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!
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.
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.
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.