Season’s End.

...final forays with the gun...

…final forays with the gun…

Friday 25th January.

I set out, once again, across the fields with Mossy and my Gun. The wind was blowing hard from the west and would no doubt soon bring in rain if the clouds that loomed on the horizon were anything to go by. Down through the rabbit field where I let Mossy have a course  to settle him before we reached the banks of the river Blackwater.

We approached the bank of the river and a snipe got up from under my feet. I’m almost sure it winked at me as I stood watching instead of firing on it as it zig-zagged away. I shook my head in frustration and was just taking a step forward when a pair of teal rose from below me on the river, peeled off to the right and headed south, again I stood watching, thinking, “‘were they too far? …..dam ! dam ! dam !”, again I cursed my hesitancy…..”‘why was I thinking and not shooting?????”

We turned north following the course of the river bank. The wind was more in my favour now but it had brought the rain which those clouds promised and it hit the side of my face in cold sleety splashes. Mossy walked beside me, lifting his head in the wind every now and then in search of scent but all was quiet. This season has been the making of him as a working dog. He has become a pleasant companion to take on these forays and is filling his father’s shoes by taking his place with Des on the shoot in Shelton.

The fields that run along the river here are narrow and divided by deep water channels. It means plenty of time is spent breaking the gun, unloading and guaging distance as to whether I can jump  the ditch or wade across without filling my wellies. We were heading for the maize field at Mullens. The river swings right here, in a big lazy arc and is slower and wider. Earlier in the season I had seen a flock of twenty teal on this part of the water so I was hoping, that if left undisturbed, they would still be there. I got my gun ready….

Something rose from the ditch in front of us then disappeared, it looked like a bird of prey. Mossy ran in to investigate,it was a bird of prey all right, as Mossy returned carrying it carefully, the bird’s talons wrapped around his muzzle and its beak making valiant attempts to remove his eye! With a gloved hand I took it by the wings and removed it from Mossy’s care. No damage done to dog or bird.

It was a young male buzzard, in poor condition. It’s breastbone was very prominent and its mouth was very pale indicating it was cold and weak. I don’t know why I didn’t put an end to its misery there and then, maybe  its brave attempt to fight off the dog with the last bit of energy it had or the knowledge that all birds of prey are protected and should be reported. So I took off my coat and  wrapped the bird in it to hide its head and keep it calm. I unloaded my gun, put the cartridges back in my belt, looked longingly down river and headed for home. Mossy was happy, he had his retrieve with or without gunfire.

Back at the house, I found a cardboard box, lined it with newspaper and put the bird inside. I left him with a chicken carcass, carefully covered the top with a light piece of basket and added a weight just to be sure. It reminded me of all the times we rescued wild animals as kids. Everything from crows, pigeons , robins and even baby hares found their way to our hotpress…they never survived but it never stopped us trying. This bird’s best chance would be with an experienced falconer, I would check on it later to see if still survived.

the little male buzzard

The little male buzzard

Later that day I was in my local shooting shop on other business and was telling the story to the guy behind the counter. He immediately rang a friend of his, a falconer called Sam, who lived locally and  has a special interest in taking wild raptors and looking after them until they are ready for release. He works in conjunction with local vet Dr Carolan.

It was late evening by the time Sam called to collect the bird. He confirmed it was a young male buzzard, probably this year’s bird and most likely had been mobbed by crows and got tangled in branches which may have injured him. Regardless, I felt that if he had survived this long it looked hopeful that he may make a full recovery.I rang Sam on Monday and he had sad news. The buzzard seemed to have been making progress, he had started eating and the vet had xrayed him and found no fractures or other injuries. When Sam checked on him on Sunday morning he was dead. The vet’s conclusion was either poison or shock.

Saturday 26th January…

Today was a good day. Very early this morning I said goodbye to Des and Mossy as they headed North to Drumbanagher to attend an Open stake field trial. Our hope was that Mossy would pass his field trial qualifier and like his parents, Winnie and Chester, become our third full champion in Ireland, the UK and under FCI rules.

Dog and Master

Dog and Master

I was destined for Dublin with Uisce to attend an Open show, her first since the incident with the doberman last December. Uisce did well, she went BOB stood for examination and moved out well. She is showing that her confidence is returning but is still wary of other dogs at times. I will continue taking her along to Tuesday night classes for the foreseeable future until a more balanced attitude returns. She finished the day by going BIG4, far exceeeding expectations for the day!

