Uisce….when she is good she is very, very good but…..

Starting formal gundog training.

Starting formal gundog training.

I wanted to wait until shooting season finished before applying a little pressure on Uisce and starting her on the road with regards to formal gundog training.

She spent the Winter being slowly introduced to everything that revolves around gundog work. She was  allowed a certain freedom by just following and watching the older dogs. I stayed away from exposing her to the gunline. It was too early in her education, I felt, for her to make the connection between gunshot and birds falling. Instead we kept to the back of the drives where she could hear gunshot in the distance and follow the older dogs as they swept the area after each drive.

Every dog is different in how they learn and educate themselves about the way things work and Uisce is no different. Watching her around the shoot at Shelton I could see she had no inhibitions in relation to gunshot. She was eager to enter cover and follow scent but has been slower to pick feather. Now if this was my first gundog I would probably worry  but hindsight is a luxury and one of the best working dogs I’ll ever own is Chester who only started retrieving at 18 months and another well known Chesapeake in the UK  refused to pick birds for her  first 2 years as a working dog. Both these dogs went on to win open level CBRC working tests in the UK.

For Uisce I was keener to get the basics such as heelwork and steadiness instilled first. This is a part of training I feel I have glossed over in the past with my other chessies. They are a breed that flattens easily if exposed to too much drill work. So getting the balance right between maintaining momentum but retaining control was going to be my challenge this time round.

We are now into our second week of basic training. Uisce will now loose lead walk and has just started walking to heel off-lead. I can set her on a memory land mark retrieve up to 150 meters and she is taking a perfect line. This morning I laid her first unseen and when I set her up she took the line without hestitation. Hand delivery is improving, again this is something I prefer to reel in slowly. I like them to run back quickly and parade it rather than insisting immediately on a clean hand delivery. I teach the hold command seperately which tightens up the hand delivery either way.

Of course she wouldn’t be a Chesapeake unless there was some kink to iron through in her training and with Uisce, ( as her name implies ), its water……following on from her experiences last summer at the lake I spent the Winter taking her to a small river, allowing her in for a swim and then insisting on a recall before she became too absorbed in her swimming. She has improved but before I take her to open water again I need to know I have one hundred per cent success on her recall if required. To do this I have had to take her water training back a step from where I would normally start a young dog.

The unnatural levels of rainwater have left almost every field in our area with their own small ponds. In most cases the water is no more than knee deep but this has been perfect as a training tool to teaching Uisce that the same focus is required in water as on land. We have started by simply walking to heel through the pond. She is rewarded with a treat if she walks quietly without trying to splash or water bite. I intend to work this up to a level where she can do walking hold and from there retrieving fluidly.

So far I like what I see, there are some dogs that you walk away from a training session feeling like its been a battle. Every now and then, though, you get a dog that brings the right attitude to their work and immediately you feel that both of you are reading from the same page and each training session you walk away with a feeling of elation…I had this feeling with Bertie and now perhaps my little Miss Naughty may be quite nice…..

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Little Miss Naughty

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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..

Lough Sheelan..the trials of a wildfowler.

Dawn was just peeping from under the covers of darkness when we left the slipway and headed out across the lake. All around us the lake was stirring. I could hear drake mallard calling and the steady slap, slap, slap of swans wings as they lifted off the water in front of us.

I had left  home at 5am and headed north to Cavan where I met my friend Malcolm. He had very kindly offered to take me out in his boat to hunt duck. It was the coldest morning of the year. The car temperature refused to rise above zero degrees as I followed his van along the winding and incredibly icy back roads to where we would be able to launch the boat from.

Sunrise

All reports this year were that Sheelan had been shooting well and as we moved out across the water it looked promising. The sky was getting lighter now and in the distance we could start to make out the silhouettes of small clusters of duck as they flew along the top of the water. There was plenty of movement about. Cormorants and swans joined the traffic in the sky, then off to our right rose a flock of geese, twenty to thirty in number. A rare sight on this particular lake. Malcolm had only ever seen them once before and he’s been working these waters for over twenty years. They are protected here in southern Ireland so off the menu today.

