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The Moor and the Loch
Grouse and Black-Game Shooting


GROUSE-SHOOTING, when the season begins, and our moors are thronged by ardent sportsmen from all parts of the kingdom, although requiring some tact and skill, is mere child's play compared to what it becomes when the birds are wild and wary.

In the month of August or September, a few general rules may enable a good shot, upon a tolerable moor, to load his game-carrier. He should commence upon the farthest end of his range, giving his dogs the wind, and select some part of the moor, near the centre, to which he must endeavour to drive all his packs. His follower should be a good marker, [In marking grouse, when you can no longer distinguish them from the brown heather, still let your eye follow their course, as the flapping of their wings when they light is much longer discernible than the rapid motion of their flight.] active and intelligent in comprehending his least signal, and always ready, when the dogs point, to place himself so as to prevent the birds taking a wrong direction. After having skirmished in this way until about two or three o'clock, he may send for a fresh couple of his oldest and most experienced dogs, and, with the greatest care, begin to beat this reserved ground. If the day is favourable, and he has not strangely mis-managed, he ought to make bloody work. Should his range be along the steep side of a mountain, the birds are much less likely to leave the ground; when raised, they will probably (unless he is beating up and down the hill, which is neither an easy nor good way) fly straight along the mountain-side, and the young grouse-shooter might suppose would drop down upon a line with the place they rose from; but no such thing, the pack, after getting out of sight, before lighting will take a turn, and fly a considerable way either to the right or left. The sportsman must judge by the wind, [If high, grouse are very apt to fly with it, unless they have some stronger motive to the contrary.] nature of the ground, &c., which direction they have taken: if he can see the way their heads are turned just when going out of sight, he may also form a shrewd guess; but if he does not find them on the one side, he must try the other. Should he have the whole of a detached hill, even if a small range, the birds are so unwilling to leave it at the beginning of the season, that they will often fly round and round until he has completely broken them; no finer opportunity than this for filling the bag. Early in the season, when an unbroken pack is found at evening feed, if the birds do not rise together, too much care cannot be taken to search the ground. They often wander a good way from each other, and after hearing a shot will lie till they are almost trod upon.

On some of our moors grouse are as plentiful as partridges in the preserved turnip-fields of Norfolk: no man would then break his beat to follow a pack; but let him select the lowest and most likely ground, as near the centre of his range as possible, for his evening shooting. Grouse, and indeed all game, when raised, generally fly to lower ground, and when they begin to move about on the feed, are more easily found by the dogs; for which reason the evening is always the most successful time of the day.

[Should the sportsman knock down an old cock and lien, and afterwards have the mortification to see the "squeaking" pack rise all round him, my advice is not to massacre them from the idea that if left alone they must necessarily die a more cruel death. I know most keepers will say that the young birds would starve, and until lately I was of the same opinion ; but I began to doubt the truth of it a year or two ago, and this season had an opportunity of proving its fallacy. On a part of my moor where the birds are very scarce I got a point, and after killing a brace was proceeding to pick them up, when the young pack rose, five in number, as decided "squeakers" as ever struck remorse into the callous heart of the shooter. I at once determined to ascertain whether poults left in so unprotected a state must die. So after ranging the ground most carefully for a considerable distance, to be certain there was no other pack near, I left them undisturbed for eight days. At the end of that time I found and shot two of them, not at all fallen off in condition, and quite large enough to count in the day's return of the slain. These poults were not in company, but at a little distance from each other. It therefore appears to me that their great danger is from vermin, missing the warning cry of the old birds when an enemy approaches. There can be no doubt of its being both cruel and destructive to the young brood to murder their protectors; but should the sportsman unfortunately do so, and not discover his mistake till too late, he had better give them the chance of escaping vermin than shoot them out of humanity, erroneously supposing that they cannot but die of starvation.