Mossy has developed into a lovely working companion

Mossy has developed into a lovely working companion

A phonecall from Des just after 4pm to confirm Mossy had indeed passed his qualifier really was the news to cap our season off. He is a dog that has presented me with many challenges in training. It took time for us to figure him out. He was a very laid back puppy with masses of potential, then when adolesence hit he lost focus for a while, we eased off the pressure of training and took him along at a much slower pace. Although he  loves me to bits he works best for Des and that really has been the key to unlocking his full potential this year.

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celebrating Mossy’s achievement

Sunday 27th January…

Lining up on the Oaks at Shelton

Lining up on the Oaks at Shelton

Our last day picking up at Shelton, next week is beater’s day when I plan to be on the gun line. There’s always a feeling winter slides by too quickly and too soon I’ll be putting away my game-carrier until next year. It encompasses every single part of our lives during those months and although I look forward to spring with longer evenings and warmer days, ( hopefully), I will be sad to leave this season behind.

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Coming in from the last drive at Shelton.

Monday 28th January…

The teal that have sat on the pond in Foley’s wood have, up until now, got the better of me. The high water around the wood has left it pretty much inaccessible throughout the Winter. This morning, though, I had a plan. I pulled on my waders and for the final time this season headed out across the potato field, down through the narrow strip of woodland with the blackbirds calling out ahead of us and turned left to the back of the wood. There was only one point in the woods from which the birds, if they were there, could break cleanly from. I pulled out wide into the field and turned towards the wood. The wind was at my back, not ideal but…then up from the edge of the wood rose a flock of 7 mallard. They rose to the north then swung back in front of me. I lifted my gun and fired, they were too far and I possibly didn’t give enough lead. I was just reloading when a flock of 14 teal rose from the same spot in the woods and pulled off over the trees. My chance was gone, I walked slowly forward with Chester at heel. At the edge of the wood I stopped and sent him on. He had just cleared the ditch when a female teal rose up through the trees in my direction. I fired once, she folded and fell in the field and was brought to hand by the old guy, Chester.

Tuesday 29th January….

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Solo and Holly.

We gathered in the yard at Mountainstown for one last time this season. The drives today were some of my favourites – the fish pond, Keepers pen, the decoy, Romwood and the garden paddock. Bertie was still nursing an infected paw after picking up a prod here a couple of weeks ago and Mossy needs to start building condition in readiness for Crufts in March, he has dropped 6kgs in weight despite being fed double rations during the season. So it was Winnie and Uisce that accompanied me around the fields this morning. The retrieves were not many nor unusual but just solid gamefinding work, Uisce following her mother, learning her craft, making sense of where birds lie in cover, watching her reaction to the gun, soaking it all up and filing it away for next season.

heading to the beating line at Mountainstown.

Heading to the decoy…

My dogs that have shadowed me throughout these days, all have had a role to play. Bertie was my anchor dog at Mountainstown but a bad injury after christmas has left him out of action since then. Mossy was the one  we started slowly with, easing him into Shelton but he settled to the job incredibly well and by season’s end he has been my mainstream working companion filling in for Bertie at both shoots as well as accompanying me out roughshooting.. Chester who we took  out of semi-retirement  soon showed us he wasn’t quite ready to hang up his boots at Shelton just yet…his gamesense and gamefinding ability will be difficult to match in the future. Winnie, like Mossy, this year has been my all-rounder… always there, always reliable I can take her anywhere and she will adapt to the situation at hand. And finally my two young ones, Zoe my little gun shy springer, who I used for dogging in early in the season, suddenly decided guns no longer bothered her and has had a ball covering the back of the Oaks drive at Shelton with the chessies. Uisce, also only taken out since christmas and only sweeping with the adult dogs. I have not put pressure on her to sit in line on or off lead. This season, for her, was all about soaking up the atmosphere following the older dogs as they hunt before formal gundog training begins in earnest in the spring.

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Our dogs give everything …

….and so to show…

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We are coming in from the fields now, my brown dogs and me. Our steps are not as light as they were when we disappeared into the woods last November . I have dirt embedded deep under my fingernails and my hair has a wildness about it which the hairdresser may raise an eyebrow or two. My dogs have lost weight, show condition replaced by hard fit muscle, the hair around their face and eyes is gone and when I run my hands along their backs it is rippled with scabs from working through gorse and brambles but our eyes tell a different story…we have shared something together in those dark days of Winter and as we glance back over our shoulders one last time we know we will have that time again..

