During the grouse shooting season every shooting man or woman falls into one of just two categories: those who are going grouse shooting and those who wish they were.
I suspect most of those who are merely wishing to be out on the hill rather than taking an active part are held back primarily because of their belief that the cost of a day’s grouse shooting is far beyond their means.
While it is true that a driven grouse shoot on a good moor where the bag will be numbered by the hundred brace is a sport that requires very deep pockets indeed, there is another way to shoot grouse, a more traditional and arguably a much better way, which can be enjoyed for a fraction of the cost of a driven day.
I refer of course to grouse shooting over dogs.
Shooting over dogs means shooting over pointing dogs: pointers, setters or one of the continental HPR breeds such as viszlas, weimaraners or GSPs.
You can shoot grouse over spaniels and labradors which will flush the birds for you as you walk in line, but strictly speaking you will be ‘walking-up’ not shooting ‘over dogs’.
Driven grouse shooting is seen as the pinnacle of our sport, but shooting grouse over dogs is far more fulfilling.
The use of pointing dogs on the hill goes back to the very first days of grouse shooting for sport and still is, in my opinion, the best, the most sporting and the most enjoyable way to shoot grouse.
It is also much cheaper than driven grouse.
While standing in a butt and having grouse pour over you will cost upwards of £140 per brace, it is still possible to find grouse shooting over dogs for a good deal less than half that outlay.
But what can you expect for your money?
Bang for your buck
The one thing you are positively or they may disappear into the next county in pursuit of a hare.
You may end the day with a full game bag pulling at your sun burnt shoulders and an empty cartridge belt around your waist, or you may come off the hill empty-handed – though it is possible the cartridge belt will be considerably depleted.
Shooting grouse over pointers may look easy, and sometimes it may well be, but at times it can be the hardest easy shooting you will ever attempt.
Expect to contend with some very challenging landscapes.
Imagine you are out on the hill, walking along with the grouse shooting party; relaxed, talking quietly together and enjoying the sight of a pointer or setter effortlessly quartering the moor in front of you.
Suddenly the dog swings onto point and stands absolutely motionless against the heather.
The dog handler raises his arm to signal ‘dog on point’ and two of you walk forward, quietly slipping cartridges into the guns as you go.
It is a couple of hundred yards, mostly uphill, to where the dog is standing, and your heart rate rises steadily as you near the spot.
The handler waves you into position on either side of the dog, checks you are both ready and then clicks his fingers to send the dog in to flush the grouse.
A momentary hesitation and then the dog starts forward eagerly.
A couple of steps, a pause, another couple of steps, nostrils flaring as he drinks in the scent of grouse, paws stepping gently through the heather and every muscle taut with anticipation.
You are in much the same state, with half an eye on the dog and half an eye on the seemingly empty heather in front of you.
Another step and another…
Suddenly the air is full of grouse as a covey explodes from the heather and swings left and right, skimming the ground as they twist and turn.
You pick a bird, the gun comes into your shoulder and you fire instinctively.
Sensing rather than seeing it falling, you look for a second.
Handlers, dogs and guns must all work in tandem in order to produce good grouse shooting.
You fire the other barrel, vaguely aware that two guaranteed is that you will have a long walk over some of the wildest and most beautiful country these islands have to offer.
Beyond that, everything falls into the category of ‘maybe’.
It may be a hot sunny day with larks singing and pollen rising from the heather to coat your boots a golden yellow and leave a taste of honey on your lips, or it may be cold, wet and windy.
The grouse may sit tightly when the dog points and offer you some relatively easy shooting, or they may be wild and test your skill with the gun to the very limit.
The dogs may work well and amaze you with their speed, their stamina and their ability to find a single grouse among hundreds of acres of seemingly empty heather, shots have also sounded from your companion 20 yards off on the other side of the dog.
The scent of burnt powder drifts back on the wind, the pointer lies motionless where he dropped into the heather the instant the grouse rose and as suddenly as they appeared the covey has vanished and the hill is empty again.
A steady dog for retrieving is essential when grouse shooting over dogs.
A voice from behind calls “Is there anything to pick?” If you are very good or very lucky you say “A brace.”
More likely it will be just the one or you will be shaking your head and wondering how you could possibly have missed such an easy chance.
