The fickle na­ture of scent

When talk­ing about scent, we must con­sider how dif­fer­ent con­di­tions im­pact upon it, as Gra­ham Cox ex­plains.

Shooting Gazette - - Gamefinding gundogs -

cent is truly an act of God. We have no di­rect ac­cess to it, still less any abil­ity to in­flu­ence it: and yet noth­ing is more crit­i­cal to the way our dogs work and the way we choose to han­dle them. For we see, time and again, how chal­lenges that are al­most ef­fort­lessly over­come can, in other cir­cum­stances, present seem­ingly in­sur­mount­able ob­sta­cles.

Close ob­ser­va­tion and care­ful re­flec­tion are im­por­tant, of course. But they can only take us so far and of­ten our hopes and our best ex­pec­ta­tions are thwarted. We find our­selves strug­gling when con­di­tions seem favourable or, per­haps, breez­ing it when we en­vis­aged hav­ing to work re­ally hard. So what do we know for sure? Well, we know what we don’t know – ref­er­ences in the lit­er­a­ture of hunt­ing to it be­ing a ‘mys­tery’ are le­gion – and we should ac­knowl­edge that it is in­fin­itely vari­able: and that, gen­er­ally, makes over-gen­er­alised de­scrip­tions of days as be­ing ‘good’ or ‘bad’ scent­ing days quite in­ap­pro­pri­ate. That’s hardly sur­pris­ing though, be­cause the list of rel­e­vant fac­tors that have some causal im­pact is a mighty long one. It’s par­tic­u­lar to time, place and at­mo­spheric con­di­tions and… who knows what else?

Scent con­sists of mol­e­cules of a volatile sub­stance and the more volatile the sub­stance the more mol­e­cules are given off. The par­ti­cles are of vary­ing weights so some float in the air while the heav­ier ones fall to the ground. Some are ab­sorbed by sur­face ten­sion on to droplets of mois­ture. The re­sul­tant phe­nom­ena are air scent, ground scent and the scent that ad­heres to veg­e­ta­tion against which the quarry has brushed. To try to un­der­stand air move­ment and scent we grope for analo­gies and the best is prob­a­bly the one that sees it as a plume of smoke which may swirl and eddy as it dis­perses. In­deed, the fate of the scent mol­e­cules is en­tirely de­pen­dent on a whole range of con­di­tions: most ob­vi­ously ra­di­a­tion, con­vec­tion, wind and the na­ture of the ground cover. Cer­tainly, the anal­ogy en­ables us to un­der­stand why a strong wind so of­ten presents a prob­lem as the scent mol­e­cules are scat­tered hither and thither such that dogs will per­haps get a ‘touch’ far from the lo­ca­tion of their quarry, which they strug­gle to ‘work out’.

Of course their abil­ity to do that at all de­pends on a range of learned com­pe­tences, and that’s why the be­gin­ning of wis­dom on the sub­ject is to recog­nise that we should al­ways talk of nose and scent rather than just scent. But for our dogs and our best guesses, what han­dle would we have on the sub­ject at all? That’s why Vin­cent Rout­ledge, in his 1929 es­say The Ideal Retriever and How to Han­dle Him, be­gins his rank­ing of the qual­i­ties of a retriever with the un­equiv­o­cal as­ser­tion that: “Nose comes first with a big F”. But, that said, he fol­lows it with the ob­ser­va­tion that brains are ev­ery bit as im­por­tant, if not more so, since with­out brains a dog will not adapt it­self to pre­vail­ing con­di­tions.

Later, in em­pha­sis­ing that a han­dler should never pre­sume to know bet­ter than a dog when it comes to mak­ing a first cast, Rout­ledge draws on an in­sight from a cel­e­brated 18th cen­tury text on hunt­ing. Peter Beck­ford pub­lished his Thoughts on Hunt­ing in 1781 and no book bet­ter ex­em­pli­fies the value of close ob­ser­va­tion and re­flec­tion on the ex­pe­ri­ence. He says for in­stance that: “Storms in the air are great enemies to scent and sel­dom fail to take it en­tirely away.” He con­tin­ues: “In some fogs I have known the scent lie high, in oth­ers not at all, de­pend­ing on the quar­ter the wind is in. I have known it lie very high in a mist, when not too wet; but if the wet should hang on the boughs and bushes, it will fall upon the scent and deaden it…” and “when cob­webs hang on the bushes there is sel­dom much scent”, and so on. His gaze is pre­cise and the con­clu­sions he draws are tem­pered by his recog­ni­tion that “it is very dif­fi­cult to as­cer­tain ex­actly what scent is”. The gen­eral thrust of his in­sights, how­ever, is that the tem­per­a­ture of the ground just be­low its sur­face, rel­a­tive to that of the air, is crit­i­cal in de­ter­min­ing scent­ing con­di­tions.

“When cob­webs hang on the bushes there is sel­dom much scent for dogs to de­tect.”

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