The Amulree field trial on grouse marks the start of the pointer and setter trialling circuit in Scotland

For the past 17 years, the Lochan estate near Amulree, a tiny hamlet in that lovely, mountainous part of west Perthshire between Dunkeld and Crieff, has hosted a two-day field trial on grouse, organised by the Northern Counties Pointer and Setter Society. This event is the start of the pointer and setter trialling spring circuit in Scotland, run by the various clubs, societies and associations on ground kindly provided by moorland owners.

On 22 March, the first day, some 30 handlers and owners from all over Britain and Ireland assembled in the estate farmyard for the open trial. They were met by Jim Howden, the society’s chairman; Jimmy Ruggles-Brise, its president; Colin McGregor, the Lochan headkeeper, who was steward of the beat; and Malcolm Sinclair, his beatkeeper. The card was displayed on a board and once handlers had collected their numbered armbands, we set off in convoy five miles through the estate to Moness, part of Malcolm’s beat, where the trial was to be held. As with the rest of the 9,000-acre grouse moor, Moness is burnt on a 15-year cycle and was ideal ground, with a perfect mix of lengths and ages of heather.

It was glorious, bright, sunny weather and once dogs were unboxed and given time to stretch their legs and empty, we moved off in a south-westerly direction, with the wind on our cheek, for the first round. Judges were Steve Robinson, an A-panel judge and trainer of numerous field trial champions, and Liz Osborne, a non-panel judge on her second judging appointment.

There were 14 brace on the card and dogs were brought up in turn – as drawn on the card – with the lower number always on the left. First to run were Lusca Gina, an Irish setter bitch bred by Declan O’Rourke of the famous Lusca kennels and handled by her owner, Colin Forde from Limerick, and Shanrycon Andraid, another Irish setter bitch, bred and handled by her owner, David O’Neill from Antrim. Competitors had spent the previous few weeks helping moorland keepers with their spring grouse counts and dogs were on peak form. These two setters, with their heads up, eagerly quartering the ground across the wind at a bold, effortless gallop, the feathering on their coats accentuating the fluidity of their movement, made a truly glorious sight.

Under Kennel Club rules, a field trial should replicate a day’s shooting, so the handlers walked a distance apart as guns would when shooting over setters or pointers. The judges followed and were followed in turn by Colin McGregor with his 12-bore. His job was to fire a shot – as on a shooting day – in the event of a dog finding and holding birds, until the judge asked the handler to produce them.

Credit points are awarded to dogs for systematically quartering the beat with pace and style; hunting with drive and purpose; style on point and production of birds; dropping when birds take to the wing and natural backing when the other dog goes on point. Dogs should work naturally with the minimum of handling and be steady to fur, feather, flush and, in particular, to shot.

A dog can be eliminated for flushing upwind; chasing fur or feather; whining or barking; interfering with the other dog on point; not dropping to flush downwind; missing game on the beat; unsteadiness to game; stealing a point or blinking (when a dog leaves the point and continues hunting). Major faults are: poor ground treatment; persistent back casting; stickiness on point; and, in the case of the handler, being too noisy.

Judges must take into consideration the quality of a dog’s work, not just the number of points it has made. They should be looking to award points rather than to eliminate a dog. The suggestion is that the better dogs should be fully tried, rather than wasting ground and time on those with little or no merit. Minor faults ought not be too heavily penalised when a dog has done good work, which should be as much a pleasure to watch as it would be to guns, particularly if gamebirds are scarce.

We worked our way along the side of Moness, above the vast Griffin Forest conifer plantation. With no shortage of grouse, run followed run in quick succession and, for anyone who loves dogwork, it was fascinating to watch each combination of Gordon, Irish or English setter, or English pointer. The card had been worked through by one o’clock, so we returned to the vehicles and settled down in the heather to eat our sandwiches looking across to snow-capped Schiehallion. Over lunch, Jim Howden told me something of the origins of field trialling and the history of the Northern Counties Pointer and Setter Society.

As lighter and more manageable shotguns were developed in the 18th century, pointers and setters became increasingly valuable, with every sporting squire keeping a kennel. Many great landlords had extensive breeding establishments. These included Colonel Thornton, who famously crossed pointers with foxhounds to improve stamina, and the fourth Duke of Gordon, after whom the distinctive black-and-tan setters are named. This was the era when practically anything that moved was likely to have bets placed on it. Field trialling grew out of informal betting on the performance of individual dogs when landowners shot together, hence the word “stakes” to describe the different classes held at trials, such as open, novice, puppy, all-aged or championship. The rationalisation of the old, restrictive game laws in 1830 led to a massive increase in the popularity of shooting and, with the development of the railways, contact between breeders was made easier, blood-lines were exchanged and gundog breeds in general improved.

