What does my old dog, Chester, dream of ?
He dreams of a place where the mountain streams cut so deep and sharp into the granite bed that the sun never reached the bottom of the valley floors in deepest darkest Winter; where each breath hung in the air half caught between freezing and the damp bone soaking cold; where the brambles laced so tightly through the bracken and the felled plantation making each search for a bird a push through thorns or a fall though a mosaic of twisted branches. He dreams of a place called Ballycooge.
We had followed the guns deep into the plantation. It was nearing the end of the season, birds were harder to find now;they were fitter, wiser and when they broke cover strong wingbeats quickly brought them higher and further from shooting range. Big bags, though, were not the target at this time of year and certainly the Guns we had that day were skilled and competent sportsmen , selective in their choice of target.
Our picking up team was sparse,for eight guns there were three of us with a dog each. This suited Chester , the fewer the number of dogs and the harder he had to work the more he relished it. He was a pain in the ass to hold on a tight drive, but on a drive where he had sole command he never doubted his capabilities of retrieving each and every bird that fell behind the guns, (…as Handler and Dog we had many arguments about this but I had to concede he was usually right).
Donal stayed behind the three guns that took their places at the bottom of the felled plantation. I covered the waterlogged field with Chester where the remaining guns spread out across in a two hundred metre line and Tom, in his eightieth year, was to stay on the lane and cover the duck pond. We were confident that all areas and angles were covered. This wasn’t a tight drive, it was boundary shooting at its best and with the cover that surrounded the gun line and our lack of dogs birds would be picked as they fell. What birds were here we had no way of knowing, the Guns were reaching their bag limit for the day so it was more of a try out type drive with possibilities for next season; twenty birds max would see happy Guns and tired enough dogs.
The horn blew to indicate the start of the drive. The beaters slowly making their way across the top of the felled plantation high above the gunline from left to right. All eyes and ears focussed on that line of sillhouettes as they made their way through the cover, Chester on lead beside me shaking and whining in anticipation of what might come.
The first shots rang out from our left as a few birds broke over the plantation, that was enough for the duck to lift off the pond to our right at the end of the field. They rose in a circle over the pond before scattering across the field over the Guns in front of us.
Things were relatively manageable at this stage, two wounded duck retrieved and quickly dispatched, three more collected from behind the guns. As the beating line drew level with the hedge dividing the plantation from the field the first few pheasant drifted over our Guns in the field. They fell in an arc behind the guns, were quickly collected by Chester and added to our game carrier.
Everything was still very controlled birds breaking nicely, giving the guns ample time to reload and the dogs a chance to settle….then just as the first heavy flush of pheasant flew over the guns in the field the duck came back for a fly by….
They flew, they fell, they tumbled some stone dead some wounded…All along the gun line, behind them in the thick heavy mud, some in the gorse bank to the right by the pond, some in the stream behind us . I was sinking knee deep in peat and unable to move as Chester pulled himself through the muck across the field . Every gun along the line was given his full and undivided attention, playing to his strengths of marking and memory he returned with each bird before taking off again without direction from me to find that other bird he saw going down somewhere along the gun line .
When it became clear that the Guns in the plantation were going to have a quiet stand Donal peeped his head through the gap in the hedge and with a grin asked if I needed assistance. I still stood , trapped, knee deep in the water logged field , my game carrier was full; I had started to gather a second pile and my dog was still crossing the length of the field keeping up with the birds as they fell.
When the horn signalled the end of the drive we had filled two game-carriers and Chester had by then turned his attention to hunting out the more difficult birds, the ones that had drifted into the woods up behind the stream. His pace had steadied but not slowed; he was now more focussed on those single retrieves that required testing the cover for the specific scent that wounded game leave.
There was no doubt that his skills as a raw hunting dog were phenomenol. It was easy to see, watching him, why the market hunters of old developed a dog with an unquenchable appetite for hunting and finding large numbers of game. He was exciting to watch and absolutely uncanny in his ability to find birds in all sorts of cover either on land or water…
In ways I regret Chester may have suffered through my ignorance in lack of training…but then sometimes I also wonder whether the level of training I put into my current batch of Chessies may somehow blunt that natural flair that makes a Chessie a Chessie and not a Lab….
Chester aka Ir Ch UK Ch Int Ch Penrose Nomad is now retired to the fireside and approaching his 14th year….He still dreams of winter days.xxx