Pointers had never really held any great interest for me. The only ones that I had actually seen working were German shorthaired pointers. Perhaps I was unlucky, but the few examples that I had the displeasure to see seemed to have a passion for ruining a shoot day for everyone, their only talent being their ability to find game out of gunshot and render birds inedible. These early encounters prejudiced my view to the point where, if I saw one on a shoot, I would try to keep as far away as possible.
Last year, I met Isac and Carin Traffe by chance at the English Springer Spaniel Championship at Drumlanrig. They are mad keen on all gundogs, from cockers to pointers and setters, and they kindly invited me to visit them in Sweden. During my stay there, I spent a day hunting in the north for blackcock and capercaillie, accompanied by Toureg Sandstrum, one of Sweden’s leading experts on Irish and red setters. I was intrigued by the way his dogs quartered the heather, bilberry and birch-clad mountains. They seemed, at first, to be running wild, but I quickly realised that they were covering a large expanse of ground by using the wind and were constantly checking where their handler was. When we stopped to take a break, Toureg said nothing to the setters, but within seconds they appeared and lay at our feet. His contact and rapport with the dogs was amazing. There wasn’t a great deal of game but it was totally natural and untouched, proving the benefits that well-keepered moorland in the UK do to provide an abundance of game.
After three hours’ walking, my first chance of a shot came as a caper bigger than a turkey flew right-to-left in a woodland clearing only 30 yards away. I’m ashamed to say I missed it with both barrels. A chance snap shot at a blackcock later in the day also never touched a feather. The only thing to fly into my shot that day was a hooded crow, so I suppose I did my bit for vermin control. At the end of the day, even though the gamebag was empty, I was totally enthralled by the dog work. The only Irish setter I had seen previously was a 10-month-old puppy that my uncle had bought, which preferred furniture to food. It would do the wall of death in the kitchen and refused to venture outdoors in the rain.
The day after going out with Toureg, I went shooting in the centre of Sweden over Carin’s English pointer bitch, Rhea. This really opened my eyes. She is fast and pacey, with loads of drive and enthusiasm and seemingly endless stamina. I had never before seen a dog hunt so naturally by using the wind, nor cover so much ground so effortlessly, before slamming on point when it got downwind of a bird. I was hooked. The adrenalin and excitement of watching Rhea work was unbelievable. Again, the game supply was sparse, but the presence of a sprinkling of blackcock was enough to keep Rhea interested as she stylishly worked out the scent from each small covey of birds. I had originally gone to Sweden to help Carin and Isac progress in training their springers, but it was the pointer that I liked the most.
On returning home, I made enquiries about the possibility of shooting grouse over a pointer. I arranged a day, but then realised that GSPs would be used to find the birds. I am still a little prejudiced against this breed, though by now I should have learned to keep an open mind. As it was going to be expensive to shoot grouse over a pointer in any case, I wanted it to be over English pointers, so I put the day on hold.
Fortunately a good friend, Helen Gray, acquired an English pointer dog from renowned pointer man Peter O’Driscoll. Furthermore, Helen’s close friend, Alastair Lyon, is the headkeeper on the Drumochter estate at Dalwhinnie, which accommodates pointer days. I made my decision and booked a day in August. The night before, I travelled 180 miles to the Dalwhinnie hotel. I arrived late in the evening and went to the bar. Halfway through my third pint of cider, I began to feel a bit woozy. Looking at the bottle, I realised the problem. It was 7.4 per cent. I’m not a big drinker, so on the way back to my room I did more quartering up the hallway than any pointer.
The following morning, unsurprisingly, I didn’t really feel like breakfast. When Helen announced that we were travelling by boat to the moor, I thought she was joking. I didn’t need to worry as, thankfully, Loch Ericht was beautifully calm as we made our way along. The scenery was breathtaking and the anticipation peaked as Alastair moored the boat at the foot of the hill and Archie the pointer began to tremble in excitement. I only hoped my shooting would do the day justice.
At first I didn’t know whether Alastair had got out of the wrong side of the bed or had simply taken a dislike to me, but he walked the guts out of me up the first hill on to the plateau where we were going to try and find a few grouse. My cheeks were still burning from exertion when Archie stood rigid, leaning into the wind. An old cock bird took off when Helen gave Archie permission to flush. The first shot only killed my confidence but a second shot was enough to bring it down and Archie made sure it didn’t go much further. It was a great start and it helped me to focus.
After a brief rest and instruction from Alastair to try to shoot old birds, we set off again, giving me the opportunity to watch Archie use the wind and quarter the ground before we found the next covey. The way he floated over the heather doing what comes naturally, unhindered by any overtraining, was great to watch. It was in contrast to the way I train springers, constantly trying to restrict their pattern and control their natural instincts. Archie found a covey, but such is my luck that they lifted and flew with the wind behind Helen, heading downhill. I thought it safer to leave them.
Minutes later, Archie proved the potency of his nose by indicating birds in between him and a burn. The birds took off and I did something which is totally out of the rule book. I switched birds after missing with the first barrel. The second bird fell 40 yards out on the edge of the burn. Teak, my Labrador bitch, waiting at heel, had seen the fall, so I gave her permission to pick the bird. Teak hunted the area then pulled off down the burn. I stopped her and directed her back to the fall area, but she made nothing of it. With my face now red from embarrassment, I asked Alastair to look. In a short time his springer appeared after following the line of the grouse. A cracking retrieve, proving I should have trusted Teak in the first place.
Archie demonstrated how a dog should work the uplands. I hoped my marksmanship could hold up. We had lunch on the hill looking out over the loch. The air was cool and damp, with enough wind to help the dogs but not too much to spook the birds. By mid-afternoon there were seven old birds and two young in the bag. As we headed back down to the boat with a cheek wind, Archie stood rigid on point about 300 yards away. I made my way towards him, crossed the gulley to the side of the dog and quietly closed my 20-bore. A cock grouse rose behind me announcing his displeasure at being so rudely interrupted. As I thought the last chance of a shot had been missed Archie crept forward and the rest of the covey lifted in front of me then turned and flew uphill. A snap shot saw the last of my five-brace quota disappear in a puff of heather pollen. The pointer work had been excellent. I came off the hill heading back to the boat totally contented – a real red-letter day. If looks could kill, Archie would be a murderer as he showed his disappointment at being restricted by the slip lead. How he had the energy to go again after covering so much ground I don’t know. On the way back, Alastair pointed out where the resident golden eagles make their nest – it is a truly amazing place.
If I can afford it, this is an experience worth repeating. I can’t wait to get my own pointer and maybe I’ll go out with the Germans one day.
For information on pointer days at Drumochter estate, contact Alastair Lyon, tel 01540 673177.