This guide to walked-up grouse shooting is great preparation for anyone who is going grouse shooting this season
If you are ever lucky enough to be invited to shoot walked-up grouse, look forward to your day, for in the whole pantheon of shooting sports, there are few experiences to touch it. Savour the magnificent scenery, the scent of the heather and the sweet summer air, the hum of insects as the dogs work in front of you, and then the adrenaline-filled moment of excitement as a covey flushes at your feet.
One common area of confusion is the distinction between walked-up grouse shooting and shooting over dogs. Shooting over dogs involves the use of pointers or setters, which will hunt widely across the moor until they locate a covey of grouse. The dog will then hold the birds on point until its handler commands it to flush them in front of a pair of Guns that have been brought forward to take the shot. The technique tends to be used where grouse numbers are fairly low.
Walking-up involves a group of maybe six or eight Guns, sometimes more, walking steadily in line abreast across the moor with Labradors or spaniels working in front of them. It is essentially the same technique that a group of roughshooters might use when hunting pheasants on a field of sugar beet.
Fitness for you and your dog
The first prerequisite is fitness. Walking on an August day across a grouse moor requires above average fitness and stamina. Most regular, active Shots will be well up to the challenge, but even they should consider some basic preparation before the start of the season. I regard myself as being reasonably fit, but once the Game Fair is over I usually pull on a pair of running shorts and trainers for a few morning jogs around the local lanes.
I also prepare my dog. From mid-July onwards I start some walking-up exercises to ensure I have full control over her when she is hunting, and that she will quarter back and forth in front of me, turning on command and keeping no more than 25 yards ahead. A dog that is out of control on a walked-up grouse day is liable to ruin everybody’s sport.
What to wear for walked-up grouse shooting
Kit for walking-up should be light and comfortable. My grouse shooting is in August, and I opt for shirtsleeves and a shooting vest. I will always have a light shooting jacket in the back of the Land Rover in case of a filthy cold, wet day, but rarely do I need it. Walking-up through heather usually keeps me quite warm enough.
Being a traditionalist, I wear tweed breeks, but most important are my boots, and I thoroughly recommend calf-length lace-up walking boots such as the excellent Le Chameau Mouflon-plus boots, which will keep your feet comfortable and dry all day, and will prevent your ankle turning should you miss your footing on uneven ground.
A light gun that you can carry with ease and comfort all day and with which you can shoot instinctively is what matters. Barrel configuration or bore size is irrelevant. Though I usually use my light 2½in side-by-side Cogswell 12-bore, shooting 28g of No. 7, I have had equally good results from a 28-bore over-and-under, while others in my regular party favour 16 or 20-bore. August grouse are not difficult to kill; it’s hitting them that is the tricky bit.
That is why I ensure that, as part of my pre-season warm-up, I get in a morning or two at John Bidwell’s ground at High Lodge in Suffolk, concentrating on low going-away targets. Freshening up the gun mount and boosting the confidence before heading for the grouse moor makes all the difference. Cartridges? I load from my pockets, but a cartridge belt works equally well for others, with reserve supplies being held back in the vehicles.
How to read the grouse moor
So you’re lined up and ready to start. How do you read the grouse moor in front of you? Above all, watch the dogs. If scent is half decent, they will tell you when there are birds about, their noses going down and tails going into overdrive as they work up to the covey. With your own dog in front, you will be watching it all the time. If not, you must use some common sense. Grouse will usually favour heather over grass, and will often be sitting tight in the short-to-medium-length heather, so concentrate hard when approaching such ground.
When climbing rising ground, make an effort to get smartly to the ridge, so that birds rising just ahead of you are not immediately over it and safely out of sight before you get a chance to shoot. If you have the option to do so, choose the route through rocks, burns or broken ground that offers the best view of ground from which grouse might flush.
August grouse will not have seen much shooting and will usually flush well within range, especially on a dry day. In heavy rain, however, they will sometimes congregate on the more open knolls, out of the long, wet heather, and they will see you approaching from a distance and will flush at maximum range or beyond. Be focused, and prepare to shoot the moment the birds flush. Even when they lift at 10 yards you’ll be surprised at their acceleration, and if you hesitate then they’ll be out of range before you know it.
If a covey flushes ahead and there is a chance to do so, then go for the old birds by selecting the larger, darker targets. This is a counsel of perfection that may apply early in August but, as the season progresses and the young birds develop, it soon becomes impossible to distinguish between young and old grouse until they are in the hand. In a late hatching year, however, avoid shooting immature birds or ‘cheepers’. They will make much more sporting targets in four weeks’ time and you’ll earn the keeper’s respect by holding your fire.
Not every bird will present a going-away shot. When there is a crosswind, in particular, birds may curl back and present spectacular driven shots to Guns further down the line. Sometimes the covey may not flush together. Usually the first to jump will be the old birds, but when they have gone, grouse may continue to flush around you for several more seconds. Keep on the alert, even after having fired both barrels. Reload quickly, and ensure the ground is fully clear before sending the dog to retrieve any shot birds.
The usual procedure when birds are down is to hold the line stationary while dogs are sent forward to retrieve. This applies unless a bird has been seen to drop a long way ahead, in which case the keeper may well decide to keep the line moving and to stop and pick the bird when the vicinity of the fall is reached. When grouse birds are being retrieved, remain stationary until you are told otherwise, even if you think there may be birds waiting to flush just ahead of you.
Grouse shooting safety
Safety, as with every aspect of shooting, is of fundamental importance. The line of Guns must always be kept straight, with no one forging ahead or lagging behind. This is true also for walkers and dog handlers. As with a naval convoy, the line should move at the speed of the slowest walker.
A straight line is even more important when neighbouring Guns are not visible, as may be the case when crossing broken ground or steep gullies, and extra care must be taken in these circumstances. Even if you cannot see your neighbour, you must mentally mark where he or she is at all times.
Most shots will be taken at low, fast going-away targets, which may seem unusual to those schooled to shoot only at high birds, but on the wide open spaces of the grouse moor this is perfectly safe, provided nobody swings through the line or shoots down it. It is also important to remember, on steep hill ground, that one end of the line may be 100ft or more above the other, so what may seem a high bird to the bottom Gun may in fact pass across someone higher up the line.
If you are walking-up this season, then have a safe and enjoyable shooting holiday. There is nothing to compare with the moors in August.