Scooby is a black mottled, German shorthaired pointer with 10 years experience of hunting grouse and even though there is only a subtle breeze, he picks up a scent to the East. He runs straight across this landscape, which leads down the valley towards the famous A9 road, for 150 yards before a whistle is heard. It’s a double peep sound and Scooby knows it’s time to change direction.
Scooby and Gonzo.
“This is called ‘quartering,’ says Alastair Lyon, the Head Keeper at Drumochter, as our group of six (three guns, one sporting agent, Alastair and I) walks across the heather.
“The dog is taught to always run in front of the handler and change direction on command. You want him turning to the wind every time, to help them pick up the scent. I don’t let my dogs run for more than 150 yards without either stopping them or turning them. Pointers could run for miles, but you need them to stay close to the guns.”
Alastair Lyon with dogs Scooby and Gonzo.
Watching pointers at work on the hill is one of the biggest draws of walked up grouse shooting in Scotland – and it’s one of the reasons that Halvor, Martin and Peder Midttømme have flown over from Trondheim in Norway for this extra special hunting holiday.
“My wife, Grethe, organized this holiday for my fiftieth birthday,” Halvor tells me. “My family and I have only ever hunted in Norway, but my dream has always been to walk across the Scottish Highlands with a gun in my hand and dogs running around my feet. It’s so different from hunting back home. For a start, it’s not normal to go hunting with a guide in Norway, especially one dressed in tweed!”
Halvor, Martin and Peder’s trip was organized by Peter Bruce of Scottish Breaks. Peter is a sporting agent from Meigle in Angus and specializes in walked up/rough shooting holidays. He has known Alastair for 10 years and has always been impressed with his professionalism and the skills of his dogs.
“The most challenging aspect of my job is listening to what hunters actually want and finding reliable people to help make that dream a reality,” Peter tells me as Alastair lets another of his pointers off the lead to work alongside Scooby.
From left Peder, Martin and Halvor Midttømme.
“Watching the dogs pointing is high on my clients’ wish list for a great walked up day. To them, one good point makes the trip. That is why I bring them here. Alastair takes four dogs out on every outing, each with their own personalities and quirks, which makes for an interesting and exhilarating day.”
Accompanying 10-year-old Scooby on this grouse hunt is Merlin, a four-year-old German shorthaired pointer; Gonzo, a 14-month-old English pointer; and Rolly, a six- year-old Springer spaniel whose job is to look photogenic, charm the clients and pick up grouse.
So, what does Alastair look for in a grouse dog?
“You need a dog with a lot of drive and a good nose,” he tells me while signalling for Halvor to get ready.
“But the most important thing for me, is a dog with a calm temperament. Scooby has always been my best dog by miles. If he finds birds when you are not there, he will come back to get you and take you to them.”
On that note, Scooby and Merlin go on point and Alastair sends them in to flush the grouse. Scooby is the old hand, but Merlin is a pleasure to watch. He’s a careful dog that covers a lot of ground – and he doesn’t seem to be making a lot of mistakes either. They both help Halvor to shoot his first-ever brace of Scottish grouse.
It’s a good start to the day and there are excited smiles all round, but the light grey sky is turning a bright shade of blue and the temperature is getting warmer with each step we take…
Heat and Wind
Scooby is put on the lead and walks alongside Rolly, while Gonzo joins Merlin. Halvor drops back with Peter, Alastair and I so that his sons can have a chance at the grouse. The two boys, Martin is 21 and Peder is 18, walk ahead of us, carefully watching to see if either Merlin or Gonzo go on point.
It doesn’t take long for Peder to shoot his first grouse and Martin to shoot his first brace, but Alastair looks a bit worried when the birds start rising miles in front of the dogs, making it impossible for the boys to shoot the rest of their quota – this family of Norwegians have paid to shoot two brace of grouse each.
“The dogs are getting the scent three to four minutes late,” Alastair says as we head back to the cars for lunch. “The birds were there, and their scent was still strong in those areas, but they had wandered off by the time the dogs got to them. It’s the 19th of September, so we’re late in the season for walked up days now. But, although the birds are jumpy, there are still plenty of them. So we will drive to an area of deeper heather after lunch to help us have a better chance of ambushing some grouse.”
We enjoy a quick sandwich by the 4x4s before driving to another area of Crubenmore. It has got so hot, that everyone strips down to their t-shirts – something I have never done on the hill before during the grouse-shooting season.
The dogs are also finding it hard to acclimatise, so Alastair takes them for a drink in a nearby mountain stream before we start walking again.
Martin Midttømme with a taken grouse.
Alastair lets Merlin and Gonzo roam the heather. Both dogs look as strong and fast as they did at the start, so I ask Alastair how he gets them fit.
“Helen Gray, my partner and fellow dog trainer, starts by getting the dogs to run alongside her when she’s cycling, “Alastair says while keeping an eye on Merlin and Gonzo.
“Then I start taking them with me during my early summer grouse counts. We start with short walks and gradually build up to longer walks across the hills to tone their muscles. By the time the grouse season ends, the dogs are at the peak of fitness.”
