A dogman's take on walked-up grouse shooting

Over the past 15 years it has been intriguing to observe the habits and actions of the various Guns for whom I have worked our dogs in walked-up grouse shooting. They have been as interesting as the grouse themselves.

I have to remind myself that, although most of them have many years of shooting experience, the majority of it has been at driven birds. Many of them will have little, if any, experience of shooting over a pointing breed — especially over a breed such as ours, the Hungarian wirehaired vizsla, which is a member of the hunt, point and retrieve (HPR) group.

Even walked-up shooting over the flushing breeds, such as Labradors and spaniels, is still a relatively minor sport. One exception to this occurred last season when I was asked if I would work our dogs for a single Canadian Gun who was in Scotland on his honeymoon. His father-in-law had paid for him to shoot a limit of five brace. It was obvious from how he read the dogs’ body mannerisms and the noticeable quickening in his pace every time they remotely indicated grouse that he had done this before. As it turned out, he was an upland bird hunter at home who shot over his own HPR breed, the large Munsterlander. He managed four-and-a-half brace by the end of the day.

The tiredness factor
Before the start of the day, I have always found it beneficial to brief the Guns, letting them know what they can expect from our dogs and how they work. Just as importantly, we also let them know what we expect of them.

A typical day’s Highland grouse shooting can see us out on the hill by 11 in the morning through to five in the afternoon, with maybe an hour’s break for lunch — a long, hard day.

Peat hags heavily scar areas of these Highland moors, some of which are well above head height. Understandably, irrespective of age, it provides a real physical challenge for many of the Guns. Sometimes simply keeping in touch with your dog is difficult. As the handler, I have to be conscious of the dogs’ whereabouts at all times, while also helping to ensure that the welfare of the Guns is met. It’s no mean feat.

Even with the younger members, it is noticeable, as the day wears on, just how much tiredness affects their shooting and its subsequent success. Although our dogs are never going to run with the same speed or be as wide-ranging as your typical pointer or setter, they are every bit as methodical. The very fact that they hunt at a range that allows a Gun to get to them in a respectable time and distance has its advantages and is most definitely appreciated by the older Guns.

The average age in our party tends to be far greater than in those who choose to follow the keeper and his pointer. Far more legwork is required to keep apace of this big running dog. Regrettably, despite their best efforts, many older Guns are unable to stay abreast of the dogs. This, in turn, means that on many occasions after an extended hunt or stalk by our dogs, the Guns arrive too late. The wily grouse, having taken their chance to run ever forward, subsequently flush out of range. Some Guns think the dog has “false pointed”, so a little diplomacy in answering is called for.

Forcing the pace
Younger Guns can present their own problems. They are prone to bore forward at breakneck pace, especially earlier in the day. By doing so, they force the pace instead of standing off a little to allow the dogs adequate time to cover the ground fully before them. This means that, in order to stay in front of the ever-advancing line of Guns, the dogs will begin to cut down their range, reducing the amount of ground covered. The less ground covered by the dogs, the less chance of finding grouse.

I have found it good practice that, on arrival at the pointing dog, a little time should be allowed for the Guns to catch their breath before the flush. Many is the occasion that not a bird is hit from a covey due to the Gun being out of breath.

All of our dogs are trained to flush on command. We found this to be too risky when out with Guns unfamiliar with an HPR breed. Far safer to ask the Guns to walk forward of the pointing dog, in a line, either side, to flush the grouse themselves, with only shots to the front to be taken.

Many Guns, understandably, like to be accompanied by their own dogs, primarily Labradors. Can there be anything more special than a photo of your own canine companion sitting resplendent, grouse in mouth, after a successful shot, high upon the moor in August? This I both fully understand and always enjoy witnessing. However, what I don’t enjoy are those free-running dogs that on occasion run forward of your pointing dog to flush the grouse and not a shot is fired.

Over the years, many friendships have been formed from working our dogs. I also like to think that the service we offer has gone some way to providing them with a unique style of grouse shooting. Amazingly, over the years we have enjoyed the company of one chap who has never missed the Glorious Twelfth, walked-up, for more than 50 consecutive years. A truly remarkable feat.