Dr John Henry Walsh, editor of The Field from 1857 to 1888, was among those instrumental in organising the first pointer and setter field trial, held on 18 April, 1865 at Southhill, Samuel Whitbread’s Bedfordshire estate. The card was made up of nine pointers and seven mixed breeds of setter, and the event, covered in a leading article in The Field, was considered a huge success despite poor scent. For the following three years, trials were held on grouse over the estates of the Earls of Shrewsbury and Lichfield on Cannock Chase, and in 1869 the first cham-pionship stakes of the newly formed National Pointer and Setter Trials were run on the estate of Sir Vincent Corbet at Shrewsbury. More trials were held at Bala, Vaynol and Rhiwlas in Wales, Western Grove near Southampton, and on various estates in Devon and Cornwall. By now, the popularity of trialling led to a decision to form a controlling body to ratify the rules and, in 1873, The Kennel Club was founded.

Towards the end of the century, clubs, associations and societies started up in various parts of the country with the purpose of organising field trials under Kennel Club rules. The Northern Counties Pointer and Setter Society was founded in 1932, with the Duke of Sutherland as president and Mrs EJ Buist as secretary. A legendary figure in the world of breeding and field trialling, she would remain devotedly in office for the following 66 years. “Eppie” (Elizabeth Jean) Buist was brought up at Mid-Fearn, a 14,000-acre grouse moor in Ross-shire, and at the age of 21 took over the training and management of a kennel of 64 gundogs built up by her father, Sir Robert Brooke.

There were many more opportunities to shoot grouse over setters and pointers in those days and, up until the Second World War, Eppie earned her living by hiring dogs to es-tates all over Scotland. She established some of the most famous breeding lines with “Fearn” English pointers and setters, exporting her dogs and attending and winning championships at home and abroad. From the Seventies, Jim Howden, a friend and neighbour, shared the breeding programme in partnership with Eppie, while his wife, Dorothy, looked after her and assisted her with the secretary’s duties. When Eppie died, aged 98, she bequeathed her dogs and the “Fearn” affix to Jim, while Dorothy took over the role of secretary.

Sixteen dogs had been eliminated during the morning and the card was drawn again. With six brace for the second round, we set off to the top of the Moness beat, serenaded by the dolorous howls of the dogs left behind. Over the next hour, six dogs were eliminated for various reasons: bumping grouse; not quartering effectively; being slightly unresponsive to handling; or not hunting to clear the ground of game that might still be there following a shot.

In the third and last round, there were three competing brace. Bownard Boffin, an Irish setter dog bred by Colin Forde and handled by his owner, Brian Morris from Glasgow, was matched against Erinvale Quest, an Irish setter dog, bred, owned and handled by Billy Darragh from Tain in Ross-shire. Papermill Flashman, a pointer dog bred and owned by Sue Langford from Jedburgh but handled by Alan Neill from Tyrone, was matched against Dalriach Neige, an Irish Red and White setter bitch, owned and bred by Mary Sierakowski from Huntly in Aberdeenshire but handled by Colin Organ from Fryup, North Yorkshire. Luscahi Speed, an Irish setter dog, bred, owned and handled by Declan O’Rourke was matched against the pointer bitch, Sparkfield Bonnet of Fernglen, bred by Terry Harris and handled by her owner, Julie Organ.

The judges had an extremely difficult job to winnow these dogs, which had run so honestly throughout the day, and then to choose the winners. After much deliberation, first prize went to Brian Morris’s Irish setter, second to Julie Organ’s pointer bitch and third to Sue Langford’s pointer dog. Billy Darragh’s Irish setter dog, the Irish Red and White setter owned by Mary Sierakowski and Declan O’Rourke’s Irish setter dog received Certifi-cates of Merit. It had been a thoroughly successful day. Colin counted 36 brace of grouse on an area of less than 200 acres and both dogs and handlers had enjoyed themselves enormously. This trial, the first of the season, is always known as “Eppie’s Trial”; I am sure she would have been delighted.