To retrieve a Duck….

Duck rising off the Tailings at Shelton

Duck rising off the Tailings at Shelton

We came to the river again for the Duck Drive, just as the late winter sun dipped below the tree line at the top of the valley.

October 2015 will not be remembered for crisp clear mornings bright with frost , it will be remembered instead for record rainfall and temperatures more akin to late summer than early winter. When November 1st arrived at Shelton, although it stayed dry, the unseasonably mild weather had left all gamekeepers with the unwanted headache of trying to keep birds within boundaries when the hedgerows were still laden with natural feeding.

The first frosts hadn’t come,  leaving the brambles still green and difficult for both us and the dogs to push through. So by the time we took up our spot on the gravel island at the fork in the river most of the dogs were tired from three heavy pheasant drives and the river was not in a gentle kind of mood.

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Full from the heavy rains that fell earlier in the week it would be foolhardy to treat the Avoca, that day, with anything but the utmost respect.

I am always cautious with the dogs I work on the river drive. Young dogs come along only when steady and are kept on lead to watch the older dogs work. I learned my lesson many years ago when I foolishly sent Chester in to this very river on a very lightly wounded duck and watched in horror as the current took both him and the duck round the bend and out of sight. Thankfully, it ended well when he got the duck, found the bank down by the prison and made his way back; but I know it could have ended equally as badly.

Today I had Winnie and Bertie, both experienced dogs in relation to waterwork . We watched as the duck came over the tailings and flew up and across the river. Some were caught by the guns at this stage and from that moment until the end of the drive, thirty  minutes later, the dogs were in constant motion.

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They  worked well with the current , swimming out and turning into it as the birds came downstream to them and then going with the current until it carried them back into their own depth where they brought the birds back to me. They also pushed through the current and retrieved birds that fell on the far bank; occasionally they had an easy run up the gravel island to pick a bird from the stones.

The horn blew, to signal the end of the drive. We had filled two game carriers in that short period of time but there was one final retrieve I needed and as Bertie was the younger and fitter of the pair the task fell to him.

 

Halfway across the widest and fastest flowing part of the river a piece of deadwood rose from the water, strung with all sorts of debris that had got caught up in its branches now it held a drake mallard captive. The bird had been carried downriver during the drive while the dogs were working on other retrieves so they had no idea it was there and the bits of debris flapping like flags in the current masked any sign of the bird from the island where we stood.

 

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I cast Bertie on a line above the deadwood, aiming him for the far bank, anticipating the current would pull him in line with the branches by the time he reached mid-river. He entered the water and felt that familiar pull of the river as it gripped him determinedly and pulled him downstream; with each powerful stroke, though, he was moving nearer the branches but also being pulled sideways by the current. Every stroke was  a battle to simply stay on course. Mid river and the current had carried him to where I expected him to be, Bertie was now below the deadwood . I blew hard on my whistle hoping  to get his attention above the roar of the water and asked him to hunt. It worked, he lifted his head clear of the water and searched using both nose and eyes, he caught the scent and  locked onto the flapping debris, pumped those shoulders harder than before to drive into the current and slowly, slowly work his way towards those branches. With one final drive he reached his head forward and pulled the duck from where the branches held it tightly, then he let go of all effort and allowed the current to carry him downriver to where it sweeps past the shallow end of the island. There he found his footing, pulled himself clear of the water and  with bird in mouth he gave  one final shake and made his way back to  where Winnie and I waited…

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There are plenty of times my dogs and I mess up during the season and I value these as lessons to be  learned and move on from . But every once in a while it all comes together, like the day on the river,and because  these moments come along so infrequently I choose, instead to hold onto them…they are the days to be treasured for times when I can reach my hand down in search of a brown head and rub a pair of soft brown ears as I retell the story of Bertie’s blind duck retrieve again and again and again..

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Hope you had a great season everyone from Me and the Brown Bunch.xx

 

 

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Ballycooge….An old dog dreams…

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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

 

Early season pheasant breast in buttermilk marinade.

