Lough Sheelan..the trials of a wildfowler.

Dawn was just peeping from under the covers of darkness when we left the slipway and headed out across the lake. All around us the lake was stirring. I could hear drake mallard calling and the steady slap, slap, slap of swans wings as they lifted off the water in front of us.

I had left  home at 5am and headed north to Cavan where I met my friend Malcolm. He had very kindly offered to take me out in his boat to hunt duck. It was the coldest morning of the year. The car temperature refused to rise above zero degrees as I followed his van along the winding and incredibly icy back roads to where we would be able to launch the boat from.

Sunrise

All reports this year were that Sheelan had been shooting well and as we moved out across the water it looked promising. The sky was getting lighter now and in the distance we could start to make out the silhouettes of small clusters of duck as they flew along the top of the water. There was plenty of movement about. Cormorants and swans joined the traffic in the sky, then off to our right rose a flock of geese, twenty to thirty in number. A rare sight on this particular lake. Malcolm had only ever seen them once before and he’s been working these waters for over twenty years. They are protected here in southern Ireland so off the menu today.

The cold air whipped around my face, I pulled Winnie close to me and dug my fingers into her deep, deep fur in an effort to warm them. We turned south, then ahead of us Malcolm saw what he had been watching for. He pointed in the direction of a bay about half a mile ahead. I peered into the distance and in the half light could just make out the water breaking..movement…then the sky ahead filled as three to four hundred duck, (black and whites), rose off the water and wheeled away. This is where we would decoy from, in the hope that the birds would return in an hour or so to where they had been feeding. At least that was the theory….

Malcolm pulled the boat in and dropped Winnie and I off with our guns,chairs, camera and cartridges. He then set about spreading his decoys, a cold and time consuming task but necessary if we were to have any chance of luring birds back in.

Winnie studies Malcolm closely as he sets out the decoys.

Once the decoys were out and the boat was tied in among some trees we settled down and waited. Wildfowling over decoys is, I think, like a winter version of fishing. The odds are all in favour of the duck. It requires tremendous patience and stamina both on the part of the hunter and the dog but if the result is good it is most definitely worth every minute spent almost always in harsh weather conditions. It is  the cold that is one of the primary reasons why duck would move around a lake this morning, we hoped. These conditions should have been near perfect and then to cap it all a fog moved in across the water. This would keep the birds low and  they would be less likely to see us behind the decoys when they came within range.

My favourite picture of the morning.

The silence of these places is one of my favourite things about going to such lengths to get here. Looking out across the lake this morning was enchanting. As the fog rolled out, covering the shorelines and masking the islands all that was left within view were a family of swans sleepily going about their morning chores. All around us the world was going about its business but here, at this moment, wrapped in a blanket of fog we could forget all our wordly worries for a while.

Our family of swans that kept us company for the morning.

About five hundred metres out, coming low across the lake was a flock of six black and whites. They were heading straight for our decoys. We crouched down behind the netting and waited. Closer and closer they came. When they came just over the decoys we rose and fired. One hit the water hard about two hundred meters out and dived, never to resurface. Not a retrieve to send the dog for.

Another hour passed, nothing came. Our swan family had tucked their heads beneath their wings and slept. Kingfishers darted past and Winnie sat longingly looking at the decoys in the hope that something would come. We saw mallard in the distance and some goldeneye that half thought of joining our decoy group but at the last second thought better of it. Then, all of a sudden there was a whir of wings to our left and two teal made to drop down on the decoys. I couldn’t get a clear shot but Malcolm took one cleanly, knocking it about one hundred metres out beyond the decoys. Winnie, watched and waited to be sent. I gave the command and she slipped silently into the water. A nice retrieve after a long, cold morning of patiently waiting.

A well desreved retrieve after much patient waiting.

After four hours we quit, our toes were suitably numb and family committments beckoned. Our plan hadn’t worked as well as we’d thought. As Malcolm pulled the boat out into the water I spotted four black and whites coming in from the north. They were headed straight for the decoys, I loaded my gun again and crouched down, alas it was not to be my morning as they peeled off at the last minute when the boat emerged from under the trees….ah well thats fowling and they’ll live to fight another day.

