A closer look at spring and summer counts with Richard MacNicol.
Photographer / BYRON PACE
For over 40 years I have been involved with grouse counting on a number of estates in both Scotland and England. Indeed, I’ve walked with some of the finest grouse keepers in the country when undertaking this most crucial of exercises. The data collected is invaluable and determines how many days of shooting a moor can realistically expect to have in the season that follows. But I wonder how many grouse shooters truly understand what goes on behind the scenes with a good team of dogs in the spring and summer months?
Grouse counting is a very important part of a grouse keeper’s year. Of course, such is their affinity with the environment they manage day in, day out, a grouse keeper will generally have a good idea of how his/her grouse are doing and a reasonable feel for the density of birds on the ground. But, ultimately, they rely on the grouse counts for accuracy of numbers in a given area.
Counts are undertaken twice yearly. In the spring, counts are done before the grouse start nesting – this date can vary across the grouse moors in the UK. Some moors may wish to have their spring counts completed by early April, however in Scotland it can stretch into the middle of the month. Weather features as well – heavy snow can disrupt the counting and displace the birds to other areas.
The spring counts record all grouse – single cocks, hens, pairs and even cocks with two hens. These counts are usually what dictate the number of let days shooting that will be possible, as this decision cannot wait until the summer counts. That said, there is usually a clause in the contract of a let day that states bookings are subject to summer counts. Last year was a prime example – prospects for many moors looked brighter after spring counts than they did after the summer counts, resulting in the late cancellation of many shoot days, or in some areas every date in the diary.
Summer counts are typically done from 20 July right up until the Glorious Twelfth. They are carried out in the same areas as the spring counts to assess how the grouse have bred.
Weather conditions and the size of young grouse determine whether you will count on any given day and the grouse keeper will decide when to start the counts. The weather should be kind – dry with a light wind and not too hot. Counting in wet and windy weather is a big no-no, as this tends to lift the young grouse and scatter them in all directions. It is preferable to conduct the counts early in the morning when it is usually cooler for the dogs; I often start counting at 5:30am, although it can be done at other times of the day.
The summer counts record grouse of different ages, from small to well grown. Lifting the covey is important but if you come across a late brood and the late brood birds are on the small side, it is better to pull out from that covey than disturb them. Grouse can sit very tight during the summer count – I have seen my pointer glued on point and the grouse refuse to rise. Their inbuilt instinct to stay frozen still is incredible. Often, if you cheep like a hen grouse this will encourage them to rise. At other times the whole covey may rise and be away.
A key purpose of the summer count is to establish the young to old ratio of grouse. A good indicator would be a 3:1 young to old ratio – a higher proportion of young birds would be even better. When the count is complete, you will have ascertained the density of grouse in a count area, the young to old ratio and the number of coveys, barren pairs and single birds. A shooting estate can then make an informed decision. Generally, driven grouse shooting takes place when post-breeding populations exceed 60 birds/km2, with the number of days/typical bag sizes varying from moor to moor, given their variation in size and nature.
There are two methods that can be deployed when grouse counting. One is to ‘block count’, whereby a count is carried out in a clearly marked area, usually 200–250 acres squared. The second method is a ‘transect count’. These are done between two defined points – from one line of butts to another, for example. The latter is not as methodical as a block count but still a good counting technique. The size of the moor usually determines the number of counts undertaken.
In terms of dogs used, in my opinion you cannot beat a well trained pointer or setter for grouse counting. Yes, other breeds such as retrieving dogs may be used, but I have seen some young grouse pegged. Some people may muzzle their dogs to avoid this. It should be remembered that counting should not be a training experience for dogs; inexperienced dogs will only cause problems, embarrass you and may end up with your services being terminated. Training is for another time.