I never expected to be heading out with gamekeepers to witness grouse shooting season begin in the Angus Glens.
Yet there I was, dogs darting around excitedly at my heels. Old friends greeted each other, clapped hands on their shoulders.
A sense of anticipation for them, nerves for me.
Last week, a campaigner opposed to grouse shooting told me that he sees the Angus uplands as a “crime scene”.
Meanwhile, director of moorland with Scottish Land and Estates described the start of grouse shooting season as a “display of community spirit”.
I had no idea what to expect.
It was way too early for a Saturday. Multiple alarms woke me up, rudely, at 6am.
Stepping into my walking boots, I felt what I can only describe as dread. What was it going to be like when I got to the shoot?
Would I be horrified? Surely. Or would I actually see it as some sort of celebration?
I’ve never held a gun in my life, or even seen an animal being shot at. I couldn’t wrap my head around the thought of anyone shooting animals for sport.
I had visions of the duck shoots from The Crown, posh royals shouting at dogs and even, ridiculously, the fox hunting scene from Mary Poppins.
But in the pursuit of journalism, I donned my waterproofs and drove towards the Angus estate.
Although I was brought up in Aberdeenshire, I never had anything to do with blood sports. It was something I only really heard about after moving to Dundee.
I couldn’t believe that it was still going on, and that there were so many people seemingly so passionate about what is, when it comes down to it, killing.
Yes, the shooters (or conservationists) argue that grouse shooting enhances the biodiversity of the moors.
But there’s no getting away from the brass tacks of someone in a Barbour jacket pointing a gun at a bird and pulling the trigger.
— Joanna Bremner (@C_JBremner) August 12, 2023
What are the Angus grouse shooters like?
The shooters on the hill weren’t at all what I had imagined.
They weren’t old, unapproachable men, although there were far more men than women involved.
They were young, chatty and excitable.
For them, this is like any other sport. They were like a group of friends meeting up, giddy, before running a race.
The killing, for them, is almost an afterthought. But it was all I could think about.
One of the gamekeepers, Finn, gave me a lift up the hill in his Toyota Land Cruiser. My little Fiat 500 certainly wouldn’t have survived that incline.
Finn was excited, and talked about how good it feels to get to work in and around nature all day, everyday.
Another attendee added that it’s “one hell of an office”. The views at the estate in the Angus Glens really were spectacular. Although I was struggling to appreciate them in the knowledge that the sound of gunfire would soon disrupt the peaceful scenery.
Finn was chatty and kind, and didn’t look like the sort of person that would enjoy killing anything.
But then again, none of them did.
It was time.
Dogs were salivating, the gamekeepers looked anxious to get things started. They all got in a line to begin the shoot. It seemed pretty simple and straightforward. Walking up through the heather, their dogs in tow.
I had actually calmed down a bit before the first gun went off.
I flinched, my stomach dropping. One of them had shot a grouse.
It was surreal to see, and pretty unsettling. One of the dogs excitedly bounded ahead to grab the bird in its mouth. I looked away.
It was really happening.
‘Yes, I might shoot things, but…’
In between shoots, I chatted to some of the shooters on the hillside.
I did feel a little out of place, considering I’d left my non-existent Barbour jacket at home.
All but one of them were in baker boy hats, many of them tweed. One of the men looked like he was right out of Peaky Blinders.
I asked Marlies how it is possible to be at once so passionate about wildlife, but willing, in the same breath, to kill it.”
Perhaps it is some engrained sexism within myself, but I was surprised to see any women there.
I spoke to one of them, Marlies Nicolai-Peake.
The 31-year-old works with the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust and it was her first time on a shoot. So she and I were in the same boat.
I asked Marlies how it is possible to be at once so passionate about wildlife, but willing, in the same breath, to kill it.
“I do get that a lot,” she admits, “particularly when I worked in Southern Africa as well.
“You’ve got your trophy hunting trade there and obviously here you’ve got your sports, whether that’s with grouse, pheasants or even deer stalking.
“But I think people forget there’s an element of management to it.
“If grouse moor management is done sustainably, it has these huge biodiversity benefits for other wildlife.”
This management does, however, involve not only shooting grouse, but setting traps for other animals which threaten the grouse.
She adds: “Yes, I might shoot things, but it’s not that I enjoy the actual killing and the blood sport.
“It’s the whole experience as well.”
Like Ross Ewing, director of moorland with Scottish Land and Estates, who conceded that grouse shooting is from the Victorian times but says there are reasons for its popularity, Marlies also enjoys engaging in traditions from the past.
She says: “I think it’s really important to uphold an element of tradition, particularly because now the world is moving so progressively and is so modernised.
“I think it’s quite nice to keep an older element of what we used to do.”
And for me?
When it was over, just one bird down, I thought about that Mary Poppins scene again.
That’s where I wanted to be, sat with the grouse who had escaped the gun.