Lusca Artic Jack pointing Red Leg Partridges with 14 week old Lusca Celtic Boy Backing
Photo: Brian Morris
This article was originally published in the 2007 Irish Red Setter Club magazine and has been reproduced here by kind permission of the author
Over the past couple of decades a large number of Scottish upland sporting estates have witnessed a steady decline in red grouse numbers. As a result a number of estates have been forced to reduce the level of grouse shooting activities to focus almost exclusively on lowland sporting activities where-ever possible.
The past decade has also witnessed a number of upland sporting estates releasing red leg partridges on the fringes of moorland areas that has assisted in re-establishing autumn sporting activities from a driven shooting perspective.
While I recently started to field trial a couple of red setters, this is a side-line interest as the dogs are used to support my pursuit of falconry, where I specialise in the flying of peregrine falcons at upland and lowland game birds. While I have recently transitioned to the use of the irish red setter, my falconry experiences (and dog experiences) span the past three and a bit decades with the later two decades as exclusively dedicated to the pursuit of game birds using peregrine falcons.
The red grouse is my favourite quarry for a variety of reasons, with hunting in the wintry frosts and snows of November and December being the most satisfying in terms of challenge. However the red grouse has not been fairing well in my part of the world and as such population numbers are now at an all-time low. As a result I have been forced to accept the red leg partridge challenge in order to continue satisfying my falconry passion.
Initially I was reserved about hunting the red leg partridge given previous lowland experiences with this escape artist of a game bird. Observations on arable terrain were that the red legs did not hold well to the point, preferring to draw a dog on as they leg’ed it into the next county. Given I take great delight in seeing my setters hunt, point and produce game in true bird dog fashion, I was none too keen in having their approach to game dismantled and so destroyed.
The estate where I presently hunt utilises several thousand acres for their red leg partridge shooting purposes. While this acreage is covered with wild grass, the area was once moorland some 15 to 20 years previously. The area is undulating and has a slight roll to it; being sectionalised by a number of deep, natural gorges and thereby allowing high bird, driven shooting activity to occur.
Large, as well as small, release pens are strategically sited, with the smaller pens acting as calling aids to prevent the red legs from wandering too far from the shooting area. This is no different from any grey partridge release situation, though without a lot of the parameter constraints that lowland estates generally face.
As these areas were once proud moorland areas, they are exposed to the elements. As such there is little by way of protection for the red leg partridges, except the height of the wild grass tussocks and this fact, in conjunction with the higher elevation, led me to believe that these red legs were slightly smaller than those I had seen on the lowland. However this could easily be attributed to the strain of red leg released.
My falconry routine, from October onwards, is to fly at first light when night darkness lightens to grey and as announcing the beginning of a new day. From an access perspective, I was granted access to a sizeable acreage that I partitioned (to avoid over-disturbance) into three sectors to permit a maximum of one visit per sector, per week. In doing so my two adult setters covered these sectors pretty quickly and so I would thereafter wander onto the moorland to further stretch the setters should free time permit.
Falconry Field Craft
While I love to fly the falcons over a pointing situation, there are times when it is relatively safe to fly on a speculative nature i.e. releasing the falcon before a point has been established. While not the norm and of a risky nature, such situations can lead to spectacular flights when flying an experienced falcon. With no pointing dog to centre on, the falcon shall climb to a higher than expected pitch to then weave across the sky as she shadows the running dogs’ pattern. However such scenarios are only for experienced falcons who know the drill. With the red leg situation I generally always found game birds in and around call pen areas and so utilised this flying style to great effect last season when the weather was more hospitable.
Dog Field Craft
As a rule I run one dog at a time. While some comment that running a brace of pointers or setters offers increased ground coverage and increased game finding opportunity, I counter this in stating that falconry is not a race. Anyway I would suspect that two dogs that run together all the time would soon abandon running independent of one another and so negate above comment. Aside from that I take great enjoyment and appreciation in seeing a fast paced dog in action. In order to achieve such I run my dogs one at a time, changing over approximately every ten minutes, whenever I note a slowing down of pace or slackening of pattern. Doing so, I believe, ensures consistency of pace and optimises attitude and focus.
