Friday, June 12, 2009

Sir Alfred Herbert on Shooting

Sir Alfred Herbert (second from left) at a shoot in 1950

Sir Alfred loved the country pursuits of shooting and fishing. His greatest love was fishing, and he wrote a monograph on the subject in about 1935 which can be read here. He was also a fine shot and particularly loved grouse shooting on the moors of Scotland and the North of England. My father Patrick's Shooting Book also records Sir Alfred as a frequent guest at Litchfield (which of course is the estate next to Dunley). This monograph on Sir Alfred's shooting experience was written in about 1950

Of the three British game birds - grouse, partridge and pheasant - the grouse must, I think, take the first place in his home among the moors and mountains of the North.

The red grouse is a truly wild creature found nowhere else but in these islands and those who are fortunate enough to enjoy his pursuit find themselves surrounded by some of the most delightful scenery in the country.

The grouse may be shot be walking in line (to my mind the least satisfactory way) over pointers or setters, or by driving.

I recall with vivid memories my first opportunity of shooting grouse through the kindness of my friend the late JK Starley. He is was who produced the Rover Safety Bicycle, which, as his advertisements very truly claimed, 'set the fashion to the world'. This machine was one of the forerunners of all bicycles used throughout the world today, and finally signed the death-warrant of the penny farthing, which for many years preceded it.

Starley had rented a moor in Scotland which had a limit of 200 brace. After killing 120 brace he was called away leaving 80 brace still to be shot. I had a telegram from him asking if I would like to take a friend and finish the quota.

Up to that time I had never even seen a grouse, except on the table, so it is easy to imagine the excitement with which I accepted this quite unexpected invitation. With a Coventry friend, William Burton, who was quite a good shot, we caught the night train to the North and arrived at our destination - Garve, on the shores the Beauly Firth - in good time next morning. Here we found comfortable accommodation in the local inn, an excellent innkeeper and a ghillie with a couple of pointers and a couple of setters. The moor was a delightful one within sight of the sea and in three wonderful days of perfect weather we killed the 80 brace and in due course returned from one of the most exciting holidays I can recall.

This was in fact the only time I have shot grouse over dogs and I am convinced that this is one of the most delightful ways of pursuing them. though, of course, it gives scope for only two or at most three guns to take part.

Walking in line with seven of eight guns is less satisfactory. It is very difficult to keep a straight formation, particularly on hilly ground: the young and enthusiastic are continually getting too far jn front, while the older and less athletic members of the party lag behind and the line is continually getting broken.

Driving is a much more complicated business, involving scientifically-sited butts, a well-organised group of beaters and all sorts of other preparations, but it is well worth the trouble and , with good weather and a reasonable stock of birds, it provides shooting at its best. Driving, however has its own particular risk of accidents for the inexperienced or excitable. When streams of grouse are coming from all directions and at all angles and if one has turned round two or three times in the butt, it is quite easy momentarily to lose one's sense of direction. The line of butts, which are not always very conspicuous, may be forgotten for a moment, and is then that dangerous shots at low birds may be fired. As a safe-guard, upright posts are sometimes stuck into the butts at the right and left of the gunner, so that his gun comes into contact with these posts when it has reached the limit of its swing.

For a good many years my nephew, Gerald Herbert and I rented a small moor in Aberdeenshire - The Forest of Birse. A jolly party of us stayed at the Huntly Arms Hotel, Aboyne, where we were hospitably entertained and provided with wonderful Scottish food. When taking a moor I think it is far better to stay at an hotel rather than to take a house, for with a hotel there are no problems of catering and the lady members of the party have a real holiday instead of being worried with all the problems of household affairs.

A party of young and thrifty students used to come out from Aberdeen University to help us with the beating. They camped in a tent on the moor, did their work in first-rate style, and were quiet happy to earn a beater's pay, which in those days was I think, about six or seven shillings a day. But times have changed.

In grouse shooting one is very much at the mercy of the weather, which may vary from extreme heart to quite wintry conditions. On the high ground, gales, fog or even snowstorms may be encountered.

The stock of birds fluctuates within wide limits from year to year from a variety of causes; weather, nesting conditions and good or bad growth of young heather, and the absence or presence of grouse disease. In a goodyear the problem is to kill enough birds to reduce the stock to reasonable numbers. If too many birds are left, one may be confronted next season with an outbreak of disease through overcrowding and lack of food. While we had several satisfactory seasons, we did have one very disappointing one when we were able to have only one day's shooting and that was a very poor one.

During one of my visits to Scotland, my host enquired if I would like to shoot a stag. In his garden was a life-sized silhouette of a stag cut out of a sheet of iron as a target. He lent me a rifle and after a few shots at it I managed to perform satisfactorily. I was taken by the keepers to a wood and posted outside among some rocks. A stone wall ran alongside and I was told that if there happened to be a stag in the cover he would most likely jump the wall in front of me. Then the men proceeded to beat the wood and sure enough a magnificent stag jumped the wall at the exact spot indicated. He caught sight of me and stopped short in astonishment looking straight at me for a moment. Up went my rifle, but it was wobbling so much from excitement that I missed him clean. And that was my one and only shot at a stag. Looking back I am thankful I missed such a beautiful creature.

Now we come to the partridge - a very good second to the grouse. He gives far more widespread sport to many hundreds of people, often quite near to their homes, and thus saves the long journeys and much of the time and expense which grouse-shooting involves. For many years hampshire ran Norfolk and Cambridgeshire very close for partridge-shooting records, but throughout the country (with of course some notable exceptions), the partridge has suffered many setbacks during recent years. in fact we have learned that modern agriculture and partridges do not agree.

We used to believe that the old proverb, 'the partridge follows the plough' was true and so indeed it was when the plough and all other farm implements were drawn by horses and farm work followed its old leisurely routine. Now all has changed and the horse has practically disappeared.

In the old days we could very safely predict that a dry nesting time would result in a satisfactory stock of birds, but now, apart from weather risks, which are always with us, we have to contend with such fatal operations as the making of silage, which involves cutting the silage crops in which the partridges are very fond of nesting, at the very time that the birds are sitting and when very many of them and their eggs are inevitably destroyed.

Now we have also the various noxious and deadly sprays which destroy insect life so essential for baby partridges and eradicate weeds, the seeds of which are another favourite food, while the dressing ofd seed corn with poisonous compounds is a further source of loss.

Even when satisfactory covers are hatched and keepers' faces are wreathed with smiles, we cannot feel safe for one by one the young birds disappear mainly, I believe, because so much insect life which essential has been poisoned. But in spite of all the troubles of the past few years there are some welcome signs of improvement, though it is certain that we shall never see a return to the wonderful bags of past years such, for example, as the following: On a beat not far from Whitchurch, 315 brace of partridges killed in a single day (in this I had the luck to take part); on another beat near Longparish, 198 brace and on only 700 acres and my own beat, 156 brace. These bags were all made in the thirties. On another beat not far away there is a record 530 brace in a day.

Sir Alfred Herbert shooting at Dunley, accompanied by his keeper, Crouch

Vermin, of course, we have always with us. When I first came to Dunley it became a by-word that our main preoccupation was to deal with the 'Three R's' - not reading, 'riting and 'rithmatic, but rats, rabbits and repairs. Rabbits, through myxomatosis, have largely disappeared, and although from a farmer's point of view this is a blessing, they did supply excellent sport for many people, who had no other form of shooting, and particularly to lads in the learner stage.

This superb photo, which appeared in Country Life, is not of Sir Alfred, but of Capt George Brodrick and his gamekeeper Norman Buckingham. Capt Brodrick bought Dunley in 1979 and his widow continues to live there.

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