I am incredibly grateful to Malcolm and indeed to Lawrence, Emmet and Pat without all of whom I would never have the  opportunity to shoot these lakeshores. An indepth knowledge of the waters they hunt is needed, not only from a safety point of view but also knowing the habits and movements of the birds that use these huge expanses of water and knowing which winds suit which lakes is learnt only through years of observation and intimate knowledge of the lakes in question. I witnessed first hand this morning how quickly a fog can come over the water and that in itself presents its own perils.So thank you again for giving me the chance to witness Winter at her best!

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Roast pheasant.

The greatest pleasure I get from hunting is being able to bring home the bird and preparing it for the table. Nothing is more synonomus with Winter than roast pheasant.

The following is how I prepare a roast pheasant dinner.

Gathering the bag.

I hang the birds for 5 days in a cool place. Hang for longer if you prefer a gamier flavour.

Decant a nice bottle of red.

Pluck  the feathers taking care not to tear the skin. This normally takes me an hour..be prepared for a mess of feathers. Its a good idea to wear an apron.

Taste the wine to make sure it’s coming to room temperature…

Once the birds are plucked, remove the innards, heads and wings below the knuckle also remove the feet below the knuckle. Make sure to wash your hands before consuming more wine as the flavours don’t mix well.

Plucked and cleaned out, ready for dressing.

Two pheasant will easily feed four adults.Massage the outside of the birds in olive oil.

In the bottom of the roasting tin, place some sausages, rosemary, chopped carrots, an onion, three or four cloves of garlic and some celery.

Fill the cavity of the birds with two peeled oranges.

Season well.

Cover the birds with tinfoil for the first half hour of cooking then remove foil to allow birds to finish. Cook for one and a half hours in a moderate oven about 180 degrees. Relax with a glass of wine and favourite game cookery book to plan next meal…

Ready to serve!

Serve with roast potatoes, ( cooked by husband ) a selection of vegtables and the remaining bottle or two of red in front of a nice open fire and remember a cook should never have to drink and drive!

The carcass can be then used to make a base stock for soup which is perfect with a light white…enjoy!

Shelton Abbey Shoot

The Sweep drive on the road to the prison.

The second shoot I work my dogs on is more than an hour’s drive south to County Wicklow. Set along the banks of the River Avoca and just west of Arklow town is Shelton Abbey. The Abbey itself is an open prison but the grounds and land that surround it are currently owned and managed by the state. Some of the ground has been leased for a number of years by a small syndicate to develop a driven shoot. The gamekeeper responsible for the care and management of the shoot is a very talented young man by the name of  Mr Philip Gregory.

There are many  challenges, however, which the keeper has to deal with that are unique to this shoot. The land is bordered on one side by the river which acts as a natural boundary but also as a  place of no return once birds cross over it after a drive. Running up against the shoot’s western boundary is the Ballyarthur estate and although both shoots enjoy good relations there is also the inevitable crossing over of some birds. Perhaps the biggest obstacle Phil has to contend with is the fact that the ground which the shoot has leased is public ground and therefore subject to the many vageries of walkers and dogs, of all shapes and makes, running through the very ground on which he is trying to get birds to settle. Pheasants do not like disturbance. Losses could be significant without diligent dogging in, feeding and settling the birds. Once the poults are released it is a round the clock operation with little time off in the hope the end result will be worth all the worry…

The drive known as the Oaks is, without doubt, the signature drive at the Shelton shoot. It stretches for almost a mile along the length of the Avoca and is divided into three separate sections. The landscape alone lends itself to the development of a naturally brilliant drive. Up behind the prison the land rises sharply away from the river. It then flattens out to what is known as the tailings, a legacy to its former life as a copper mine, then rises steeply again. The sides of this valley are densely cloaked with a mixture of larch and oak trees while the floor of the valley, known as the tailings, has been allowed to return to a wilderness of birch, gorse and coarse grasses,perfect cover for pheasant and boy do they make every use of it!

Mossy and Des emerging from the cover on the tailings.

The deciduous trees offer ample flushing  points for the birds, spreading them along the entire length of the gunline. The trees along with the added gradient enable the birds to break at such dizzying heights that test even the most proficient shot. As a picker, on this drive, I stand way back as the birds are quite capable of flying on for three hundred meters or more even after being hit due to the height and speed at which they are travelling.

