On English moorlands, hunts thrive amid mists


Tradition: Despite saboteurs and protesters, many hunters still pay handsomely to pursue the elusive grouse.

August 29, 2004|By Todd Richissin | Todd Richissin,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

CUMBRIA, England - The boy dressed in a tweed suit, tweed tie and tweed Andy Capp hat was George Williams, and from his outfit and from the long shotgun clutched to his side and from the fog and steam enveloping him in an almost-spooky mist, he could have been mistaken for some ephemeral image soon to disappear into vapor, like a ghost from the past.

But the boy was real, standing on the rolling, heather-blanketed moorland in the North Pennines as generations of hunters before him had, ready to fire at the first grouse in range.

About the only thing remotely modern for miles was the police van on a distant road.

"There!" said his father, David Williams, not shouting, so not to frighten other birds coming their way, but with an urgency that comes from adrenaline and a man wanting to see his son do well. The boy raised the shotgun quickly, fired once, spun around as the grouse darted past and behind him, then shot again.

"I think I winged one, but he didn't go down," said George, at 13 years old already fluent in the grouse hunter's language of excusing away a missed kill.

Here in the northern reaches of England, and on moorlands across the border into Scotland, generations of fathers and sons have flocked for the ancient sport of grouse hunting.

In the past decade or so, though, this rich man's recreation has been threatened not as much by dwindling bird populations as by saboteurs who have acted as human shields, vandalized cars and threatened hunters so that police officers and private security firms now stand guard for people like George Williams and his fellow hunters.

"When you consider what we're trying to do, save a sentient creature from being shot, our tactics are well within understandable," said Nathan Brown, a spokesman for the Hunt Saboteurs Association, a network of about 3,000 members.

His group was out searching for people like George and the others who had taken to the moors. On this day, the saboteurs failed to find any shooters.

"If the saboteurs arrive, sleeve your guns and walk away," Alan Kitching, one of the organizers of the shoot, told the 20 or so hunters before him. "Get in your cars and make sure none is left behind. What they want is confrontation."

Grouse hunting is as old as the hills, a sport mostly for the wealthy, who can pay thousands of dollars for a day on the moors.

The hunters come from the surrounding areas but also from the cities of England and Scotland and from the United States, Germany, Belgium, Japan. They come for the stunning scenery and the challenge of getting a grouse, which flies fast and low to the ground when flying at all. The birds are ground-nesters with instincts to lie low in the bush even as hunting dogs and human "beaters" try to chase them to the sky.

"They're absolutely jet-fast and very elusive," said Kitching, who at 68 knows no generation of his family that did not shoot for grouse. "You'll hear a lot of shooting but not see a lot of them fall down. In terms of sporting birds, there are none so sporting."

"There!" David Williams again alerted his son, this time as two grouse zipped left to right in front of him.

The boy fired. Missed. Fired. Missed again.

Or, as he would say again, he winged one but it did not go down.

Sport of royals

Grouse hunting is a sport of kings and queens, princes and lords and, increasingly, stockbrokers, such as Kitching, and surveyors, such as David Williams.

Prince Charles shoots the bird. His mother, Queen Elizabeth II, is said to live for the kill. Some barons and earls will forego the substantial money hunters could bring them, leaving all the more targets for themselves. The Earl of Devon is said to charge about $18,000 for a party of eight, each day.

The United Kingdom has 459 grouse moors, covering 1.5 million hectares, stretching as far south as Wales and Derbyshire and as far north as the Highlands of Scotland.

But those vast stretches of land that a visitor might mistake as belonging to everybody and nobody are privately owned, and those prices to shoot on them do not include accommodations. It is not unusual for a visiting party of six, for example, to spend $125,000 for five days of shooting, shelling out extra for black-tie dinners and a final banquet, which as often as not comes with the cooked kill on a silver-domed plate.

"The cost of shooting reflects the cost of looking after the place," said Tim Baynes, a grouse shooter and spokesman for the Countryside Alliance, a hunting advocacy group.

"It's really not a case of landowners saying, `This is mine; keep off.' It's more landowners saying, `If I have to pay a keeper and foot all the other costs, I'm going to need people to help.'"

As with most forms of hunting, the hunters and those who oppose it work from conflicting information to make their points.

The keepers, hunters say, are a vital part of managing the moors. Without them, the grouse would succumb to natural predators such as fox, rats and crows.

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