Don’t worry: you will probably miss several more before the day is over.
Your heart-rate slowly subsides, you pick up your spent cases and, if all has gone well the labrador comes forward to retrieve the grouse and gives you and the pointers a chance for a few minutes rest before you start over again.
Don’t just stuff the grouse into the game bag.
Take a few moments to look closely and admire the rich variety of colour and hue that makes this one of the most beautiful of game birds when seen close.
Give the pointer a pat and tell him what a clever dog he is and then set off across the hill again, ready for the next adrenaline rush when the dog crashes to a halt, the handler raises his arm and it is your turn to go forward.
There are no special requirements for shooting grouse over dogs.
Dress for the weather and remember that out on the hills and moors the day can quickly go from dry to wet and warm to cold.
Hope for a warm, dry day but go prepared for the rain if it should come.
Good boots are essential, gaiters will keep the heather (and the midges) out of your socks and a game bag is handy to carry waterproofs, lunch, a flask, perhaps a camera and, hopefully, a few brace of grouse by the end of the day.
Guns and gundogs
Any gun that you shoot well with will serve for grouse.
If you have a light 20 or 28 bore I would suggest that you take it rather than a heavy over-under 12.
After six or seven hours on the hill that extra couple of pounds of weight will really tell on your muscles, and if you point it in the right direction the 20 will be perfectly capable of killing whatever grouse you find.
As for loads, you won’t go wrong with an ounce of No.6 shot, give or take a couple of sixteenths depending on whether you are using a 12 or a 20.
Choke is a matter of personal preference, though if you are using full choke you will probably want to give the grouse a little more distance before firing than if you prefer improved cylinder.
In no other form of shooting are you so reliant on the ability of the dogs to provide your sport.
Watching a pointer at work is one of grouse shooting’s great pleasures.
Do not be tempted to spread out into a line in the hopes of walking-up stray birds.
The pointers are there to find grouse and they will do so far, far better than you can.
If you have brought your own dog along to retrieve, keep it at heel while the pointing dogs are running.
If you are not confident your dog will stay steady when grouse are rising and guns are firing then keep him on a lead until it is time for him to retrieve.
Incidentally, ‘time to retrieve’ is not two seconds after the first grouse hits the heather.
The birds in a covey sometimes rise a few at a time and the handler will use the pointer to hunt out the ground fully for any remaining grouse before asking for a retriever to pick-up.
If your dog rushes in too quickly there is a very real danger it might get shot if another grouse flushes and one of the guns hasn’t realised a retrieving dog is fast approaching from stage left.
There may be a quad bike or even a pony to carry coats and leggings, lunches, spare cartridges and shot grouse, but when planning what you intend to take with you always bear in mind that you may have to carry it all yourself, plus any grouse that you shoot.
Lightweight rainwear that can be screwed up into a tight ball and carried in the pocket is ideal for showery days.
Alternatively, on a warm August day you may elect for light clothing and accept that if it rains you will get wet.
My ideal grouse shooting party would consist of just two guns and a dog handler with two or three good pointers or setters and a steady labrador for retrieving.
You will be surprised how often an easy shot at grouse will be missed.
More often there will be four or six guns who can take it in turns to go forward when the dogs point.
If you are of a more sedentary persuasion it is often useful to have a couple of fit young fellows along who can be relied on to volunteer when the dog points at the top of a steep hill.
Politeness can be carried too far, especially when a dog is on point and the grouse are jumpy.
The handler will not be impressed if you spend five minutes discussing whose turn it is to shoot while the pointer is creeping forward and the grouse are liable to rise at any moment.
Decide in advance who is next up and be ready to go as soon as you are called.
Whether the grouse are scarce or abundant, you are certain to have a good long walk.
Do not be afraid to call a halt when you feel like a rest.
The other guns are probably just as weary and the dogs will almost certainly benefit from a rest break every now and again.
Most importantly, you should aim to get maximum satisfaction from every part of the day.
Shooting a few grouse may be the objective of the day but it is not the be all and end all.
Just being there, following in the footsteps of a thousand sportsmen who have walked those same moors with their dogs over the past 200 plus years should be enough to satisfy any gun irrespective of the bag.