The experienced grouse-shooter well knows how little it will avail him to attempt to find out the best part of a moor with which he is unacquainted, by a distant coup d'oeil, or by theory, however plausible. On the same range the packs will be strongest and most numerous one year on the top of the hill, another on the brow, and a third on the flat at the foot, and this often without any assignable reason. A man who chooses his range by rule will be as likely to fix on the worst as the best. The only plan, supposing he has neglected to make himself acquainted with the ground before the 12th of August, is to find out from the shepherds where the packs are most plentiful, and concert measures accordingly. It often happens that, if the hatching-time is very rainy, the best packs may be found on the brow of a hill, from being less exposed to the wet ; and in a dry sultry season the best places to range are the flats between the hills, or even the tops, if dotted with "peat-hags." [Places where peats have been "cast" or dug out, in which the mosswater collects, and affords drink to the grouse. Sometimes these "hags" are formed by natural rifts in the bog, with a small red brook running through. This water is very unwholesome, and a man had better bear his thirst than drink it. The peat-stack is a sure index of these supplies of water, and can be seen at a considerable distance.] The very reverse, however, may be the case if there are few mossy springs or "peat-hags" on the flat or top, and if the hill-side is supplied with water for the young packs by a constant succession of little brooks. It is impossible for a stranger to find out these minutia without questioning those who are in the habit of travelling the hill. and who will be just as likely to know what is of more consequence, vim., where the packs are to be found in the greatest abundance.

As to the ground immediately round him, a man accustomed to the moors can always tell whether it is likely to harbour game: and let him be ranging the top, the ridge, the brow, or the flat at the foot of the hill, if he is surrounded by alternate patches of old and young heather, interspersed with numerous green mossy springs, or peat-hags, half filled with water, he is in full expectation of a point. If, on the contrary, the ground is bare and the heather burnt, or if it be growing in one unvarying crop of rank luxuriance, he looks anxiously for a break, and almost grudges the unflagging exertions of his persevering dogs: still he never gives up hope, and often finds game where he least expects it.

When grouse are raised on the top or brow of a hill, the flight is generally much shorter than when found on a level at the foot. In the latter case they generally fly far out of sight, but if the ground is hilly and uneven they often take a few dodging turns, and drop down at no great distance. On the steep peak of the heathery hill I have seen them fly quite round, and again settle not far from where they were first discovered. In fine weather, before the packs are strong, and especially before they have been much shot at, their flights are usually not near so long as they are afterwards ; but even then, should the day be windy, they are generally rapid and uncertain. When this is unfortunately the case, they are so capricious in the choice of their refuge as often to baffle the most determined tramper of the moors.

Grouse are much more difficult to find in the middle of the day than in the morning and evening, when they move more about ; but in sultry weather they lie quite still, except at feeding-time, and not having stirred perhaps for hours the dogs may come within a yard or two before winding them. To procure shots at such times tries the mettle both of the sportsman and his dogs. During continued rain they are apt to gather beneath the shade of a hillock, or in scaurs and ravines. To continue ranging is mere waste of time until it clears and the ground has dried a little, for, to say nothing of the other miseries, the birds, even when found, will not run a yard in the wet heather, and generally take wing at a long distance. When the weather is boisterous they are very fidgety and wild even at the beginning of the season : it is then easy to see who does and who does not understand anything of grouse-shooting. Every inequality of ground must be taken advantage of; the sportsman should crouch as much as he can, wearing a drab-coloured cap, which will often take him five or six yards nearer his game than the lowest-crowned hat he can procure. If possible he should always advance from lower ground, walking up any cracks or hollows in the moss. When this is skilfully done, he appears to the birds at a greater distance than when they see his whole figure prominently coming down upon them from higher ground. I have already said, that, if you have reason to suppose the pack are on the side or at the foot of a steep hillock, only a gunshot in height, the best plan to pop upon them within reach is to come straight over the top, but under other circumstances this should never be attempted.

