IT never rains but it pours. Grousing invitations have been coming thick and fast and this time the real thing, driven grouse.
After a tentative start with a fair amount of doom and gloom, it turns out that grouse numbers in many places are far better than anyone expected, or perhaps better than anyone was daring to admit. Either there was a far bigger surplus from last year’s record year than imagined, or improved control of various worms and parasites is paying off, or not everyone was hit as badly by the weather as they thought. Or a bit of everything.
Whatever – things had perked up to such an extent up Strathdon that an extra day had been proposed at the last minute so those of us prepared to jump to at short notice were up there like the proverbial ferrets.
“It’s an easterly – not good for us,” said Derek, the keeper. To be honest, the wind and intermittent rain was so appalling I can’t believe it would have mattered where it came from. As with anything to do with grouse, there was a longish wait in butts on a one-in-three slope as the beaters, miles out of sight, started to bring in the ground. One man had helpfully been sent to blow a warning whistle at the first approach of birds. The whistling was constant until I realised it was the wind blowing across the hollow tops of the bamboo canes stuck in each side of the butt to make sure I didn’t shoot my neighbours.
But in spite of Derek’s gloom and the wet wind, a steady supply of birds started whistling past, all up and down the line. Crumpet (I had left Waffle behind) retrieved two of the laird’s birds, thus marginally redeeming my performance.
We had elevenses in the heather and Sandy Smith, a local farmer, said: “You’re John Sutherland’s man”. In the way of Aberdeenshire farmers, it was impossible to tell whether this was an accusation, a question, a statement of fact or a very bad state of affairs indeed. And not a clue in his voice as to the best way to reply.
After a little jockeying, it turned out we had shared Mr Sutherland’s legal services and agreed he was a thoroughly good egg, so we had another sloe gin and prosecco chaser. The next drive, we were hit by cloud and mist on a heroically Andean scale. But still the birds came. The rain threatened to punch holes through the lunch hut – crab cakes and pork chops by Carol. But Derek had sussed a more sheltered drive for the afternoon. And so it proved – after a fashion.
Yet such is the anticipation and excitement of driven grouse that I don’t think anyone, apart from the beaters, was remotely fazed by the weather. Well, not much.