Shooting grouse over pointers and setters, such as wirehaired Hungarian vizslas, is regarded by many as the purest of all fieldsports
When a friend announced to me that he was heading to Scotland to shoot his first grouse over dogs, I quizzed him further. What sort of dogs was he shooting over? “Springers and cockers,” he said. It was a low-cost expedition and his friends had warned him that there would be lots of exercise and not much shooting.
Though my pal would be shooting over dogs, the correct description for his sport was walked-up. Shooting over dogs is the technical term for what many regard as the purest of all the fieldsports in this country: shooting grouse over pointers and setters. Much of the pleasure comes from watching the dogs quartering the moor. It is a sport conducted for the most part with unloaded guns. Only when the dog is on point is the sportsman invited to load take a shot.
This is a pursuit that since its inception has been dominated by five breeds of dogs, all native to the British Isles. These are the English, Gordon, Irish and Irish red and white setters, and the pointer. It’s wrong to call the latter an English pointer as only the Continental breeds of pointer, such as the German shorthaired, require an affix describing their origin.
If you enjoy watching dogs work, there are few spectacles more exciting than a brace of pointers or setters working the moor, taking in swaths of country at a blistering gallop. It’s a reminder that the actual shooting plays a small part in the enjoyment f the day. Such sport is far from cheap, but it’s a lot more affordable than shooting driven grouse.
Though our traditional British breeds continue to dominate, Continental pointers are increasingly making their presence felt on the moors, reflecting their growing popularity here. A couple of seasons ago, I joined Roy Bebbington and his wirehaired Hungarian vizslas for a day’s shooting on a moor high above Loch Ness. Roy first took his Hungarian vizslas to this moor to help count the grouse, and it wasn’t until 2003 that he was asked to bring his dogs for an afternoon’s shooting. “The owner was impressed with what he saw,” said Roy, “so we were invited back. Thanks to hard work by the keepers, grouse numbers have risen sharply on this moor, and now we shoot more than I counted the first year. One crucial point to remember is that shooting grouse over the Hungarian vizslas is a specialist sport. There’s never any question of trying to achieve big bags. The best day we’ve had was 251⁄2 brace but this was exceptional.”
Every August Roy and his dogs make a pilgrimage from his home in North Yorkshire to Scotland, where they stay for a month. It’s a test of physical fitness of both handler and dogs, as the moors Roy works are steep and unforgiving and the weather can be cruel, even in August. Last year, Roy’s dogs were shot over three or four times a week for a month: a record 95 brace were shot.
Though Roy has taken out as many as nine guns in a shooting party, the usual figure is three or four. His first job is to explain to the guns how the dogs work as few have seen a wirehaired Hungarian vizsla before. The Hungarian vizslas have one clear advantage over our British breeds: they hunt, point and retrieve. When shooting over pointers and setters, spaniels and retrievers do the retrieving, which increases the number of people out and the cost of the day. “The retrieve is the reward the dogs get for the hard work of hunting and pointing,” says Roy.
A vital difference between the vizslas and the traditional breeds is that they don’t range so widely. Many guns appreciate this, as it is usually a shorter distance to walk when the dog is on point.
The main reason guns miss when shooting over pointers is that they are out of breath, having had a hard uphill walk. Though Roy’s Hungarian vizslas will hold a point for many minutes, it’s not unusual for the birds either to creep forward or even flush before the gun arrives, so if you can get the gun to the birds more quickly, the chance of a successful shot is increased.
The downside to the shooting is that the Hungarian vizslas aren’t as exciting to watch as setters or pointers: they are less flashy, more workmanlike. However, they do the job efficiently. Roy argues that on a moor with a reasonable population of grouse, an HPR is a better bet than a setter or pointer as there is no need for a wide-ranging dog. It’s on moors where birds are few that our breeds come into their own. Fit dogs are essential out on the hills. Roy prepares his dogs by using them for grouse counting in Yorkshire from mid July. However, he points out that the Scottish hills are much more demanding than those in Yorkshire, so the dogs have to work harder to find birds.
Having been lucky enough to sample it, I’m convinced that shooting grouse over HPRs shouldn’t be thought of as a poor alternative to shooting over traditional breeds. It’s just as fascinating and just as much fun, while offering a different approach to a wonderful sport.
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