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Keeper’s day at Mountainstown 2013

The complete Mountainstown team

The complete Mountainstown team

The fog came again for beaters day at Mountainstown. Winter was not quite ready to relinquish her grip and she threw her veil across the countryside holding everything immobile in her grasp. As everyone gathered in the courtyard the weather, possibly, reflected how many of us felt. Beaters day, although exciting, also reminds us that shooting season is coming to an end. It is bittersweet… and so today the fog that wrapped itself around the old house was welcome. We could forget the promise of spring for a while and focus on enjoying the camaraderie that makes this shoot such an enjoyable place to spend the Winter.

I had decided not to shoot on this day. My plan was to work my dog and take plenty of photos as the action unfolded throughout the day. Alas, the weather put paid to much of my  photography as my lens struggled to make contact with the Guns on pegs through the fog, besides something else rather unexpected caught my attention. I had been given the  radio for the day in case James needed to contact the picking up team at any stage. As we loaded ourselves onto the picking up cart and followed the Guns’ wagon out of the yard the radio chattered away as it hung around my neck. Conversations between James (the keeper) and Rupert (the shoot manager) interspersed with reports from Demise, Gavin and Donal as each of them took their teams to various points from where they would start moving birds towards the allocated drive.

One of the beating teams on their way to the first drive

One of the beating teams on their way to the first drive

The names of the drives are engrained in my memory after so many seasons – Cowfield Wood, Arthurs Hill, The Fish Pond, Romwood and the Garden Paddock-  each one means something different in relation to picking up, knowing which way the birds will come, where the heaviest shooting will be, where the birds are likely to fall and how near or far the Picker needs to stand from the Gun. As I took up my spot at the Keepers pen that morning, the radio was giving me an insight to what happens on the beating line. Rather than being a nuisance I was transfixed with the dynamics that were unfolding across the airwaves.

Each team will have taken their birds in from a different direction, sometimes a long way out from where they will eventually flush from. As the teams converge pressure is applied on the birds in different directions, slowly at first by just the tapping of a stick or the cracking of a flag birds may move and flush with very little prompting. This will give the guns time to prepare, a chance to take an early shot and settle the nerves.

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Everything was coming together across the airwaves, birds were breaking nicely in a variety of directions and despite the fog were flying very well. The teams had merged now working forward slowly and steadily..stop…flush…tap…forward…flush…stop….tap…more pressure applied on the right to spread the shooting evenly and all the time the flow of conversation continued between James, Demise, Gavin, Donal and Rupert, all the time the control rested with James…nothing or nobody moved unless on his say so. Fifty birds in the bag at the end of the first drive and smiling faces as Rupert passed around the port. Once again, James and his team had delivered. They had not failed all season and I looked forward to listening in as the plot was revealed for the next drive.

The moment when that first flush of pheasants fly out over the guns is the end result of a lot of long, long hours of preparation, planning and teamwork. There are several key players that help bring this about but what makes a shoot succeed or fail undoubtedly falls on one person’s shoulders, the Gamekeeper. Everything starts and stops with him. It is a universal thing, it’s why Alex ferguson has held the reigns at Man U for so long, for example. There can be only one leader but a good leader  recognises that he alone cannot bring about success. His loyalty and respect for his team are unquestionable and perhaps this is the secret to a shoot’s success.

The end result, to an enjoyable day...birds in the bag.

The end result, to an enjoyable day…birds in the bag.

Are breeding decisions being based too much on health checks?

Every responsible breeder wants the best for their breed. By  taking the time to ensure that dogs are selected on the basis of compatibility and of course clear health checks we believe that we are doing everything in our power to protect our breed’s future.

Now, I’m kind of old fashioned when it comes to choosing a stud dog. I like to see the ‘look’ of the dog first. Do his physical attributes fit with what my bitch can offer? His temperament must also be sound and he has to have working ability….if these three attributes tick all the boxes then I will look at pedigrees to confirm that the breeding is not too close. Finally, I will look at the health checks. Clear health checks are good and so far in my breeding decisions I have been lucky that the dogs’ I have wanted to use have fallen into this net.

A recent event, though, has left me wondering….Is the balance of choosing a mate for your dog being tipped in favour of clear health checks above everything else ? and if so, is this necessarily a good thing?

The following extract may go some way to explaining what could happen if we continue to focus on one aspect of breeding and forget to look at the whole picture. It’s taken from a book I read called ‘Dogs In Motion’ by  Fischer and Lilje:

The silver fox as an example of domestication.