Then, the afternoon’s action begins…
Gonzo’s lean frame is stretched to full capacity, leaving a straight line from nose to tail. His mouth is open and his tongue is hanging out. But he is not tired – just excited.
Merlin’s coat is gleaming like a newly polished pair of black leather riding boots. He is directly behind Gonzo, mimicking his stance. Scooby and Rolly look keen, but relaxed.
Peter Bruce of Scottish Breaks.
Alastair puts a gentle hand on Gonzo’s back, to encourage him to stay with the group for a few minutes longer, and signals to Martin and Peder. The boys load their 12- bore, over-and-under Lanber shotguns and close the guns. They walk forward through the heather, which reaches the dogs’ elbows in places and looks almost tan colored in this light.
Alastair tells Merlin to stay behind for this one – these are Gonzo’s birds. He slowly takes his hand off Gonzo’s back and extends his arm forwards. Gonzo registers the command and bounds towards the scent.
Martin and Peder look serious as they concentrate on Gonzo. Alastair puts the whistle to his lips in preparation and Halvor, Peter and I watch on with heavily beating hearts. Will there be a covey of grouse? Or have the conditions and time of year confused us again?
Alastair Lyon, the Head Keeper at Drumochter with client Halvor Midttømme accompanied by Scooby and Gonzo.
Our hopes are not dashed, as a covey of six grouse explode into the burning sky. Peder is fast and fires two shots at the same bird. He brings it down cleanly with the first shot – wasting the second shot due to excitement. Martin is more careful. He finds his line, misses with the first shot and shoots his grouse cleanly with the second.
Just when the boys are about to relax, Gonzo goes on point again. This time Halvor joins them and they all fire at another six grouse that Gonzo flushes from the heather.
All three members of this family have wide smiles on their faces as they watch Rolly and Merlin retrieve their birds. Martin’s smile is tinged with a hint of wistfulness though – as he has now shot his first two brace of Scottish grouse. Halvor and Peder still have one bird each to shoot.
“Good boy, Gonzo. Good boy,” shouts Alastair with pride as Gonzo reports back for praise.
“The dog’s natural instinct is to indicate game. Your job as trainer and handler is to enhance and reinforce that natural instinct. Lots of pats, scratches along the back and vocalizing the words ‘good boy’ are essential for letting the dog know he has done well.”
Gonzo has made the best points of the day so far, which is not bad for a young dog who has only had guns shooting over him since the beginning of September.
With two grouse left to shoot, the hunt is still very much on. But Gonzo gets to relax now and Merlin takes over.
Alastair drops the green lead rope that Scooby and Gonzo are attached to and runs down the hill with Halvor and Peder towards Merlin, who is now on point.
I’m exhausted from walking across the heather in this heat and sit down next to Peter and Martin to watch this last point of the day. Scooby and Gonzo pant rapidly by our sides and I can’t help thinking how nice it would be to have an ice-cold can of coke in my hand now.
Merlin is pointing towards an area of flat ground not far from where our two 4x4s are parked. He looks confident and Halvor and Peder take this as a hopeful sign.
I look around at this glorious view while we wait. The sky is perfect and reminds me of a painting – it’s bright blue with a perfect cluster of white cloud – and the heather looks more vibrant than we have seen it all day.
It’s only when two shots are fired that I come back to the present. Halvor and Peder have shot their fourth and final Scottish grouse. We walk down the hill to join them and shake hands for a job well done.
“This is an experience that my sons and I will remember forever,” Halvor says with genuine emotion as he looks out towards this infinite landscape with great respect.
Walked up grouse shooting over pointers has its challenges. For our group, it was the heat and lack of wind. But, we have overcome those challenges and had an exciting day watching nature interact with nature. We also had the chance to witness not one, but two excellent points. And, as Peter said “one good point makes the trip.”
Melissa Volpi graduated in 2009 with a BA (Hons) in Photojournalism from London College of Communication. During her three years in London, she completed work experience placements at two IPC Media publications, Horse and Decanter, and was editorial assistant at Sporting Shooter magazine. She has travelled the world as a freelance writer, photographer and photojournalist and documented everything from gun making to confidence boosting riding holidays for women. Melissa has had work published in Horse, Sporting Shooter, Sporting Rifle, The Countryman's Weekly, Gun Mart, Shooting Gazette, Scotland, Shoot in Scotland, Scottish Field, Shooting Times, Horse & Rider, Scottish Rider, The Native Pony, No.1, Countryside, The Field and Frost in the UK. The Chronicle of the Horse, Gray's Sporting Journal, Sporting Shot and The Chronicle Connection in America, Voyages de Chasse in France, Luxury Aficionados in Denmark, Halali in Germany, Guns & Game in Australia, and New Zealand Guns & Hunting. In 2013, Melissa toured Scotland to document the work of female ghillies and gamekeepers. Her photo-essays and written articles on these Scottish women are published around the world. It was down to her admiration of female ghillies and gamekeepers that Melissa started an online networking community for professional women called Females in Fieldsports. She is currently developing this idea into a magazine column and book. You can visit her web site at http://melissavolpi.com .
If you are interested in a driven grouse day at Drumochter, please contact Alasdair Findlay on 01540 670053 or via the estates website at www.raliaestate.com