The marinade is from Nevin Maguire’s Christmas collection which he uses for Turkey, with some modifications 🙂

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Pheasant is a lean meat but the early season birds even more  so, I find very little pickings on the legs and as such  tend to work with the breast. The remainder of the bird can be used to make stock base for soup.This an easy to prepare simple recipe that keeps moisture in the meat as much as possible.

Take one brace of pheasant  remove, wash and prepare the breasts, keep the skin if possible. Place in a bowl and prepare the marinade

For the marinade use 500mls of buttermilk or enough to completely cover 4 pheasant breasts.

Finely chop one orange, leaving the rind on.

3 cloves of garlic, peeled but not chopped.

season generously with salt and pepper and I also add a good scattering of thai 5 spice.

Pour the marinade over the breasts, cover the bowl with cling-film and place in the fridge for at least 8 hours.

When ready for cooking remove from fridge and wipe off the buttermilk using paper towel.

In his turkey recipe Nevin uses harissa butter to coat the meat but I used some Blackberry chutney which I bought from a lady who had a stall at the Nevin Maguire cookery night.

Once covered in chutney, wrap each breast streaky bacon , pie dish and cover with tin foil.

Bake in a preheated oven about 180 celcius for about 25 minutes.

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Chesapeake : “I think therefore I am” …..more tricky to train, maybe?

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Your eyes meet across the small pond, both minds set on the challenge ahead, both thinking exactly the same thing but wanting very different outcomes …..Is the Chessie going to come back with his retrieve through the water on this warm summer day as his handler wishes? Or Is he going to mentally assess a more energy saving option and take the land bridge home???

Which would you choose??

I have found myself, as a handler in this predicament on many occasions.Watched as Labrador after Labrador diligently took the same line back as they took going out without a flicker of questioning but knowing that even before I cast my dog across the water he is already reading the landscape with his eyes and doing mental calculus on how to get home better.

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The Chesapeake is a thinking dog. Their survival as a breed often working in life threatening weather conditions out of sight of their handler meant that the ability to read a situation was imperative to getting both them and their quarry home safely. They needed to know they had options, however, it is this very ability to think through every life scenario that often mistakenly lands them with clichés and stereotypical labels such as, “difficult to train”, “hardheaded” and “not good enough to Field trial”….

In most cases, if you’re lucky, you will get fair warning of  this ability of the Chesapeake to think ahead and weigh up His options. It will be evident from the moment He opens his  eyes and totters about the whelping box checking out the perimeter. He will lift his tiny muzzle above the lowest point in the box where Mum skips in and out. Rather than wait patiently for her return he learns very quickly that there is another option….He  can simply follow that wonderful smell of milk and fill his belly quicker. These are the Chessie babies that, because their need to figure things out comes early in their development, will train you as a handler and an owner to walk slowly and take your time through training.

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….oh but then there is the other type of Chessie puppy….

So there you are all fuzzy and warm, basking in the glow of the newness and excitement of having your new Chessie puppy.

He or she  no doubt is smart,( smart as in human terms,learning things quickly that please you ), and pretty soon you are proudly able to list off all their accomplishments of how they have mastered sit, wait, stay, heel and come all  within a week of ownership. You will talk about how friendly and sociable they are around other dogs, how they love all dogs large and small. In fact I can pretty much guarantee that doubts will even cross into your mind about whether the warnings and cautions your puppy’s breeder gave you about taking your time in training, about the importance of socialising your Chesapeake puppy properly are really true at all….

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Time passes, and buoyed with the confidence of how easily and eagerly your young dog took to basic training you decide to increase the pressure and you again are pleasantly surprised how easily he starts to  run lines, obey some whistle work, maybe taking a left and right  cast AND still only 9 months old !!!.

