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.