I hunted for birds over dogs three different days on my recent trip to Scotland. The first day was the hardest, and I described it here from there. We spent six hot hours sweating like animals on a warm day of hiking up and down the moors and the hills. My legs were like rubber…or wet spaghetti. I was constantly afraid of falling, watching out for 12-inch+ rocks, rivulets, holes in the ground over underground streams, heather branches and slippery grass. You can’t see what you are walking on, because it is either covered up by large fields of heather or because you are in grass up to your shoulders. When you walk on the side of a hill, going perpendicular to the direction that goes to the top, your feet are slanted at every step, angled downhill. Now imagine it is wet or muddy or slippery with tiny stones. A real obstacle course.
Just making it through each of the three days was by far the biggest challenge. And my biggest accomplishment there. I was very proud that I survived, rarely fell to a knee…unlike those hunters the previous week who had trained in the gym for two months to be in shape for the big Scotland hunting expedition and fell so much that the gamekeeper took them off the moor and back to a stand where they shot at clay pigeons for safety’s sake.
On the other hand, for one of the first times, I felt like an elderly man who was being stressed and pushed by the “walk.” Gamekeeper Craig Graham had a walking stick and didn’t need to look where he was stepping. But he was born and raised there. And when we exchanged my shotgun for his stick, I found it easier as well.
The birds were the second huge challenge. The pheasant season had just opened up when we were there, but I told Craig that I wasn’t interested in going for them. “It would be too easy,” I informed him. I was more interested in the challenge of hitting a faster, smaller grouse or partridge. Craig told me later that he smiled to himself when I said that. And he was right.
I was an idiot. Scottish pheasants are harder to hit than what I have experienced in CT back home, where they are raised in a pen and then put into the field a few hours prior to the hunters and their dogs going after them. Those eastern birds—not the wild ones in the midwest—sit in one place until the dogs locate them, they are flushed by hunter or dog, and then take off slowly and predictably for a relatively easy shot of 15 to 25 yards.
In Scotland the birds are living freely on the moors for two to 12 months and have adapted to the wind, foxes, hawks, and maybe some hunters. They often fly BEFORE the pointers have time to smell them and freeze in position, so they are up at any moment and veering off 20-40 yards before you even know they are airborne. Sometimes Craig would yell “bird” or “pheasant,” but he doesn’t have time to say where it is flying. Now I have about half a second to make sure my footing is secure, no dog is in range or line of fire, no hunter or gamekeeper is in danger, raise the gun to a proper mount and pull the trigger at exactly the right lead, so that the shot will intersect with the bird flying into it. Whew! That is not easy at all.
With such minimal advance warning, I have to be ready with every footstep, and given how difficult it was just to walk and retain my balance, it was next to impossible to keep focused on a possible sighting. While the grouse often took off in coveys or singles 50 to 100 yards before we reached them the first day, I did have ONE (count it, just one) makable shot on the third day. But I was watching the ground to avoid falling…and missed. We also scared off a far away covey of black cock grouse on that third day.
The most fun was the partridge sightings, although there weren’t many of those either. We walked and walked, went down steep ravines and up the other side in an earnest attempt to be where the birds should have been. I did down four over the three days, three with long shots of 35 or 40 yards at unexpected and startling singles. Although the pointers may have been “birdy,” before the birds bolted, I don’t think any of these were over a stationary dog. One shot into a covey produced nothing right away, but the retriever found that hit about an hour later, when we retraced that area.
In the end, it was the pheasants who provided the most sport and the most food. The first day we must have seen 40 of them…but the season hadn’t yet opened. There were about 20 the second day and far fewer the last day. But those birds were amazing. One new shot I took for the first time was when I was up high on the ridge next to a gully, and the dogs flushed the bird who ended up flying below me. A tough challenge. I don’t think I ever succeeded at that one.
Then there were maybe a half dozen times when the dogs did point a hiding bird…and I missed most of them when they flushed. Too fast or going off in an unexpected direction. I was mortified. I wondered if it was my same tennis mentality, where I feel sorry for the guy who is losing. I don’t think I missed intentionally. But I was definitely astonished that such easy shots were proving failures. I eventually suspected that the stock on my borrowed Stephen Grant side-by-side may have been a wee bit short for me. So I couldn’t mount the gun properly and aim well. But that is just an excuse I mention to salve my wounded pride. How could I miss those close shots? I will never know…
Incidentally the gun was a beauty, and Grant’s firm made guns for The Sultan of Turkey, the Czar of Russia and Queen Victoria. After his death in 1898 at age 76, the company was in 1901 named gunmaker to King Edward VII and in 1911 the same honor was bestowed by King George V. The British magazine, The Field, commented in its obituary: ‘He has undoubtedly turned out in his time some of the finest guns that have ever been produced for pigeon and game shooting…”
One other outstanding memory were the two sips of Scotch (called whiskey there) I took from Bob’s flask. A tradition BEFORE the hunt, I didn’t want to affect my aim and balance and waited until after six hours of exhausting hiking and no lunch or snacks. On an empty stomach, in a worn and sweaty body, those drinks were sweeter than any nectar I have had. A shock to the system that jolted me to maximum alertness.
Finally I want to comment on all the pheasants in the fields and roads…so many that the traffic signs urge drivers to “go slowly to avoid hitting pheasants.” While hunting over dogs is not uncommon there, most people prefer the ease of driven shoots. A line of six or 10 guns spreads out waiting for the birds to be pushed to them. To satisfy this style of hunting, some estates buy or breed thousands of birds, which naturally fly all over the place and spill out into neighboring estates. When you drive by one of those places, there could be 20 to 100 birds in your path, milling around and not knowing to get out of the way. It’s quite comical and takes some getting used to after a lifetime of experience searching for one or two pheasants in a day in the States.
And when we went to the distillery next to Balmoral, the Queen’s castle and residence for three months each fall, the policeman outside the gate informed us that even at age 85, her majesty loves to shoot driven birds and looks forward to this sport that is such an ingrained part of British culture. There are 49,000 acres there, and Balmoral has been a royal residence since 1852.