Then, just when you think you have trained the beast, when you can sit back and give yourself a giant pat on the back for a job well done everything starts to unravel …..he starts to push ahead when he should be doing impeccable heelwork, he ignores all direction and acts like he has never heard a whistle before let alone the sit command, a scent trail is more fun to follow than coming back to you when you call him, he squares up to other young males when out walking despite your admonishments to ‘play nicely’…

What happened ?? Where did it all go wrong you may wonder ?? Where in god’s name has that wonderful puppy that you worked so hard to mould and train gone to and how do you get him back?

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And the answer is simply your Chessie just realised he has options other than what you ask him to do. His maturing mind, the one needed to help him survive the brutal foreshore currents in times past, has kicked into gear in readiness for his future role as a working widldfowling dog.

This is the hardest stage, I think, in Chesapeake development for both Dog and Owner. It is the stage that I ,as a breeder, am prepared to get the most calls about and hope that in the long conversations that follow I can offer some insight into what can seem like a neverending episode of ‘ dog behaving badly’.

So, as a breeder I will tell you that this is the time your young dog needs your guidance most,( even though He thinks He doesn’t). Tease out the strands of his training, allow him to think through each small aspect of what you ask him to do by shortening your sessions and breaking them down more. Allow him to question and think things through so he can understand. And when that doesn’t work guide him some more.

You will always have a thinking Dog, it is in their DNA but I believe when a Chesapeake fully understands what is being asked of Him or Her they give their very best performances.

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Sometimes though all  the cajoling in the world will not win out over a Chessie mind that knows the shortest and safest route home with a retrieve is by land when your eyes lock across a small pond in Summer…..but that’s another story.

Carlotta’s Way….

On Tuesday May 5th, an hour to the day of mating nine weeks previously, Carlotta’s first puppy arrived.

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I wasn’t there for the delivery….when I had checked on her half an hour earlier before going to collect Elly from school , she was curled up comfortably in the whelping box…true to the style that had been the pattern of this pregnancy every puppy, seven in total, arrived half an hour apart after the first one. Slipping into the world almost unnoticed beneath Lotta’s tail; but with meticulous diligence were cleaned and nudged towards her teats where warmth and comfort awaited.

I’m pretty certain now that on her long journey from Argentina to Paris somebody somewhere slipped Carlotta a copy of ” The Book Of The Bitch ” by J.M. Evans and Kay Whyte. And confined in her big bright blue crate she read it from cover to cover.

This breeding with Bertie wasn’t meant to happen until next spring but a failed pregnancy with my other bitch left me in a situation where if I didn’t breed this year I could potentially end up with two litters around the same time next year, something which I did not relish. So with agreement from Mecha, Lotta’s co-owner, sought and obtained we gave it a go.

The beauty of having both male and female in residence meant there was no running to and from the vets for ovulation testing, no time constraints in relation to travel instead right on cue and with no involvement on from me, apart from holding the gate open , nature took over and the mating occurred.

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A slight filling in the flanks by week five made me slightly optimistic that the mating had been successful but she showed no other signs – no morning sickness, no discharge and definitely no ‘minding’ herself as she raced after our springer spaniel in the fields.

By week six she was still giving up no secrets. A scan was needed to enable some forward planning AND to end the agony of wasted hours staring at her abdomen, checking out the tiniest twitches and wondering, ‘well,  is she or isn’t she?’

A quick run over her tummy by my vet Paul Kelly, estimated seven which subsequently turned out to be spot on (… definitely one to remember if I’m taking bets in future)….

So now we could tentatively plan ahead.

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The heaviness of her abdomen eventually slowed her down and in her final week she was happy to take her walks at a jaunty trot, leaving the mad spaniel to chase away ahead in the woods at Killeen.

As her time for whelping approached she sought out places where she felt safe and away from the other dogs. The big bright blue crate which had carried her half way across the world six months previously was where she spent much of her time sleeping in the days prior to the arrival of her puppies. Maybe it was because it was the one place which bound her to all that had been familiar and safe in her life before coming to Ireland.

The temperature drop on Monday again was the only single clue that I could be certain labour was not far off. She didn’t pace, was never restless, didn’t dig to China and not a single newspaper was shredded in the delivery of these puppies….her labour followed in  the same calm no nonsense way that she had set out since mating.

