly tossing, vertical stems of the phragmites.
Sedge warblers reeled in the rushes; a water vole splashed and furrowed the water as he dog-paddled off on some journey as important to him as was the swallows’ impending voyage. My reverie was interrupted by a hen mallard which came from behind, almost removing my hat as it whizzed past downwind. Miles too slow for a shot, I fumbled in my coat for the call and gave a long, double burst of quacking. The effect was spectacular, for the bird jammed on its air brakes, turned in a tight circle, set its wings and, with an answering stutter, came planing down towards me. As I rose to fire it flared, but I dropped it over the cross dyke in a jungle of nettles and teazles on the very lip of the steep bank. Kenzie had not marked the fall, so he made heavy weather of it before making a triumphant pounce in the thickest part of the tangle.
The next bird was one of two (it was a dreadful night for second barrel misses), quite a long shot in the half-light which planed down into the patch of laid corn behind me, or so it seemed. I took Kenzie and he quartered the ground at his usual gallop but kept diverting and working the rushes 40 yards away, nearer the dyke. I became quite peeved with him and forgot myself so far as to raise my voice in a hoarse roar of rage. No prizes for guessing that his instincts proved to be more sure than my failing eyesight, and my reproaches turned suddenly to lavish praise when he emerged from the rushes with the bird in his mouth. As usual, the dog was right.
The next one, also the leader of a pair, fell over the deep dyke into the potatoes opposite. This time Kenzie heaved through the tangle, splashed across and emerged festooned with weed like a water kelpie on the far bank, making a quick retrieve and ploughing back to shower me with pond weed.
The last mallard fell to number one son, who had been out of the action. He saw it land in a distant channel, stalked and shot it as it rose. To see him do that rolled away the years, for the very first duck I shot was not only a carbon copy of that one, but the bird fell in almost the same spot.
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