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…

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