My dogs have been tested to the extreme on this shoot. The ground cover is extremely challenging and this is not just as a result of the gradient of the terrain. The bramble undergrowth is dense, particularly on Staffords. The result of many years of growth and many of the drives are cut into this undergrowth, so there is no way of avoiding sending your dog to cover. This is ground that requires dogs with a strong prey drive and dogs that will overcome any reluctance to enter vicious cover. It will make or break a dog, they can learn tremendous game sense or be turned off completely. I have seen Chester crawl on his belly beneath the bramble here in pursuit of a wounded bird as it is the only accessibe route through.

A good nose is also an asset here. Time and energy can be saved if a dog can scent a bird from outside the bramble clusters and also track and pursue a bird underneath.It was and still is the waterwork on the Avoca, however, for which the chesapeakes really come into their own here.

A view of the Oaks with some of the tailings in the foreground.

In previous years the shoot began their season in October with three drives on each shoot day of river duck. Early in the season the river was still fairly tame. The current was fast but dogs and handlers could cross without difficulty hopping between the gravel beds that rose above the streams. It was at this time of year that the dogs had a chance to learn the river, to get a feel for the water, where the current could pull them and also most importantly where they could find a safe entry and exit point.

The chesapeakes loved it. This was their comfort zone. They learnt to sit in the current, thread water and wait for a bird coming from upstream, then once the bird was retrieved they let the current carry them, down past me until they rode into the shore further downstream. Some dogs just ‘get’ this idea and work the water so well , it takes experience though and I have seen many dogs, particularly young ones, waste valuable energy trying to fight their way back upstream to their owner against a strong unyielding current.The end result being a young dog that makes it to shore eventually but may be truly sickened about entering again.

My favourite spot to stand with the chessies was on a cluster of rocks at the prison boundary about eighty meters below the last gun. Here they could sweep up any birds missed by dogs further up the line and mark birds that might fall on the far bank to retrieve when the drive finished. The water here was deeper and wider but also slower allowing for a slighter easier swim without the dangerous undercurrents that occured in the river at its shallower points.

It was not unusual for them to enter the water up to twenty times during a drive in October. I never had to push them, if anything it was more of a challenge to hold them back. They would finish the drive and continue to sweep the banks on both sides back up through the gun line in search of wounded birds. Swimming seemed to expend less energy for them than land work.

Each of them learnt to read a wounded duck on water in a different way. Chester will thread water and wait for the duck to rise and then pursue it whereas Winnie will follow the bird under water as it dives. Winnie, in her time here, also developed a particular skill for tracking duck that hid underwater in the faster flowing mountain streams of Ballycoog. I have never really understood how she does it but I have seen her take up the trail of a duck that neither of us have seen fall. She might be hunting the bank then all of a sudden something will catch her attention and she will track the water downstream until a point where the duck is retrievable either from shallow water or under a bank overhang.

Bertie, Winnie and Chester after the last drive a couple of years ago.

My greatest responsiblity when working on waters like the Avoca is the safety of my dogs and myself. I refuse to put them in imminent danger. As such I have also had to learn to read the water well and to know when a duck is retreivable or when it is lost and guide my dogs accordingly. My dogs in turn must listen to me and trust that I know when it is safe to send them. Duck will land on the water in front of them with no injuries and the last thing I want is for my dogs to expend valuable energy on a drake mallard that is not wounded. They will give their heart and soul to this work and we have had many, many memorble retrieves, some of which I will share with you in the coming months.

Staffords…the cover on both sides of the path is dense bramble.

Hunting alone.

The fields behind my Mother’s house have belonged to her family for three generations. They were where my sisters, brother and I spent our childhood. Everyday was an adventure. I remember summers spent building stone houses in the pigeon field with our cousins or making hay houses when the meadow had been baled. Then when evening came ten or twelve of us would gather at the top of the hanging field, teams were picked and  the final hours of daylight, on those long summer evenings, were spent playing cowboys and indians among the ragwort and rushes. We would hear our mother calling in the twilight and head home through the thistle field, tired, a little scared from telling ghost stories but ready to do it all again when the sun rose the next morning.

There was such freedom in childhood then, it was so carefree and we were in no rush to grow up. The fields were our backyard, we knew every inch of them and whenever I walk them now they bring back so many memories of adventures taken together. They have certainly been very influential in my love for the outdoors.

