Luise Janniche and her three pointers have been out on the hill a number of times this week to help some of her local estates with their spring grouse counts.
Every spring, during March and the first half of April, estates with grouse moors try to establish how big a stock of breeding pairs there is on their moor so they can get a feel for how well they have overwintered and for the general health of their hill.
In the early spring, grouse start to pair up and form their territories. The cock bird will protect his territory and make every effort to stay within it with his hen. This will then be the area where they nest later in the spring. If you walk across the moor when they are pairing up but before they start nesting, you will be able to see roughly how many breeding pairs you have.
On many estates the count is simply done by a line of people, some with Labradors and Spaniels, walking over the ground counting how many grouse pairs they put up, but many estates use pointers. When you use pointers you also try to walk over the same ground each year and use the same number of pointers to be able to compare the count year by year.
Counting grouse with pointers is a great opportunity to get out with the dogs and brush up on their training. It is also ideal for training a young dog because if the young pointer doesn’t manage to get on point, but instead ‘bumps’ a pair, it doesn’t matter as you can still put the count down in your note book.
The pointer will quarter across the wind at a good, fast pace detecting all the smells with his nose all the time. When he touches a little bit of scent of a grouse (or other quarry), he will quickly locate himself downwind from them and come on point. The point is a rigid stance that the dog takes, holding the birds. An experienced dog knows how close he can stand without scaring the birds so that they flush, but he also knows not to stand too far off, which may tempt the birds to start creeping off. With the dog on point, you can walk up to him and command him to flush the birds. In a counting situation you just check what has been flushed, which is usually two birds, a hen and a cock.
Using the counts
As you go along, counting birds from one point to the next, you can document the finds on a little map to gather an overall idea of where the birds’ territories are and, as importantly, where they aren’t. If birds aren’t populating an area of hill that may indicate an issue in terms of the habitat or in terms of predation which may then determine what action needs to be taken to improve things.
This spring count is especially important to see how things stand after last year’s poor rearing season which resulted in low grouse numbers across large parts of the UK. On one piece of ground that Luise counted last July there was one grouse with one chick and one pheasant. This week she counted 13 pairs of grouse on the same ground which is a positive sign. We just now need a good and normal spring so there is a good hatch and a strong rearing season.