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Hunting grouse in the hills with vizslas

Roy Bebbington's vizslas provide thrilling sport for Guns willing to walk the north-west Highland hills

Hungarian Vizsla

West is best? Well, that depends. Some years ago, I lived, worked and sought my sport in the north-west Highlands of Scotland. It is an area of exceptional natural beauty, where precious few people reside. The locals call mountains “hills” and wide- open vistas are the norm — on a colossal scale. It is a truly magnificent area, but not without its drawbacks.

It’s a landscape that is tortured by the weather. If you like wind and rain, this is the place for you. On a good day, after so many bad ones, you would soon seek refuge after being driven demented by the greedy intentions of the diminutive
but highly predatory Highland midge. If all of that were not enough, the area in which I lived was almost a desert for game. Large tracts of unkempt moorland were lifeless, save for the occasional pipit or grouse, and it was absolutely devoid of any mammalian presence, except for the red deer.

Those who criticise the management techniques employed on keepered moorland need to visit these moors. They will soon experience first-hand just what happens when things are basically left to the custody of Mother Nature.

So, last August, while employed working our dogs — Hungarian wirehaired vizslas — on an estate smack bang between the west and east of the Highlands at the head of the Great Glen, I received an invitation to travel west, to work our dogs for grouse.

The Mountains of Coigach, North of Ullapool, Wester Ross, Northern Scotland,shot from the air, summer 2006. Image shot 07/2006. Exact date unknown.

The afternoon’s location was a joy to behold with velvet-green hills rising either side of the loch

Experience has taught me that the farther west in the Highlands you go for grouse, the fewer they are in number. The topography, thin heather coverage, higher proliferation of white grasses and, above all else, much higher rainfall and more temperate conditions, all add up to mean fewer grouse.

Added to that, there is less intensified keepering for grouse, with more ground suited to deer forests than bona fide grouse moors. Though no actual counts had been conducted on the estate we were to visit, prior to the shooting a number of coveys of grouse had been seen — enough to solicit excitement at the prospect of a day’s shooting.

This would be the first time any form of shooting over a pointing breed had been conducted there for a number of years. Curiosity played its part. With a day free from commitments on the estate for which I was working, I agreed to take a team of four vizslas and hoped for good things. It was something of a “stab in the dark” for us all, dogs included.

No matter how many times I may have worked the dogs for parties of Guns to shoot over, an invitation to a different estate, with guns of unknown experience and the different challenges the estate presents, always create a certain amount of apprehension within me. However, for the dogs it is simply another occasion to do what they were bred for.

The main reason for my apprehension is that the vizslas and I will need certain conditions if we are to conduct ourselves in the way I would like. You only ever get one invitation if the service you provide on any given day — irrespective of what the reasons for it may be — proves unfavourable to either the host or their guests. It doesn’t matter how experienced your dogs may be or your skill in working with them, the conditions can conspire against you. If that should happen, there is no point trying to explain the reasons for whatever has happened to either a host or a party of guns. They will either not listen to you or have no idea what you are talking about.

red grouse flying

I never take for granted the hills in which I have worked our dogs for so many years, but a certain amount of familiarity will creep in. The actual journey to the estate we had an invitation to work on was therefore a joy in itself. The west side of the Highlands is so different from the rest of the area, so driving through and experiencing its hitherto unseen splendour was an absolute pleasure.

On our arrival we were introduced to our host, his keeper and the four Guns, and I gave a short briefing on how the vizslas worked. We then set off for the hill, working our way through the estate’s grounds. We began in an area that seemed to have much potential. ongoing vermin control is part and parcel of its stewardship, so this would hopefully result in good things for any grouse. For the dogs, however, it proved to be difficult going, as a lot of the under-cover was spongy and energy-sapping.

Walking the line

Knowing that throughout the day our opportunities would be limited, I wanted to make the most of every one that presented itself. I had previously explained to the guns that, whenever the wind conditions were unfavourable for the dogs, I would re-leash them, after which we would spread out and walk a line. Twice while walking the line grouse got up before the Guns, who shot a brace. The vizslas, though somewhat frustrated while on the leash, had the satisfaction of being sent for the retrieve of any shot walked-up grouse. It took two of the dogs to locate one grouse that was hit but not killed. As one of them brought it to hand another bird got up, which was shot and retrieved by the other dog. The result was two happy canines.

flying red grouse

A sentinel cock grouse spotted us

On a couple of occasions a sentinel cock grouse spotted us, clucking away to its covey mates. I knew if he should flush, the others would follow. The vizslas were brought in again, I withdrew, and instructed the guns to walk forward quietly and take a shot. Thankfully for the dogs, they had two or three full hunt, point and retrieves, with good sitting grouse holding to a point and being sportingly shot.

vizsla dog

The dogs had a few full hunt, point and retrieves with good sitting grouse holding to a point

Velvet-green hills

After lunch on the hill, it was back into the vehicles to go to a different venue. One of the Guns had retired so we were down to three. The afternoon’s location was a joy to behold:  hills rising either side of the loch that, with the early afternoon sunshine upon it, was lit like pure gold. The hills either side were velvet green, mostly wet, with sparse heather coverage — not the best for grouse.

The plan was to take one of the estate’s boats moored at the head of the loch, sail half its length, disembark and work back to where we had started. I was quite excited at the prospect, but the wind direction had changed, which meant we would have had a constant backwind on our return if we took the boat, which would not have been ideal for the dogs.

shooting in Scotland

There were one or two lovely points on snipe, which tested the guns

Knowing that the vizslas had put in a full morning’s work on physically taxing ground, and that a certain amount of fatigue had set in, we would have to change our plans to achieve the best sport. Therefore we worked them on our outward cast, with a constant, light headwind — perfect for the dogs!

One or two lovely points on snipe ensued, which tested the Guns, but they duly escaped. Snipe baffle me and, on occasion, they baffle the dogs too. On this day, the dogs scented and pointed every snipe, but other times I have seen the dogs continually over-run them. Scenting conditions obviously have a bearing but I also wonder if, in differing weather conditions, snipe give off varying amounts of scent?

A surprise covey

Reaching our limit, we turned. We initially tried the dogs but then re-leashed them, spanned out in line and walked- up. A good-sized covey of grouse rose up before the Guns from the lochside, surprising them to a certain extent, and all made good their escape.

With a bag of 41⁄2 brace of grouse, we retired back to the lodge for tea and a slice of home-made cake. The day had exceeded my expectations, and a return invitation was extended for next season, so I presume that we left behind us a happy host and guests.