This morning I needed some time on my own. I took my gun and Mossy and headed out across these fields in search of woodcock. Under the fence and onto the lane, then across Mahons field towards Foley’s woods. The ground in Mahons was a thick gluey mess as they had just harvested a potato crop. It took some of the ‘fizz’ out of Mossy as I needed him quiet and steady when I reached the woods.

The morning was unseasonably mild. Midges still hung in hoards over the water as I crossed the ditch and climbed into the woods. I loaded the chambers, called Mossy to heel and set forth. Nothing caught our attention as we made our way down through this narrow part of the wood, a couple of squirrels danced in the branches above us and blackbirds called in alarm ahead of us giving away our presence. I crossed another water filled ditch and headed towards the main body of the wood where yet again we were faced with high water.This time it was unpassable but I was able to peer through the trees to where the pond is and there were ripples on the water. It looked promising.

I followed the ditch that surrounded the wood until I found a possible place to cross. It wasn’t going to be easy but it looked like the best option at the time. Steadying myself and my gun at the edge of the ditch I took a stride across and my foot went down, water flooded into one of my boots..great, a soggy foot and nothing to show for it.

Once inside the woods again the ground was drier. I moved forward with Mossy once more at heel and we quietly made our way back down towards the pond. The woods had been heavily grazed by cattle so there was very little cover to conceal us but it also meant I had more daylight to carry a shot if needed. I approached the edge of the pond, paused and held my breath..they saw me just as I saw them and rose in one single movement off the water and up to my left. I took my time, lifted the gun to my shoulder, picked one and fired. A clean kill, a male teal fell dead on the surface of the pond .

I turned for home, my mother’s house, this time taking the track up through the lane, under the wire and into the flat bottoms. One snipe rose in front of me but I had an empty gun. I had my bag for the morning and my dog had his retrieve and I had almost forgotten about my one wet sodden sock…

Day 2 Mountainstown new ground

November 6th.

We met in the yard of Mountainstown House and headed in convoy to  ground five miles north, a place called Rockfield. I had not been here before, it was new ground . James, the gamekeeper  had told me about Rockfield when I was dogging in a few weeks ago. The ground, managed by Demise, would offer more diversity with regard to drives as the land was quite different to Mountainstown. As we travelled north the landscape changed to drumlin country. Lots of rounded hills topped with woodland  which are cut through with fast flowing rivers.

Landscape , topography and of course weather play a hugely important role in driven pheasant shooting. I will not claim to be an expert but I think anyone working on these shoots should, at least, have some understanding as to what holds birds, what makes them fly and where they fly to. They generally will not fly into the sun and this can have a bearing on whether a particular drive should be carried out early or late in the day.  Hills and valleys give the added advantage giving height to the birds as they fly. This offers  more challenging shooting to the guns, but from the picker’s point of view  the bird will carry further if hit and they must take this into consideration when marking birds. Pheasants are affected by wind, rain, frost etc meaning they will range in or out, depending on the weather, in search of food. All of these things are taken into account by the gamekeeper when he’s planning his drives to best advantage. I won’t even attempt to start to try to describe the mechanics of the beating line to allow an even spread of birds both throughout the drive and along the gun line…..

Three drives were planned for the day with an expected bag of 150 birds. We had been told that two of the drives were quite close. This could possibly affect where birds could be picked from at the end of the drive. I took up my position along the river bank below the level of two guns in front of me and I also let the gun across the river to my right know where I was. The birds were expected to fly from right to left towards a pheasant pen on top of the hill to my left.

It began, slowly at first, with one or two shots fired then silence. I had two dogs with me this morning, Winnie and Bertie. I kept Winnie on lead for the start of the drive as I didn’t know exactly how busy these pegs would be and until I got a feel for what level of work was needed one dog off lead was enough to control. It soon became clear that some birds would be falling into the river which calls for quick and efficient retriever work as the current otherwise will sweep them downstream and out of view. Bertie worked the river well. He was retreiving what I asked and avoiding the tempatation of retrieving from the far bank which was covered by other dogs. So far, this season I have avoided the tempatation of relaxing whistle work and I have to admit it is a pleasure to be able to work a dog under control during a drive if needed.  The drive got heavier and the gun to my right was shooting very, very well…birds were falling both on the bank in front and in the water upstream. I untethered Winnie and worked both dogs alternatively.