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The most valuable lesson I learned from observing and being part of watching Carlotta and her family thrive and grow was just how valuable an “easy” whelping bitch is. The calmness and maturity she displayed throughout her pregnancy and labour followed through in the raising of her puppies.

Now just nine weeks on, all of the puppies except two have gone to their new homes. I have the pleasure of holding, squeezing and loving the final two until August after which they travel to Denmark and Germany where their prospective owners eagerly await their arrival.

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I will watch their lives with interest, wondering whether Mother or Father’s genes will shine through more and hoping we here at Riverrrun have been able to give them the very best start to lead long healthy lives loved by their families.

Thank you to all the new owners of these wonderful puppies, and my sincere gratitude to Mecha Roizman of Sailorsbays kennels who took a chance on me and entrusted me with her precious brown girl, Carlotta .

Becoming a Field Trial Groupie….

 

From the outside looking in I never had much time for field trials. As a sport it never gripped me in a way that shooting and hunting with a dog in the conventional way did.

I mean I owned a breed anyway that I believed didn’t naturally submit to a lot of the pressure that handling, control and rigourous field trial training required. The Chessies performed and worked better when left to their own devices in the shooting field.

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But then last year, while researching a piece on how to make up a Field trial champion, a Dual champion and a Full champion in Ireland, I was forced to take a closer look at a sport that in truth I had little faith or belief in; a sport that I felt had digressed away from what was required of a dog in the working field and become an elitist sport for a very tiny percentage of the Retriever world. Trials, I believed, had gone above and beyond the call of duty in relation to the level of obedience and control required to win an Open stake….. And I wondered that if trials had been developed as a template from which all working stock should be gauged, how was it that they seemed to favour one breed and more so only a certain ‘type’ within that breed ?

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What would it mean if someone were to concentrate soley on developing a Chesapeake for trialling as has happened in Labradors? Is it possible to continue to hold the middle ground and have dogs competing at high levels in both the show and field trial worlds? Or would the necessity to specialise in trials force a  breed split as has happened to many other of the retriever, spaniel and setter breeds ? And then if that happened which ‘type’ within that breed split  is a better representative of what defines that breed ? Is it the dog that adapts to work in the ever changing world of shooting and fieldsports ? Or is it the dog that remains true to a breed standard that was laid down over a hundred years ago and modified only slightly even though everything around that standard has moved on and changed?

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In the beginning I really wanted to see where the limitations of field trials lay so that I could justify reasons, I guess, as to why my own beloved breed and many of the other retriever breeds  failed so miserably to compete in them with much success.

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The fatigue of a long summer season of dog shows , gundog working tests and training days was settling on my  shoulders when Bertie and I began our Winter journey as Field Trial groupies….  I was more than  ready to pick up the game carrier, put away my whistle and follow my dogs where their noses told them go in the hunt to find pheasant.

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Instead we found ourselves following Jed, Roxy, Paddy and Ripple, all dogs I had come to respect and admire from competing against them through the summer months of working tests. We travelled to the most obscure parts of the country, in all sorts of weather and always with a middle of the night alarm call that would put the most hardened wildfowler to shame.

We only managed to follow three trials but these dogs and handlers run the circuit from September to the end of January. In the run up to the Championships in December they may compete up to three times a week…many, many times they fail in their quest to succeed but they simply move on to the next trial and try again…..that’s a lot of pressure, a lot of time and a lot of money…

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Every trial was different. The grounds and formats varied greatly. Walk up on partridge in Bracken Hill required good  marking skills and the ability to hold a postage stamp tight area and hunt. If I ever had doubts about whether a field trial dog could face cover, they were put to rest in Connolly when in the middle of the dense Coillte plantations these dogs  never hesitated when asked to produce birds from the thick mess of brambles in boggy ground. And finally the Broadmeadows trial at Slane showed that they could take on the River Boyne in full winter flow and win.