“The study was carried out by a Russian geneticist Dmitry Konstantinovich Belyaev. He worked out the principle by which selective breeding brings about anatomical changes and identified the speed at which traits can change. He assumed that the key criterion in the selection of dogs for breeding was not an anatomical trait but a behavioural one: tameability. In 1959 he began to tame and domesticate silver foxes. After his death, his research was carried on by Lyudmila Trut.

In a breeding programme spanning 50 years, the team selected those individuals whose behaviour around humans was the most companiable and sociable. Selection began when the foxes were cubs and carried on until sexual maturity was reached. Only those animals which actively sought human company and which greeted humans in a similar way to dogs were selected to breed.

Within just four generations, cubs were produced which greeted humans by wagging their tails. In the sixth generation, just under 2% of the cubs displayed this behaviour. By the tenth generation, 18% of the cubs were tail waggers, after 20 generations 35%, after 30 generations 49% and by 2005/2006 almost all the foxes at the breeding station wagged their tails in greeting. This proved clearly that predisposition to the behavioural trait ‘tamability’ is inherited.”

What I found most interesting was the following:

” Over the course of the domestication project, changes in various anatomical traits were also observed in the foxes. Firstly, coats became dappled, then floppy ears and curly tails developed. Skulls became flatter and snouts shorter. After 20 generations, shorter tails and shorter limbs were observed, as was the appearance of overbites and underbites.”

I think it is imporatant for all involved in  dog breeding to remember that, if only one aspect of the dog is focussed on, it is to the detriment of something else. This holds through if the emphasis falls on anatomy and temperament as much as it does on health. It is important that the final decision to go forward with a mating should be left in the hands of the breeders who have the best interests of their breed at heart and not (as I have recently experienced) to an outside body that is looking only at paper results without seeing the entire picture.

I will always strive to breed healthy dogs but my first priority will be to breed a Chesapeake that fills the requirements of the job it was bred and developed to do. I think the above extract demonstrates how quickly traits are lost and gained in breeding. In a numerically small breed like chesapeakes it can be particularly detrimental to favour one aspect and neglect the  whole dog.

Venison cooked in Coca-Cola

The last time I cooked venison I followed a recipe to the letter and was really disappointed with the outcome. The recipe was for a venison chocolate chilli which called for the meat to be marinated in a red wine and spice marinade overnight. The end result left the meat dry and with a strange after taste which left me reluctant to try to cook venison again.

Then my friend Malcolm, the same one who presented me with the oven ready teal a few weeks ago, gave me a joint of venison before Christmas and suggested I try cooking it in Coca-Cola! I have cooked ham in Cola before so the idea of cooking venison in this way appealed to me…the results were very pleasing.

I decided to try this dish as a special treat on New year’s eve, my long suffering hubbie was to be chief critic again… so here it is :

Place the venison and Coca-cola, ( the real stuff now no cheap Aldi substitute… ) ,along with an onion and three cloves of garlic in a large pot and bring up to the boil on top of the stove. Then, turn down the heat and cook for about 40 minutes.

Pre-heat the oven at 180 degrees. Remove the venison from the top of the stove and allow to rest for 20 minutes. Generously cover with olive oil and garlic paste, and season with some salt, pepper and rosemary.

Oven cook for a futher 40 minutes.

Serve on a bed of cheese and garlic mash and mixed winter vegtables.

Wine of choice for this one was a St. Emillion, decanted and allowed to breathe at room temperature an hour before serving.

The verdict…I will definitely be cooking venison this way again. Apologies for no photographic evidence on this occassion it was just tooo good to share ….

 

Scents and sensibility..

An experienced gamefinding dog is invaluable.

An experienced gamefinding dog is invaluable.

Scent and a dog’s ability to use it in relation to hunting has long fascinated me.  When I watch dogs’ work and figure out the story which a scent trail reveals I can appreciate that this sense, more than any other, in relation to dogs is perhaps their most valuable hunting asset. Dogs trust their noses more than their eyes. Sight will bring them to the area of a fall but it will be their nose that will finish the trail and find their quarry.

Of course, the role a dog handler plays in helping track a bird should not be underestimated either. We have the advantage of height, sight and logic. It is this combination of skills between dog and handler which leads me to the following tale.

