Monday, March 19, 2012

Shooting of common moor-fowl: Black, Red and White Grouse

by Farida Mestek

The term shooting or sporting with the gun is commonly limited to certain kinds of feathered creation, with now and then application to the killing of a few small animals, such as the hare, the rabbit and occasionally the deer.

The Black Grouse is a noble looking bird, commonly called the blackcock, and the female the greyhen. Their nest is found on the ground; it is of the most simple and artless kind. The female lays from six to eight eggs that are hatched late in the summer. The eggs are of a dull yellowish white colour, marked with a number if very small ferruginous specks. Their food in summer consists of the seeds of the cranberry, crowberry, blackberry, etc.; and in the winter they feed on the fir shoots, and the catkins of hazel and birch, which impart to their flesh a peculiar flavour, well known to epicures.

The black grouse, like other members of the grouse family, are polygamous, and in January, February and March, the plumage of the male bird assumes a rich glossy steel blue, which, with his noble bearing, makes him look very imposing. In the warm days at the end of winter, the males may be seen congregated together on some turf-furze, sheep-fold, or rude paling, pluming their wings, and practising various devices to attract the notice of the females.

These fine birds are to be found in considerable numbers in many districts of England; for example in the moor districts of Northumberland, Durham, Cumberland, Westmorland, and Yorkshire. The shooting of the black grouse does not commence till the 1st of September; and they are considered royal game. They are, in the main, shy birds, but those who are acquainted with their haunts will find no great difficulty in reaching them. They are partial to long ling and roughish copse-wood. Under the bank of a deep ravine, particularly in mid-day, and if there be a cold wind blowing, they will be very readily found.

The black grouse require full sized shot and many sportsmen prefer a single to a double-barreled gun.

The Red Grouse forms the staple article of grouse-shooting, especially in the northern parts of Great Britain. The red grouse mate in the spring, and lay from five to ten eggs. Sometimes these are found on the bare ground, and sometimes on a rude kind of nest, made of moss and a little heather. The nest is generally placed in a sheltered position. Both male and female birds attend to the young; and guard them as well as they can against their numerous enemies, in the shape of vermin, and birds of prey.

The habits of the red grouse display a strong feeling for domestication, and are not nearly of so wild a nature as some other of the grouse family. They have occasionally been entirely tamed. A gentleman in Ireland had two braces of birds for several seasons so domesticated that he used to take them into his parlour, where they played with his setter dogs.

They are often found descending from the moors and locating in the vicinity of corn-fields, and shelter themselves among the stubble, both of barley and oats. In most severe winters when pressed for food, they will leave the hills and visit the cultivated grounds, and will even be found occasionally sitting perched on the tops of the dwellings there.

The red grouse differ in numbers and in size according to the season: they increase in size and fullness of feather until November. They delight in fine sunny days, and revel in the luxury of a dry atmosphere. The time of the year has considerable influence on their habits and movements. Frosty weather is favourable for their capture, as they seem then very torpid and lifeless. Wet and windy weather is not favourable to the shooter, because at such times the birds leave the high grounds, and seek out sheltered spots in some comparatively dry and secluded localities.

In rising, grouse almost take a perpendicular direction, and then go in a straight line at an elevation of ten or twelve yards. The exact moment to fire is when they are just about to change from the perpendicular to the rectilinear direction. There is a sort of pause in their flight, which is favourable to the sportsman. A fine sunshiny day, from about eight till five in August and September, and from eleven to three at the later period of the season, is ideal for grouse shooting.

The red grouse require No. 1, 2 or 3 shot [see my previous post on the subject of shots], in the largest single gun one can possibly manage; or, what is better, a good stout double gun.

The White Grouse or the Ptarmigan is partial to high and lofty grounds, and can brave the most intense cold. In Britain it is chiefly found in the Highlands of Scotland, in the Hebrides and Orkney island, and occasionally in the more elevated localities of Cumberland and Wales.

Its plumage is admirably and singularly fitted to the general appearance of the grounds it frequents. They change colour depending on the season and, for example, have white, thick and downy plumage in winter, perfectly blending with snow-covered surroundings.

These birds mate at the same period as the ordinary grouse. The female lays eight or ten eggs, which are white spotted with brown. There is no form of nest prepared: they are laid on the bare ground. In winter they congregate in flocks; and they are so little accustomed to the devices of the fowler, that they suffer themselves to be easily taken either with snare or gun.

They feed on the wild and rough productions of the hills, which impart a bitter taste to their flesh, though it is not by any means unpalatable; it is of dark colour, and somewhat of the taste of the hare.

The great moor tracts in Scotland are the chief places for finding an abundance of sport; the whole country, with the exception of a few miles of cultivated land, is one immense moor, broken into artificial divisions by high and lofty mountains, covered at their summits, in some instances, with eternal snows. This is the sportsman’s land of promise – the land flowing with “the milk and honey” of his amusement.

Taken from “Shooting” by Robert Blakey
Illustrations by Archibald Thorburn, WikiGallery

Farida Mestek is the author of “Margaret's Rematch”, “A Secret Arrangement” and “Lord Darlington's Fancy” - romantic stories set against the backdrop of Regency England. You can learn more about her books and link to her previous posts on the subject of sport at her blog.


  1. One never shoots a deer. Deer are stalked. And only the elderly or infirm deer are taken out, and this is done to prevent the herd from becoming weak, for example through a stag rutting with his own daughters and thus producing weak offspring. I realise that in the US, shooting deer is considered normal, but here, never. Not ever! (Well, unless one found a really badly injured deer and that was the only way to end its misery or something.)

    1. Thank you for pointing that out, but I'm afraid you'll have to take it up with Mr. Robert Blakey, the author of "Shooting", 1859, for it is his turn of phrase and not mine. I was just quoting him in this post. In any case, I wouldn't know what is considered normal in the US, because I'm from Ukraine, but from what I've read so far of shooting (I haven't gotten beyond the birds yet so it's shooting at the moment) it doesn't appear that it's considered particularly sport-like to shoot an old or an injured animal. Where's the sport in that?

  2. Sorry, I ought to have got back to you sooner. The point of stalking is managing the health of the herd. It's not shooting. I've been on the receiving end of a number of lectures by Scottish gillies and those who stalk down in Dartmoor (I'll spare you the length and the expletives...) explaining the need for herd management. And many of these men are descendents of gillies from the 19th century--so it's obviously not a new idea, though we tend to think of such things as conservation as particularly our own.

    As they see it, removing the old, the injured, or the diseased animals from the breeding cycle is vital to ensuring the continuing good health of the herd. Also, those animals who are elderly or diseased, possibly injured, will suffer a slow, painful death, often from starvation, over the winter months, and the gillies would seek to ensure that doesn't happen.

    Also, and I'm being a pedant here and I apologise for that, but one doesn't shoot hare. And one wouldn't have done so in the 19th century, as much because their rifles and sights weren't fast or accurate enough. Hares are so FAST! Hares are hunted by packs of beagles in a sport called beagling. Like other packs, the beagles are scent hounds, but those accompanying the hunt are on foot. You can walk/run a good ten to fifteen miles following a beagle pack on a day's hunting.

    But one of the major differences between here and the US, for example, in how wildlife is hunted is that unlike the US, the British have never had the universal right to bear arms which is for the Americans a Constitutional right. So when you're looking at animals like hare or rabbit--animals which make a mess of one's fields and crops--those hunting may not have had the right to own a gun. But everyone had the right to own a dog, a hound, a terrier...and dogs were bred specifically for their ability to hunt.

    1. Thank you for the explanation. That was very interesting and educational!


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