Of all my dogs Winnie is the one with the most ‘game sense’. She is my favourite dog for wildfowling and she is an incomparable gamefinder. She came to the side of the bank and waited. The guns had gone quiet for a minute. Then another flush of birds broke. Winnie did not look up she watched the river below her and waited…years of working the river in Wicklow had taught her that most likely the birds would appear in the water after shot was fired and within minutes she was rewarded for her patience. Sure enough upstream a pheasant was being carried with the current. She watched its approach until it was just below her and then entered the water for a clean retrieve. Again and again she repeated this exercise, none were lost. Drive over and we swept the bank in front for birds and then followed the river down in case any birds had been lost further along the bank. I saw one on the far bank that had been caught up in reeds. I cast Winnie over and directed her to hunt left until she found it.

Our second and third drives were quieter but these drives offer the opportunity to instill steadiness and patience in the dogs and to watch quietly while other dogs work.

The third drive really was beautiful to watch. The beating line was taken along a larch plantation which was still holding its fiery colour against the back drop of the grey November sky . Standing on the hilltop with my dogs behind the end gun, there was no other place in the world I would rather have been  at that moment.

“Fall colors are funny. They’re so bright and intense and beautiful. It’s like nature is trying to fill you up with color, to saturate you so you can stockpile it before winter turns everything muted and dreary.”  ―    Siobhan Vivian

Mountainstown.

Deep within Meath countryside is Mountainstown House. It has been home to the Pollock family since 1780. Unlike most grand  homes of its era it does not command a position of height, overlooking all it surveys, rather it sits nestled in a shallow basin hugging the very land that surrounds it. It is a home that has welcomed many through its gates over the years. It has a long association with the competitive gundog world and has hosted trials across the spectrum from Spaniels to HPR’s and Retrievers.

I have been coming here for seven winters now and never tire of that first glimpse of the old house as it emerges through the trees. For me, when I enter the courtyard and join in the bustle and mayhem of meeting and greeting it is like coming home. The sounds of laughter and banter ring around the walls with dogs mingling and people catching up after a long summer. Then, people and dogs pile into the back of the picking up cart and head to the first drive. Everything goes quiet.  I stand back, often under the cover of the trees, and drink in the silence until the tap, tap, tapping of a stick against a tree starts. The dogs sit up and pay attention. The drive is about to begin.

Up until now my dogs have had ample time to adjust to the rigours of working, taking in the odd day duck shooting. Competing in working tests throughout the Summer also helps keep them in good condition. Nothing, however, will compare to the massive amount of energy they will expend in the coming months. I will have to double if not triple their food intake and add extra protein in the form of fresh meat and fish to counteract the huge toll that their bodies will indure as they work tirelessly in the most brutal of cover in search of pheasant and duck. Added to this workload will be days of roughshooting and some flighting on the lakes.

To the uninitiated this may seem like an extremely strange way to spend the winter months. Hours of standing with cold fingers and toes waiting for a drive to start. Often on these days Winter shows her worst side and will throw in a blast of wind from the North with driving showers of sleet and snow.

The pheasants don’t always fall where you want them to either and any picker up worth their salt must be prepared to work their dog through all sorts of terrain and cover. This often means crawling on hands and kness through thick undergrowth and woodland as your dog picks up the trail of an injured bird. Across peat filled swamps and ditches with the likelihood of losing a boot. Those are truly the retrieves I value most as these birds would otherwise be lost. All of this is done, believe it or not, for no monetary gain. Yet every person who partakes in the business of beating or picking up will rarely miss a day throughout the season. Why? You may well ask…

I think something unique happens when people gather at a shoot on the first morning of the shooting season. It brings together communities and  multiple generations. It is one of the few winter pastimes remaining in rural communities that facilitates a mixing of age groups. In an otherwise bleak and lonely time of the year when people are more inclined to feel cut off this offers an outlet outside.

For me, it allows me the freedom to forget my professional life for a few hours. To get dirt beneath my fingernails. Nothing is more thrilling than watch my dogs working hard and feeling I am part of that team. For these precious few hours on the shoot all I have to think about is marking birds and working my dogs. No more, no less…

I am always mindful of the fact that this pastime, which I am lucky enough to partake in, is due to the generosity of the landowner, the gamekeeper and the syndicate guns. I think anyone who participates as a beater or picker up is obliged to remember this. It is the landowner’s and the gamekeeper’s livelihood that we trample on each week in pursuit of birds. This we must always respect…