It is a story  about scent and the  combination of factors that fall into the mix when a wily cock pheasant decides to play chase. It tells the tale of how scent can be elusive and  frustrating. Even with the assistance of the handler, who often has the advantage of height and sight, sometimes a bird can lay a trail which only the cunning and experience of an older dog can untangle.

So let us go back to mid- November on a cold bright morning at Shelton Abbey. Staffords was the first drive of the morning and the birds were flying well. This drive is a mixture of tall conifers, sitting down in a valley with open areas of low, heavy undergrowth. The birds break from the top  of the bank behind the trees, clearing the tree- tops and offer quick, high challenging shooting to the guns standing on the  narrow path below.

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Staffords offers a narrow window for challenging shooting.

Des was working Mossy further up the gunline but I had hung back for this one as the ground is too difficult for Elly to walk through. We had taken a stroll, instead, back along the path  looking for pine cones and Elly was having fun cracking the ice from some puddles.

Elly enjoying the outdoors.

Elly enjoying the outdoors.

As the drive wound down I wandered back towards the game cart. A bird had come down behind the end gun with a wing down and was on the run. The spaniel directly behind the gun had marked the cock bird well and her handler sent her to retrieve him.  It should have been as straightforward as that, but the cock pheasant had other ideas. The young dog took a line directly on the bird  through the pine needles but lost him when she hit some marshy ground. She quartered the ground well covering the area of the fall and retracing where the pheasant had last been seen. Her owner  helped her by pushing her back further into the swamp in the hope of picking up the trail again.

At the game cart Michelle and Coral could see  the bird as it ran on deeper into the woods towards the roots of a fallen conifer. Coral took her young cocker to hunt the area  in the hope of either picking up the trail, or as sometimes happens,  finding the bird had hunkered down into the cover which surrounded the tree. Both young dogs worked well covering the ground asked of them but for some unknown reason the trail kept going cold; almost as if there were gaps in the scent and where the bird had run.

High birds and open sky.

High birds and open sky.

The drive was over so I took Winnie and Chester out to see if they could help figure out this riddle. I checked with Michelle that the area  behind Staffords was not going to be used that morning so, if necessary, I could allow the dogs range a good distance if they picked up a trail.

I took them to the fallen conifer where the bird had last been seen and set them to hunt. Just like the spaniels did before them, they covered the ground well. There was plenty of scent as many birds had landed in this area throughout the drive. The dogs would have to differentiate scent given off by the uninjured birds that landed  and the one bird running through this area which was injured. Nothing was pulling them away from the area to indicate that the bird may have moved on through the woods. He had to be here somewhere.

Then Chester skipped across a small stream and picked up a trail heading back into the woods towards the gunline, after a few minutes out of sight I could hear the lusty call of a cock bird as he rose and flew into the distance. That was not the bird we were seeking. Winnie continued to work the area but wasn’t showing any signs of hot fresh scent. Chester returned and again picked up a trail on the far bank of the stream, this time heading back up hill towards the area of the sweep drive. He was soon out of sight and was gone for much longer this time. There was no point in calling him, he would not hear me but I knew the ground well enough that he could follow a bird a good distance without difficulty and without endangering himself by crossing roads or fences. He is doggedly persistant and will trail an injured bird until he finds it.

Cover in Staffords .

Cover in Staffords .

We were just heading back to the gamecart when down through the woods comes Chester, carrying the wounded cock bird. He had sought and found the right trail. The pheasant had not made it easy he had outwitted three dogs and three handlers all of whom had worked hard to untangle the scent trail he left or didn’t leave behind as he made good his escape!

It is a retrieve which stuck with me in the weeks following and one which I am still perplexed by. Why did the trail go cold so quickly after the bird hit the ground? One old timer’s theory, when I told him about it, was the pine needles. He reckons they disrupt scent and recounted an incident where he almost lost a young dog in a pine forest some years back. There may be some truth in this as when Chester crossed the stream the woodland becaome more mixed with decidious leaf litter as opposed to pine needles but I will never truly know.

I also wondered about the retrieve from a trialling perspective. It was through no fault of any of the dogs that they lost the trail of the pheasant but what would have happened in a trial? Would each subsequent handler be allowed to move further into the woodland in order to pick up a trail? The line which Chester initially took flushed a bird, possibly lightly pricked, would that have been taken as the initial bird or could Chester be allowed try again? Sometimes the confines of trialling may limit gamefinding skills rather than enhancing them perhaps?

The indominitable Chester.

The indominitable Chester.