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These dogs could deal with the pressure of sitting under the guns as three hundred birds flew, fell and fluttered over their heads. They picked wounded runners mid-drive without the temptation of switching game, or haring off after another bird in flight

It seemed as if this ‘Elite’ squad of highly trained dogs could do everything but rather than being disappointed that Field trials weren’t as limiting as I had hoped; I found instead that I was drawn to the possibility that perhaps aiming towards this level of controlled precision could be an asset rather than an incumberence to my breed.

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There is such a thing as a dog having too much game sense.

Bertie was all that I had to give it a go and get a feel for this sport that I still didn’t fully understand.  I knew too well that starting a trialling career with a dog that has had six working seasons under his belt was asking a lot, maybe too much, from the outset.
There is such a thing as a dog having too much game-sense and knowing their job too well. All those winters watching birds, learning which one flew on without shot and which ones were possibly wounded, being let run in on birds that hit the ground injured before they disappeared into heavy cover or down river on a strong current. Now I was asking this dog to hold himself back, go against every single instinct he had learned to trust in pursuit of game and to hand over control completely and utterly to me.

Our first trial in November was a four hour drive to Kerry and all I was aiming for was for him to sit steady through a drive. He did,  he  sat through a drive quietly and without running in. He wrong-birded on his first retrieve but we had achieved our aim and that is all I could or would ask of him for now.

Our second trial was held on ground he has worked on over the last six years, since he was eight months old. It was a novice trial at Shelton. I entered this trial as a courtesy to the shoot captain but fully expected to be relieved of my armband before the horn blew at the end of the drive. The temptation to run in would be just too great as he knew which birds he would have been traditionally ‘allowed’ go for without being asked.

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From the deepest pit of my being I prayed that luck would come our way, that the drive would not be too long and that the birds would somehow fall everywhere else except around where we stood. They came, they flew, they fell ….everywhere…..they fluttered into the gorse in front of us and wheeled at head height crashing into the brambles behind. Somehow, by some miracle, Bertie stayed put and finally when every ounce of adrenalin had drained from my body our judge uttered those immortal words, ” you may put your leads on now and relax”. We had done it and I don’t think anyone could quite understand why, when Bertie wrong-birded on his first retrieve again I came away from the line with the biggest grin on my face.

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Mental strength and tractability, two traits I will value in future.

So in the end was I swayed? Did I find the answers to my questions?  I think I did. I discovered that only if you want it to be is Field trialling an elitist sport. I discovered a group of intensely committed hardworking people completely dedicated to producing the best dog for the ever evolving realm of field sports. Yes, field trials may have their limitations, perhaps over handling can compensate for a dog with lesser scenting ability and perhaps the retriever breeds more apt for air-scenting and those bred to work unaided will never feature in huge numbers at the top level of field trials. However, I think trials succeed best in finding dogs that have mental strength, that are tractable and that can bend rather than break to pressure.

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Trials are only elitist if you want them to be.

I found that even with our limited time preparing for trials this season Bertie’s level of competence in the field was not hindered but rather added to my pleasure of bringing him to the working field…..to have a dog capable of sitting out a drive without fear of him running after every bird that falls, to be able to call him off a bird if needed and to follow a walking gun behind the beating line without the heart stopping fear of him running through the drive is something that makes me very proud both of my dog and the breed he represents.

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Preparing for trials enhanced our enjoyment in the working field.

I can see us continuing in our field trial groupie role. We have much to learn and enjoy. My plans now include field trials in the future development and training of my dogs as even working towards a novice level will allow me to see how they deal with pressure. I will always keep their roots firmly in what they were bred for as I think, ( but I could be proven wrong again ), the luxury of having a breed that straddles both show and working worlds has kept this breed, for the most part, unchanged since the inception of its standard.

“It is not the critic who counts. Not the man who points out how the strong man stumbled or where the doer of deeds could have done better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs and comes short again and again; who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause. Who, at the best, knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those timid souls who know neither victory or defeat.”

Theodore Roosevelt (1858 – 1919)