Most young shots are not content unless they are upon the moor by peep of day on the long-anticipated 12th of August, - and what is the result? They have found and disturbed most of the packs before they have well fed, and one half will rise out of distance and fly away unbroken. Had the moor been left quiet till eight or nine o'clock, fair double shots might have been obtained at almost every pack, and many would have been scattered for the evening shooting. It will generally be found that, if two equal shots upon equal moors uncouple their dogs, one at five o'clock, and the other at nine, and compare notes at two in the afternoon, the lazy man will have the heaviest game-bag, and his ground will be in the best order for the deadly time of the day: to say nothing of his competitor's disadvantage from having fruitlessly wasted his own strength, and that of his dogs, when many of the packs would not allow him to come within reach. My advice, therefore, to the young grouse-shooter, is always to wait till the birds have done feeding. If he starts at eight o'clock, and travels the moors as he ought, there is time enough before dark to put his powers to the proof, however he may pique himself upon them. I do not mean to say he must rush over the ground, but keep up a steady determined walk, up hill and down hill, without flagging for an instant, unless the dogs come upon the scent of game. Of all sports grouse-shooting is the most laborious; none can stand a comparison with it, except deerstalking; and yet the veriest "soft," puffing and blowing at every step, may put off a whole day upon the moors travelling them I will not call it, and boast after dinner that "he wonders how people can find grouse-shooting so toilsome and fatiguing; fox-hunting is much more so!"

There are a few rules which a man not accustomed to climb hills will find his account in observing, if he would escape the suppressed smile of derision which his flagging will be sure to excite from the sturdy hillman who carries his bag. One is, to eat a very light breakfast; another, to drink as little as possible ; but especially no spirits and water. If you can hold out without drinking till your luncheon or dinner-time, your thirst will never be very oppressive; but once begin, and the difficulty of passing a clear brook is tenfold increased. The provision-basket should only consist of a cold fowl, or a few sandwiches, and a bottle of table-beer or light ale. When you again begin your exertions make your attendant carry a bottle of strong tea, without cream or sugar, which will more effectually quench your thirst than a whole flask-full of spirits and water to correspond. Should any object to this "teatotal" system, a little fruit may be no bad substitute. When I first took out a licence, I thought the spirit-flask almost as indispensable as the powder-flask, but experience has since taught me that nothing more effectually expends the remaining strength of the half worn-out sportsman than a few pulls at the liquor-flask, however diluted; he gains a temporary stimulus, which soon ends in complete exhaustion.

As the season advances and the birds become strong on the wing, the difficulty of breaking the packs is tenfold increased, and the sportsman's energy and activity doubly tried; for, although he has not to endure the burning heat of August and September, yet his pace may be with advantage quickened, as there is less risk of passing birds; and he should also carry a heavier gun. Taking everything into consideration, a medium between the common fowling-piece and that recommended for wild-fowl shooting on the lochs will be found the most efficient. A gun of this description ought to carry No. 5, or even 4, with the same regularity as a common gun would No. 7. Some fire very large shot among the birds, when they rise, in order to disperse them: this may often succeed, but is a most unsportsman-like proceeding. The plan I always adopt is, first to select my ground for the evening, taking care that it is full of hillocks; grouse have a great liking to them, and when thus concealed their flights are much shorter. I then commence ranging my other ground as described; and when I get a shot, although the pack should rise at some distance, I select one of the leaders, and, if it drop, the pack is far more likely to break, and the nearer birds are left for the second barrel.

Always cross the dog a good way ahead when he points, and cock both barrels; it is impossible to bring down your birds in crack style otherwise. Unless shooting in company, I generally have my gun cocked, and held ready to fire, when walking over ground where there is any likelihood of birds rising - this I only recommend to the experienced sportsman.

Never increase the size of your shot when the birds are wild, unless with a larger gun. Those who object to this additional weight, or who give their gun to be carried by a servant, will make but poor work at this season, as many of the best chances rise without a point at all. Stick to the last to scattered birds: one broken pack at this time is worth a dozen others.

About an hour before dusk, be upon the hillocks with your most experienced pointers: if they have been accustomed to grouse-shooting at the end of the season, they will hunt round them with the greatest caution; and when they wind birds, if ever so slightly, will point and look for your approach. Suppose your dog, statue-like, on one of the hillocks, - watch the direction of his nose, walk rapidly and noiselessly round in the opposite direction, as it were to meet his point, and you will most probably come upon the birds within fair distance. Should the hillock be steep, and only about a gunshot in height, walk straight over the top, and if the grouse be, as is most probable, on the side or at the bottom, you are certain of a tolerable shot: should you have broken any packs in the morning, and driven them here, you are very likely to get some excellent chances.

