Up to speed
Country Life UK|September 29, 2021
The debate over which is faster, the grouse or the golden plover,has raged for decades, finds Jonathan Young, as he aims to gauge our quickest sporting quarry once and for all
Jonathan Young

WE don’t know the full story. Did he have a hot toddy to hand? Was there a heap of damp labradors steaming in front of a gun-room fire? And were his friends ribbing him over a very obvious and witnessed miss? All that’s certain is Sir Hugh Eyre Campbell Beaver, managing director of the Guinness Brewery, was one of a party shooting the North Slob, by the River Slaney, Co Wexford, Ireland, on November 10, 1951, when the argument began: which was faster, the grouse or golden plover?

It was a good question—both are renowned for their pace, but how fast are they? Which is, indeed, quicker? No one knew. Nor could the answer be found in the house library. At that moment, Sir Hugh realised the world needed a handy guide to the fastest, biggest and tallest: The Guinness Book of Records — now Guinness World Records—was conceived.

Avian speeds have probably fascinated man since we trudged out of caves, feet firmly stuck on the mud, and continue to do so. The fastest, all agree, is the peregrine, at about 200mph; however, that’s achieved in its stoop—more a controlled plummet than true flight. The record holder for controlled, level flight could be the swift (69.7mph), the gyrfalcon (68mph) or the eider duck (47.2mph), all of which have had their speeds ‘clocked’.

These figures do not stand as firmly as, say, Olympic swimming finals or the tennis serve speeds that appear on the Wimbledon courts, because conditions vary, especially the wind. Yet however difficult it is to gauge a bird’s flight velocity, some of us continue to monitor it as carefully as our eyesight and experience permit. Our supper depends on it.

To shoot a game bird or duck successfully, the shotgun’s pattern needs to be placed in the path of the bird, so the bird and pellets meet, the game bag’s filled and the cook’s happy. That’s impossible if you haven’t estimated the bird’s speed accurately. Usually, the faster the bird, the more difficult it becomes.

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