For those of us who love any form of dogwork and prefer the more traditional, old-fashioned forms of fieldsports, shooting grouse over setters or pointers is almost impossible to beat. With less formality and competitiveness than a driven day, there’s the intimacy of a small number of guns, the fascination of watching dogs working and the adrenalin-surging excitement of going in to a point knowing that birds could explode from the heather at any moment. And there is enormous satisfaction in the effort involved in acquiring a few brace; the quality of the sport is not measured by the weight of the bag.
At one time shooting over dogs at the start of the season was considered good practice on many moors, provided the weather had been decent during the spring and there was not a high percentage of late broods. This was the case when my grandfather was the shooting tenant of Tullymurdoch in Perthshire during the early Twenties. For the first fortnight the moor was dogged on the theory that if the first and last pair in a covey were shot, old birds and sick birds were being taken out. Further-more, there was the strongly held belief that birds used to getting up performed better when driving started. Dogging also provided the young with an invaluable opportunity to shoot their first grouse and learn something of the mechanics of moorland management. Now demand for shooting over setters and pointers exceeds supply. With the huge commitment involved and the escalating costs of maintaining good heather habitat, few owners can afford to give up days early in the season to shooting over dogs, even on the periphery, if a moor is good enough to be driven. Dogging opportunities on many of the marginal estates in Sutherland and Caithness or parts of the west coast have been lost due to habitat shrink-age, tick and the ever-increasing raptor problem, particularly from ravens.
One of the few moors to provide good driven days and a few over pointers and setters at the start of the season is the Glenprosen estate in Angus. Situated at the southern edge of the Grampian Mountains, the renowned Angus Glens make up a succession of stunning corridors into the Highlands, and remote Glen Prosen, between Glen Clova and Glen Isla, is one of the most beautiful glens in Scotland. From its head beneath the summits of Mayar and Driesh the glen occupies the valley of the Prosen Water and runs for about 10 miles to the hamlet of Cortachy, where the Prosen joins the River South Esk. Glenprosen is a perfect Highland sporting estate with driven grouse and red-deerstalking as the principal sport and offering ptarmigan on the tops, with roe, blackgame, woodcock and pheasants in the birch, alder and oak woodland on the lower ground. There are trout in the Prosen, with the potential for a late-season salmon, snipe in the bogs and duck-flighting.
Management efforts in improving heather have worked the grouse numbers up. Last year 233 brace were shot from six driven days and seven days over pointers and setters. Dom Goutorbe of Upperwood English Setters near Matlock in Derbyshire handled the dogs. Dom has been monitoring spring and summer grouse counts on Glenprosen and taking out parties of guns over his pointers and setters since 2004. Mike Lewis and his wife Anne, Derbyshire neighbours, have brought the same party to Glenprosen for two consecutive days’ shooting for the past six seasons: Angela and Christopher Barker, Susan and Adrian Dent, Jeanne and Martyn Bracegirdle and Christine and Christopher Havers.
On 19 August last year, guns were met at the estate game larder and kennels by Dom, Bruce Cooper, the headkeeper and Scott Ramage, the underkeeper. We moved off in a convoy of 4x4s, one of which towed Dom’s dog trailer, up the hard-core track that follows the Prosen Water to the head of the glen, turning off to park and unload beside a huge block of larch, sitka spruce, lodge pole and Scots pine forestry. Dom had brought six dogs: four English setters and two English pointers, added to which were seven black and one yellow labrador, plus a young cocker spaniel belonging to Scott Ramage. It was a long pull through the trees to Mount Bouie and the open hill above the forestry, but as soon as we were clear and the guns had got their breath back, Dom took Flynn, a six-year-old English setter forward to the opening beat.
We could not have been more fortunate with the weather – bright sunshine and just enough breeze to take the heat off the day without confusing scent. Heather was in full bloom and Flynn, with his head up quartering the ground across the wind at a bold, effortless gallop, the feathering of his coat accentuating his movements, was a truly glorious and aesthetically thrilling sight. At the first cast, he winded scent and spun in mid stride to freeze into the setter’s classic half-crouch. Adrian Dent and Christopher Havers went forward with Dom, positioning themselves on either side and 10yd or so ahead of him in a V for-mation. As dog and handler drew slowly forward, there was that exquisite moment of breathtaking anticipation, which is one of the main attractions of shooting over dogs, before the first covey of the day erupted out of the heather and the first successful shots were fired. The pickers-up walked in to retrieve the bag and we pushed on to the next beat.
For high ground on a Scottish moor there was a surprisingly good depth of heather and no shortage of birds. Beat followed beat in quick succession, with guns taking turns and Dom alternating three English setters: Flynn, Flurry, a four-year-old bitch, and three-year-old Dora. We were moving in a north-westerly direction with the wind in our faces, and the spectators were able to watch some superb dog handling as the setters, working downwind, were being cast farther out to find scent, holding birds until guns had time to walk up. By the time we collapsed into the heather to eat our piece we had walked to the head of the glen, seen plenty of coveys and a couple of barren pairs and had four brace in the bag.
Dom was intending to work two English pointers and a setter in the afternoon and I asked whether he had a preference for setters over pointers. “Not really,” he told me. “A good dog is a good dog. Pointers are more stylish and when they point you can be certain birds are there.” Although harder to train (and a handler needs to know what his dog is thinking), Dom feels that setters are the smarter dog and work the wind better, particularly on high, steep ground where wind direction is constantly changing. There is also, in his case, a degree of historic affection. Dom’s father René was a Frenchman and the dog that be-came the English setter was originally developed in France. In 1624 some working setters, with their distinctive, dappled-white coats, were sent to James I by Louis XIII of France, to be used in conjunction with falcons, and they are still to this day the most popular rough-shooting dog in that country. René grew up with English setters and in due course ac-quired one here, began breeding and competing in shows and field trials and, in 1967, established Upperwood English Setters.
There were many more opportunities for shooting over dogs in the Sixties and Seventies and René ran a successful shooting agency until he died in 1988. His daughter Janine ran the business for the following eight years. She died when Dom was just 16. Giving up his ambition to become a gamekeeper, he left school to help his mother keep the business going. He has become the only person to judge English setters at championship show level as well as being an A-panel setter/pointer field trial judge before the age of 30.
After our break, we had a long climb to the edge of the Witches’ Cairn, a steep gully running back on the other side of the forestry, where the vehicles were tiny dots in the distance. This was serious walking with good shooting, considering the terrain. Dom alternated his matriarchal eight-year-old setter Nell with the two pointers Ivy and Otto, and I have a vivid memory of Otto in classic stance, one foreleg raised and body taut with concentration as a covey of eight birds swooped away into the gully, and Martyn Bracegirdle pulling off an incredible long shot.
At the end of a wonderful day there was a bag of 10 brace. Mike and his party always perform a little ceremony after their day at Glenprosen. They stop on their way home at the Spott Bridge, where the road crosses the Prosen Water, and pluck their birds, letting the feathers float away downstream.
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