As the shades of evening close upon you, the birds will lie much better: many a capital shot have I got when I could scarcely see them. A very indistinct view of his object is quite enough for a good snap shot who is accustomed to his gun, and I would not guarantee the success of any other at this time of the year. In fact, you must be prepared for every shot being a snap at the beginning of the day, and many at the end. By always following the above directions, I scarcely ever, to the end of the season, came home with less than two or three brace after a few hours' shooting, upon a moor where I used, in August, to average from fifteen to twenty in a whole day.

No man ought to beat the same range oftener than twice a week, as packs of grouse, after being dispersed, seldom all collect in the evening like partridges, but are often some time before they gather; the best days are those with a warm sun and light breeze. Cold wind and rain, after October, makes them flock; and it is of no use to disturb them till it is fine again, when they disperse. You may expect good sport the first black frost. A sort of lethargy seems to come over the birds: I have seen several in a day standing up, without an attempt at concealment, within forty yards - a rare opportunity for poachers and bad shots.

Many suppose that grouse change their ground with the changes of weather, and even lay down rules what parts of the mountain they frequent according to its variations. I have watched them narrowly for many years, and am firmly of opinion that they only shift to the longest heather on the lee side of any knolls near their usual haunts, when they want shelter from the sun, wind, or rain. When they become strong on the wing, and the weather is cold or boisterous, they will shift from one mountain-face to its opposite counterpart, to avoid the cold and take advantage of the sunshine, provided the distance does not much exceed their ordinary flight. This, I think, they never willingly do at the beginning of a season. I have likewise heard it asserted that grouse descend the hills to feed : this I also believe to be erroneous; and have no doubt that, at feeding times, they only move to the first short, sweet patch of young heather, the tender tops of which form their chief food during a great part of the year, except indeed in winter, when many of them come down to lower ground than they ever frequent at other times. The young poutts eat the seeds of the various grasses and weeds that grow in the moors, and are particularly fond of sorrel. At the hatching-time the hen devours quantities of earth-worms with great avidity.

BLACK-GAME

Black-game do not pair like grouse; and shooting the hen [Many gentlemen are now beginning to shoot the hens, observing the great increase of black-game and decrease of grouse in some districts. This may in part be attributed to the advance of cultivation ; but I cannot help thinking the black-game have a good share in driving off the grouse-as I know of one instance where the latter were killed off, and the former again returned to their old haunts. I believe it is also more than suspected that the capercailzie, wherever they are introduced, have a great inclination to dispossess both. It is a curious fact, that the young capercailzie thrive better under the foster-care of the grey hen than if left to their natural protectress. When a capercailzie's eggs are discovered, they are divided among several grey hens, whose nests the keepers search out for this purpose. The grey hens, however, will not sit upon them, unless some of their own eggs are also left. But when the young are hatched, they pay equal regard to both; and it is not until the capercailzie are fully grown that they drive away their step-mothers, who dread them as much as hawks.] and young birds at the beginning of the season is a simple business. You have only to make yourself master of the places they frequent. They may always be found near a short thick rush, easily seen on the moor, the brown seeds of which form the principal food of the young packs. When your dogs point near these rushes, and especially if they " road," you may be almost sure of black-game. The old hen generally rises first, the young pack lying like stones ; no birds are more easily shot.

The old cocks, even in August, are never very tame : for although, where the heather or rushes are long and rank, they may lie tolerably well at first, yet even then they are sure to rise very high, and take a long flight, generally quite beyond your beat: they are sometimes found singly; at others, in small flocks, from six to ten.

Their food on the moor consists of cranberries ; another berry, found in mossy places, called in Scotland the "crawberry;" and the seed of the rush before named. [I shot a fine old cock last August, 1840, whose crop was full of a yellow flower of the dandelion kind, very common on the moors.] They, being very strong on the wing, have not the same reason as the young packs for keeping near their food, and are often found far from it, especially in the heat of the day; shelter from the sun being their chief object. There can then be no better place to beat for them than among thick crops of bracken. Should you find them in such good cover, they will often give you a capital double shot.

