Dr Adam Smith must have groaned when his head office asked him to take Shooting Times out grouse counting. It was the end of July and he had been flat out collecting data for the annual census of Scottish grouse moors before the start of the season. The prospect of accommodating the whims of a journalist and photographer must have seemed bleak.

For the past three weeks he had been on the moors by 6am, when the scent is still cool and fresh, working against the clock to ensure he had accurate results before the first shot of the season was fired. It was clear we could not all do our jobs properly at the same time, but Adam was keen to find a solution. “The work that we do on the moors in July is worth shouting about,” he said when we met in the car park of the Dalwhinnie Distillery, south of Inverness. We had convened at 3pm for a stage-managed demonstration of grouse counting on a stretch of moorland near the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust’s (GWCT) Highland eyrie, at Drumochter.

The summer is a period of the year that Adam adores. “At the GWCT, we have a different cycle to the rest of the grouse world, as our outdoor season ends on 12 August,” he said, fixing his gaiters and Batman-style utility belt, which contained data-collecting equipment. “Once the shooting season starts, we return indoors to begin the monitoring of blood and guts testing for worms and disease in the laboratories. Between the end of the first week of July and 11 August, however, we get to be in thethick of it.”

It is a gruelling schedule. Adam visits more than 40 estates in a month, driving vast distances and rising at 4am every day to patrol the empty moors with only his dogs for company. “Of course, I loveit,” he said, releasing his two English pointers, Morgan and Jack, from the back of his vehicle. “The early starts can be a bit repetitive and I swear at the alarm when it goes off, but as soon as I get up on the hill, I realise how lucky I am. This sort of research is the reason that I started in the profession in the first place. Working with the dogs gives me a huge amount of pleasure, which I would miss greatly if I was stuck in a laboratory, so I have no grounds to grumble.”

The dogs shook themselves off and obediently waited for leads to be looped over their heads. Both lean and fit, they were well used to the routine, though they seemed to know that our excursion was different. “The dogs are confused as to why we are going out in the middle of the afternoon, on the hottest day of the summer so far, rather than in the cool of the morning,” said Adam. We had been unlucky with the weather, which had reached a stifling 27ºC in the exposed terrain. The scent of any grouse would be weak and the dogs’ energy would be quickly sapped.

No sooner had we touched the heather than Jack went into a classic point. “Yes, yes, very pretty,” said Adam affectionately. “Stop showing off, now. Jack always points before we start. I think it is his way of telling me he’s ready. He’s only three years old, young and stupid, but he’s a good, strong dog. Morgan is 11 years old now, and he’s been an excellent servant of the GWCT. He’s very steady and stands rock solid if we get in on a covey. Jack is a bit hastier and often moves in on a covey before I get there. They are not trained for trialling or shooting. All they do is grouse counting, and for that they are excellent workers.”

Since 1985, the GWCT has monitored 27 core estates across Scotland and the same number south of the Border to determine the fluctuating fortunes of red grouse, which hold such a special place in the hearts of moorland sportsmen. As a result, the GWCT has built a unique database of the grouse population, which allows it to argue the benefits of grouse shooting with greater authority than simple anecdotal evidence. Throughout the years, it has used the information to investigate issues such as the tick burden and the effects of the strongylosis worm.

“We finish the counts on Balmoral just before the season starts,” said Adam, releasing Morgan for the first run. “The data is not collected as a means of telling estates how many grouse we think they should shoot each year. That is entirely up to them, and they will conduct their own counts before the season starts. Our mission is to chart the changing health of the bird across the country and gauge how moorland biodiversity is affected by grouse management. We believe that one of the best ways to help drive policy in this country is by delivering solid scientific evidence.”