The cold air whipped around my face, I pulled Winnie close to me and dug my fingers into her deep, deep fur in an effort to warm them. We turned south, then ahead of us Malcolm saw what he had been watching for. He pointed in the direction of a bay about half a mile ahead. I peered into the distance and in the half light could just make out the water breaking..movement…then the sky ahead filled as three to four hundred duck, (black and whites), rose off the water and wheeled away. This is where we would decoy from, in the hope that the birds would return in an hour or so to where they had been feeding. At least that was the theory….

Malcolm pulled the boat in and dropped Winnie and I off with our guns,chairs, camera and cartridges. He then set about spreading his decoys, a cold and time consuming task but necessary if we were to have any chance of luring birds back in.

Winnie studies Malcolm closely as he sets out the decoys.

Once the decoys were out and the boat was tied in among some trees we settled down and waited. Wildfowling over decoys is, I think, like a winter version of fishing. The odds are all in favour of the duck. It requires tremendous patience and stamina both on the part of the hunter and the dog but if the result is good it is most definitely worth every minute spent almost always in harsh weather conditions. It is  the cold that is one of the primary reasons why duck would move around a lake this morning, we hoped. These conditions should have been near perfect and then to cap it all a fog moved in across the water. This would keep the birds low and  they would be less likely to see us behind the decoys when they came within range.

My favourite picture of the morning.

The silence of these places is one of my favourite things about going to such lengths to get here. Looking out across the lake this morning was enchanting. As the fog rolled out, covering the shorelines and masking the islands all that was left within view were a family of swans sleepily going about their morning chores. All around us the world was going about its business but here, at this moment, wrapped in a blanket of fog we could forget all our wordly worries for a while.

Our family of swans that kept us company for the morning.

About five hundred metres out, coming low across the lake was a flock of six black and whites. They were heading straight for our decoys. We crouched down behind the netting and waited. Closer and closer they came. When they came just over the decoys we rose and fired. One hit the water hard about two hundred meters out and dived, never to resurface. Not a retrieve to send the dog for.

Another hour passed, nothing came. Our swan family had tucked their heads beneath their wings and slept. Kingfishers darted past and Winnie sat longingly looking at the decoys in the hope that something would come. We saw mallard in the distance and some goldeneye that half thought of joining our decoy group but at the last second thought better of it. Then, all of a sudden there was a whir of wings to our left and two teal made to drop down on the decoys. I couldn’t get a clear shot but Malcolm took one cleanly, knocking it about one hundred metres out beyond the decoys. Winnie, watched and waited to be sent. I gave the command and she slipped silently into the water. A nice retrieve after a long, cold morning of patiently waiting.

A well desreved retrieve after much patient waiting.

After four hours we quit, our toes were suitably numb and family committments beckoned. Our plan hadn’t worked as well as we’d thought. As Malcolm pulled the boat out into the water I spotted four black and whites coming in from the north. They were headed straight for the decoys, I loaded my gun again and crouched down, alas it was not to be my morning as they peeled off at the last minute when the boat emerged from under the trees….ah well thats fowling and they’ll live to fight another day.

I am incredibly grateful to Malcolm and indeed to Lawrence, Emmet and Pat without all of whom I would never have the  opportunity to shoot these lakeshores. An indepth knowledge of the waters they hunt is needed, not only from a safety point of view but also knowing the habits and movements of the birds that use these huge expanses of water and knowing which winds suit which lakes is learnt only through years of observation and intimate knowledge of the lakes in question. I witnessed first hand this morning how quickly a fog can come over the water and that in itself presents its own perils.So thank you again for giving me the chance to witness Winter at her best!

Shelton Abbey Shoot

The Sweep drive on the road to the prison.

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!

Mossy and Des emerging from the cover on the tailings.

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.

A view of the Oaks with some of the tailings in the foreground.

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.

Bertie, Winnie and Chester after the last drive a couple of years ago.

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.

Staffords…the cover on both sides of the path is dense bramble.