As the season advances, black-game are the wildest of all birds. Fair open shooting at them is quite out of the question. As they never eat heather, [Black-game when domesticated do eat heather, likewise grouse the tops of birch, alder, &c. : this, in both cases, I believe to be an acquired taste, as I have often opened their crops at different times during the shooting season, and never once detected heather in those of black-game, nor anything except heather or corn in those of grouse.] their food on the moors soon becomes scarce ; they then much more frequent the stubble-fields and copses by the hill-sides. You may often see twenty or thirty feeding together on the sheaves, when the corn is first cut; but exceedingly alert for the approach of an enemy. I have seen them doing the farmer as much injury as so many barn-door fowls. Your best plan then is to hide yourself among the sheaves, and wait for their feeding-hours. If you are well concealed, and select the proper part of the field, you may have an opportunity of killing a brace sitting with your first barrel, and another bird with your second.

As the fields become bare, and the days shorten, they begin to feed three times; namely, at daybreak, at noon, and an hour before dusk. To get a shot then is much more difficult. I have made a hole in the stone walls which enclose most of the Highland fields, in order to shoot through it. I have also placed a bush on the top to screen myself when rising to fire; but they have such quick sight and acute hearing, both well exercised when feeding on this dangerous ground, that I have found it a better plan not to attempt the sitting shot. My way is to crawl as near the place where they are feeding as possible, and make my attendant and one of the farm-servants enter at each end of the field opposite, and come leisurely down towards the birds; they are then almost sure to fly over your head, and give you an excellent double shot. Care must be taken, however, to ascertain that no sentinel is perched upon the wall, or any high ground near, as there often is at the beginning of the feed. Should there be, wait patiently till he joins the flock. I have also, by this method, often got a capital chance at grouse feeding on the stubble, which they sometimes do in the lowlands, when returning from my shooting-ground in Selkirkshire.

In a country where there are few corn-fields you may get the best sport at old blackcocks by judiciously beating the plantations on the sides of the hills, especially if there are birch and alder in them, the tender tops of which form a great part of their winter food. They are still more likely to frequent these belts if juniper-bushes are near; but great caution is necessary in beating them. After quietly taking your station at the upper side, send your man with an old and very steady pointer to the under ; keep about thirty yards in advance of them : the man must remain outside the plantation, striking the trees with a stick, and making all the noise he can; the pointer must not, if possible, range out of his sight. You are thus pretty sure of the shot ; but if your man beats through the belt, the birds are very likely either to fly straight forward, or out at the under side. Two brace of old cocks maybe considered a good day's sport. If the plantations are very large, beat by sections in the same way.

Even in woodcock shooting in large covers, unless there are a number of guns regularly placed between the beaters, more harm than good is often done by a noisy crowd. I never take more than one attendant, my retriever, and an old pointer. When I get a point, I choose the most open place, and send my man to strike the bush on the opposite side; employing my retriever to beat any very thick cover near. This, however, he is not allowed to do unless desired. Any man who adopts this plan will eventually be more successful than with beaters: more birds may of course be put up when a number of people are scouring the woods; but the shots will neither be so many nor so fair.

Black-game and grouse are easily tamed; ptarmigan, I believe, never. The keeper of the pheasantry of Rossdhu had a black-cock, a grouse, a partridge, and a pheasant confined together. They agreed pretty well, and the grouse, being a hen, hatched two successive seasons. The first year the whole of this cross-breed died; but the next, with great care, a couple were reared. They were both cocks, and, when come to their full plumage in winter, were a blackish brown, something between the colour of a grouse and a black-cock. They were presented by my late father to the Glasgow Museums, where they may now be seen. I have given in the frontispiece an accurate likeness of that in the College Museum.

Before ending this subject, I may put gentlemen on their guard against two ways of poaching grouse and black-game, I believe not generally known. The first is, hunting the young packs before the moors open, with a very active terrier or "colley." If the dog understands the business, he will chop a great many in a day. On a moor in Roxburghshire, I saw a sheep-dog, accompanied by a young farmer, performing to admiration. I had the curiosity to watch their proceedings until I saw the dog snap a young grouse, quick as thought. The other plan is to set traps on the peat-stacks, or in the green springs where the birds come to drink and to eat small insects : this last may be continued all the season. We often hear that these traps are set in the former case for hawks, and in the latter for carrion crows. They may be, but any one who understands the habits of grouse and black-game, knows what birds they are most likely to catch; and if this way of destroying vermin is persevered in by the keepers, "the laird" will soon begin to shoot his grouse minus a leg.


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