The beginning of March usually heralds that wonderful time of the year when my dogs and I step back on the grouse moors, close to home, to begin our spring grouse counts. These record the number of paired and unpaired grouse, including their gender, which gives the moor keeper an idea of how many birds his ground holds.
Though far from an exact science, it is amazing just how accurate this can prove to be. Nothing man-made has so far ever exceeded the good use of the canine nose to conduct these counts. And long may this be the case — it will be a very sad day, especially for those of us whose lives revolve around our dogs, when technology intervenes and the use of the pointing breeds is no longer required. This may seem far-fetched, but aren’t satellites already being used to monitor the extent of burning that moors conduct?
Severe weather effects
Though March is usually when we return to the moors, this year the arrival of snow in February and its constant presence until the first couple of weeks of April in certain areas put paid to that. Ongoing cold easterly winds meant daytime temperatures barely registered above zero and nights were sub-zero. Understandably, many grouse left the more elevated areas and moved down to lower ground to find food.
I’m not sure if what we experienced was just a local phenomenon, but it was the hen grouse that left in larger numbers. On our return to the higher ground, once the snow had begun its thaw, it appeared to leave a disproportionate number of single cocks — far more than I had experienced in the past. Maybe some cock birds refused to leave their territories, but I have never seen so many single cock and hen grouse un-paired so late in the season. But I believe that they will pair now that the weather has improved.
Grouse counts are also the ideal time to take a young, somewhat inexperienced dog up on the moor. Over the years I have tried to refine the way that I bring on my youngsters. I now do less “formal training” — in fact, these days I just teach a young dog to respond to the “stop” and “recall” commands via my whistle.
For me, it’s all about experiential, hands-on training. Placing a young dog with all its natural ability in the right environment, and allowing what lies within to come out, brings dogs on much faster and is also much more natural.
Springtime grouse are the wily survivors of the previous season’s shooting. They are naturally suspicious and especially so in the first few weeks of March, when they truly are wild and won’t tolerate indiscretions from clumsy handling or dog work. They can be frustration itself for you and your dog, repeatedly flying wild, spontaneously flushing ahead of your dog and offering, in most cases, no chance of a point.
This is especially trying for a tyro dog. Initially, these youngsters tend to creep forward just that little too much and on occasions force the grouse up and away. Over the years I have learned that you need an experienced dog, well versed in its craft, with a “long nose” that stands off an inordinate distance to hold these early March grouse. However, once they’re paired and territories are established, the cock birds really do develop a cocky, defi ant attitude to whomever and whatever enters their home ground. Many young dogs when faced with these red-feathered warriors are unsure as to what to do next. This is particularly so when the grouse begin to walk towards them. Many an anxious look backwards from the dog to you, the handler, follows as the dog looks for reassurance.
This season I had an eight-monthold bitch of limited experience in tow, due entirely to the adverse weather conditions. At the time of our first count, she was already three weeks behind in the amount of time up on the moor and the accumulated experience she should have had. We had one week in which to condense everything I had hoped for from the previous weeks.
I would usually run such a youngster independently of its older and more experienced peers. This allows it adequate opportunity to find its own birds and at times to make its own mistakes and learn from them. However, I did not have that luxury this year. This young dog needed as many bird contacts as possible. So, initially, I ran an older dog, waited for a point, then unleashed the youngster and watched to assess its response.
When one pointing dog witnesses another finding birds and pointing them, and then follows up and draws on point alongside, this is called “honouring” — a beautiful description.
A quick learner
At first my youngster did what I have seen many times in the past — it failed to honour, ran forward of its peer and subsequently flushed the grouse. Some youngsters have that natural desire to honour. In others it develops, especially as they mature and get more regular bird contacts.
Such was the case with our youngster, but thankfully she soon realised the futility of trying to run after fast-flying, rapidly departing grouse and began to slow, stop and form her first semblance of a point, which improved the more her nose met the residual scent of freshly flown grouse.
I ensured that whenever I ran the youngster it was upon the more “manicured” areas of the moor — those with shorter heather, the best wind directions and where I felt confident we would find birds. After all, it’s all about ensuring success.
No matter how many dogs I have trained there is always something both exciting and satisfying when a young dog finally draws on point for the first time. With a brisk headwind, an area of the moor that was a wonderful mosaic of differing lengths of heather, I cast the youngster on to hunt. Until now, her pattern was that of a young dog, far from perfect, but her wind usage and the size of her casts were good — both of which would help in her desire to find grouse.
After a few minutes, she began to slow. Her head and nose carriage were high and with far more conviction than previously shown, she finally drew on point. Personally, I always enjoy working a young dog that has the courage of its own convictions, irrespective of whether it is right or wrong. So, as I walked up alongside, then slowly forward of her, I was overjoyed when a lone cock grouse fl ushed. I encouraged her on, and after a short time the skulking hen arose no more than a few yards away.