To that end, Adam and his team have to do the work themselves. It would be so much easier to ask keepers to scout out a section of their moorland every year and send in the results to give a rough estimation of how numbers were faring, but that would only give an anecdotal viewpoint as far as Adam is concerned. “The key to accurate scientific research is to ensure that the data is taken in exactly the same way each time. Therefore, if you have one keeper and his two spaniels counting one year, and four keepers and eight dogs the next, it is highly likely that they will record more birds than the year before. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that there are more. Also, keepers might be tempted to go to places where they know there are grouse. What we need to determine is an average for the whole estate, rather than only the hotspots.”

Previously, the GWCT would sweep out a 250-acre plot on an average part of the estate. Nowadays, it employs a more complex method called “distance sampling.” This allows its scientists better to measure the variability of the results and pinpoint any errors that may creep in during fieldwork. Distance sampling works by plotting six transect lines across 250 acres of moorland. Adam and a single dog work along that transect line, with the dog sweeping 75m to 100m from side-to-side. It has its cheek to the wind as it would do on a shooting day. Any birds found are then located to within 2m with a GPS hand-held recorder, and are then cross-referenced against the transect line. When entered into a powerful software package back on the office computer, the results have been shown to be extremely informative.

“It may sound complicated,” said Adam, controlling Morgan with a series of whistle pips, voice commands and hand signals, “but it helps standardise the data. We follow the same transect lines each year. As you will appreciate, measuring the distance from a straight line is much more accurate than a curve. It is a system that works well once you get the hang of it.” Within five minutes, Morgan was puffed out in the hot sunshine, so Jack took over, racing from side to side with youthful enthusiasm. All of a sudden, he stopped in his tracks, but before Adam could get close, he deserted his point to flush the first of seven grouse in a covey: three adults and four cheepers. “They’re not quite poults yet, those juveniles,” said Adam, making a note on his notepad. “It can be quite common to find spare cocks hanging round coveys at this time of year. Sadly, an excess of cock birds is often the sign of a decreasing population, as they are unable to find mates.”

For true scientists, the results must be recorded whether they are good or bad for grouse. Therefore, a drop in grouse numbers must be documented and reported as faithfully as a rise in the population, no matter how welcome that would be. Adam is no stranger to being the bearer of unpopular news, having earned his doctorate monitoring willow grouse in Scandinavia. His thesis found that hunting can have a negative effect on the population when numbers are low, which was not what the hunters wanted to be told. “It is up to individual estates whether they want to take a steady sustainable harvest for walked-up shooting or whether they choose to build up stocks over the long term for driven days.”

Adam said, setting off again down the transect line. “We provide data with the aim of demonstrating that grouse production is the best way of maintaining heather moorland biodiversity and that grouse shooting provides economic benefits for the Highland community. All of this ground is classic environment for birds such as golden plover, dunlin and dotterel, which would not be here if there were not grouse too.”

Adam’s stint at Drumochter is coming to an end. His wealth of experience, coupled with an easy manner and an ability to speak his mind make him an obvious choice to become a more active spokesman for the GWCT at the sharp end of the legislature. The mud and Gore-tex of Drumochter will soon be replaced by the linoleum and leather brogues of Holyrood. It is a challenge and change of scenery that excites him. “At the GWCT we are good at gathering information, but perhaps in the past we have not been that good at driving policy where it matters,” he said, removing a sprig of heather from above Morgan’s eye and giving the old boy’s ears a rub. “We need to start copying the RSPB, which is adept at putting its research to the right people in the corridors of power. There has been a fear that we might start treading on our charitable status if we are seen to be involved in politics. But I don’t see this as political lobbying, rather ensuring that the correct science is put in front of the right people. This is something that must be at the top of the GWCT’s agenda.”

The dogs worked tirelessly despite the fierce sunshine, flushing three big coveys in the 45-minute demonstration. Adam was tuned in to their every movement. I suspect he will still make time to be involved in the grouse counts when his successor arrives at Drumochter. As we made it back to the vehicle to allow the pointers a chance to rehydrate, Adam kicked up a cloud of pollen from a heather bush. “Look!” he said, with a broad grin, “The first stoor of the year. Summer has finally arrived!”