Given previous experiences of hunting the red leg on lowland stubble and beet fields, I was concerned that this game bird would apply the same catch-me-if-you-can tactics while on the wilder, white grass areas. However early season experiences proved to be enlightening as I found the game bird to be very sporting, its’ behaviour being more aligned to that of a red grouse or stray hill pheasant than that of its’ lowland brethren. As I initially believed this was due to a significant high ground cover, I wondered what would happen when it came to hunting late season birds when the cover offered less protection. However once again I was pleasantly surprised to note that the red legs were honest and in doing so continued to provide excellent sport as the season progressed. As such, and in both early season as well as late season situations, this game bird held to the point and did very little by way of running on.
Given their food supply was by way of a number of feeders adjacent to release/call pens, the red legs held true to the release area and I can only recall a few instances where they were found beyond the white grass fringes. As such the area was reasonably safe to fly on a speculative nature up to mid December as the setters always located game. This was unfortunately not the case after mid December when the number of active call pens was reduced. I state this as these speculative flights produced some beautiful flights when the falcon would climb to some tremendous pitches to then weave across the sky, while shadowing the setter’s running pattern.
Another revelation for me was that the red leg was true to flush as well as being honest when in the air, in being direct and charting a course for some far off location. This was great from both a dog management perspective as the standard drop to flush practice could be applied. Additionally the open nature of the ground, in conjunction with the honesty of the red leg when in the air, allowed the falcon to apply all of her aerial prowess without having to adjust for possible pitching in locations.
Weather is critical to good hawking, not just on the day but also on the days preceding an outing. For me strong winds and rain, especially during the winter months, can have a major impact on hawking as these weather conditions can make the upland game birds slightly jumpy. As a result possible points or quality set-ups can be ruined as the game birds lift ahead of the hunting party. While I fully expected the red legs to behave similarly, given their upland environment, my only observation with regard inclement weather was that they were harder to find in the open. During these periods they seemed to prefer sheltering near to or in the gorge areas, where more cover was present and in doing so behaved more like lowland game birds.
While there was little by way of a downside to hunting this quarry, I did feel that they were quite predictable in terms of flight direction. Observations, as based on hunting at first light during the winter months, were that the red legs would generally fly out over the ground, to head for the edge of a gorge (as they would on a shooting day!). This did not take Mariah, my very experienced peregrine falcon, long to suss out and as such she adjusted her flight style accordingly. In these situations she would maintain her lofty pitch in the sky, providing the reds with a false sense of security, to then stoop and bottom out as the covey neared the gorge. Rocking back and forth as she approached the covey, she literally would terrorise them (in my opinion) into flying out over the gorge. In doing so she would identify her red leg and rush in to collect her breakfast.
Upland red legs, while fast in open flight, are not super fast. As a result most flights on this quarry resulted in text book, tear drop stoops with the falcon doing very little by way of pumping on the descent. All very pretty and great to see, and so perhaps unfair to say that it falls short in terms of the flight demands that a red grouse would provide in same location and under the same conditions.
Another observation was that I felt the red legs possessed poor falcon evasion tactics, when compared to the likes of red grouse or hill pheasant (comparison cannot be made against grey partridge given differing terrains). While this could be attributed to the fact that they are exclusively farmed birds with little natural awareness, I suppose I should credit Mariah, my multi-season, experienced peregrine falcon, with her ultra high stoops and superb footing ability. However at this time I am of the belief that they lack quality falcon evasion tactics. This is quite surprising given the local wild peregrine family (notably mother plus young falcons of the year) have hunted these same red legs on almost a daily basis throughout the past few seasons.
While the red leg has a reputation for running ahead, this behaviour does not seem to be present when on upland terrain. As such bird dogs can be used without fear of their approach to game being placed in jeopardy. Additionally the open nature of upland landscape, in conjunction with the honesty of the red leg while in the air, makes it ideal for high flying falcons.
Given the present-day grouse population numbers on the estate, it does appear that upland red leg hawking shall form a significant percentage of my game hawking activity over the next few years.
While I shall continue to pray for a slow down in climate change and more traditional winter and spring weather that may benefit grouse breeding good fortune, I am not down-hearted as the red leg partridge presents an all-round quality sporting challenge.
Author & Copyright:- Brian Morris
About the Author
Brian Morris has been an active falconer for over 40 years, with the last 25+ years entirely spent game hawking lowland and upland game birds with peregrines. Game hawking relies on pointing dogs and though he ran (and trialled with some success) HPR's (German Wirehaired Pointers) for 13 years, the year 2000 saw him transition to using and field trialling Irish Red Setters. Game hawking over his irish setters on upland terrain is one of his addictions!