With the first few weeks of the season now behind us, bleak expectations of grouse numbers seem to have held true. Many days have been cancelled in Scotland, and while Northern England often seems bomb-proof, bags have been little more than steady at best with a few exceptions. Here in Galloway, we had an excellent spring for grouse, and there are actually some good numbers here and there. It was a real treat to head out for an afternoon’s shooting earlier this week on our syndicate ground, where the birds have done well enough this summer for a very modest day out.
My old dog Scoop has had her nose put out of joint by the recent arrival of a puppy in our household, so she stuck to me like glue when she heard the gun cabinet keys jingling. This is her fourth grouse season and she knows the deal well enough to make the link between flowering heather and gun smoke.
One moment sticks in my head from that afternoon more than any other – in a shallow dip of deep grass and cowberry, protected from the brisk wind by a low rise of heather, Scoop’s tail suddenly began to whack back and forth. I know her well enough to read every tweak of body language, and she worked through the undergrowth with her nose on the moss, doubling back and bounding on with mounting excitement and enthusiasm. This is the crux of walked up shooting, honed to an edge by the partnership between man and dog – a pairing which swings between fury and bliss.
When the birds broke, they did so in two groups, suspended in stillness for an instant as they caught the breeze and prepared to rush back across my front. With unusual level-headedness and concentration, I managed a left and right. The remaining black shapes of the covey rushed away downwind, flailing their primaries like crazy spider legs, and I was left to gather the fallen birds from the soft black muzzle of my old pal. It’s easy to write in cloying and overtly sentimental tones about dogs, but this really was worth waiting a long summer for.
Interestingly, plucking the birds revealed that they had a few ticks, particularly around the wattles and eyes. These were just grey nymphs, but it has been a very ticky summer across the country, and I have picked off several after days on the hill. More to come on ticks, as it’s an interesting subject.