The Hunt….

Our Breed standard calls for a Chesapeake to be .. ‘equally proficient in land and water’…. and although their reputation as a strong tenacious swimmer may be legendary their skills as a competent upland game dog are often underestimated…..the following tale might sway your opinion….

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Through the old stone wall piers and onto the lane, the dogs wandering just ahead of me , we were just short of where my friend Joe and his lab Solo were seated, when Uisce dived into the ditch on the right and up the other side of the sheep wire fence rose a  wounded cock pheasant.

His wing beats were laboured, going too fast for the speed and level of flight he was at, and very quickly the effort was too much and I watched him drop down and run the fence line towards the gate into the field beside the rushy bottoms. The banked hedge meant that his path was not visible to either dog.

Uisce was still buried in the cover, so I took Bertie to the corner of the field where a stile made the stock fence  safer to cross and sent him back along the fence line where I had seen the bird drop and run. He took a good line and when he hit the point where I had seen the bird drop  his lowered head and quickening pace told me he had found the trail.And so the hunt was on….

Half way down the field , just past the gate that turns into Foley’s field he pulled up abruptly and a frustrated bark told me this was most likely the point  where the bird could  have stalled but stock fence topped with barbed wire pulled tight along a hawthorn hedge was preventing my dog from  progressing any further. I caught up with him quickly, and brought him back fifty meters to where the fence was not so tight to the ground, guided him under and  then from there he retracked back to where he left the point of scent inside the fence….

Again the bird broke cover and into flight, this time though Bertie was determined no hedge or fence was going to hold him back either and he busted through the hawthorn keeping pace underneath the bird as they headed off across the field  towards the maize crop that bordered the narrow wood. Uisce had caught up with me by this time and we both watched from the gateway as the drama  continued to unfold across the field.

Just short of the crop the bird dropped to the ground but continued to run with Bertie closing in  on every stride. One last quick dip to the right by that wily bird threw Bertie off balance and he tumbled head over heels across the boggy bottom  ground and the bird was away again.

If the bird made cover now , it would be a much more difficult task to find him as the dog would have to sift through the combination of scents coming from the several birds that no doubt had begun to gather in the crop at the end of the drive.

Uisce had him marked and I sent her in pursuit…off across the field she went at full gallop. The bird reached the crop and disappeared but the Chessies were literally on his tailfeathers as the crop swallowed all three.The chase continued through the crop as maize  was thrashed by two forty kilogram Chessies intent on keeping pace with the agile bird.

Then everything stopped and within a few seconds the crop parted and Uisce emerged with the wounded pheasant held securely in her mouth and a very tired Bertie in her wake. Head up she saw me and picked up her pace where the bird was delivered safely to hand.

We made our way back to where Joe and Solo waited…Joe rose from his seated position took the bird from me and with no words spoken shook my hand and acknowledged both dogs with a quiet salute. We gathered up our game carriers, called to our dogs and as the winter sun dipped below the level of the treeline we headed for home.

 

 

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

 

Two men went to the marsh…..

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Two men went to a marsh, they were looking for a wildfowling dog and had been told this was the place they might find one.
Both were experienced hunters of upland game and had spent many a winters day following their spaniels across the midland bogs and thick gorse ditches in search of snipe and pheasant. They had enjoyed the high challenging birds of the driven shoot and watched with admiration the dogs that waited patiently and worked silently and almost unnoticed as they gently and tenderly retrieved the birds that fell around their pegs.
Times changed the bogs were lost to the building boom where midland villages became commuting towns. Work brought the men to the southern coast and wildfowling became their sport of choice.
The life of a wildfowler is not an easy one. Only the most dogged and determined hunter , ( some might say marginally insane ), will rise before dawn in winter, look out their window and pump their fists in celebration that a force 8 gale is blowing outside.  Bring on high tides, heavy swell, dark cloudy skies , lots of wind and the wildfowler is in his element.. Yes, the life of a wildfowler is not an easy one and the dog that accompanies him or her must be as resolute and determined to hunt and retrieve those birds as his master is.
For that first year along the foreshores in the south their plucky little spaniels coped well. On the mornings when the birds came in on a low calm tide ,and there were a good many of those mornings, the dogs rarely lost a bird in the heavy reeds that surrounded the marsh edges. It was when the full moon tides coupled with winter storms and freezing winds came that, although the little dogs worked hard, birds were lost and on one or two occasions dogs were dragged away with  strong currents and almost lost in the process.
The men  had grown to love the wildness and unpredictability of this type of hunting but realised that if they were to continue they needed a  dog with more strength and substance to deal with the high tide waters and the excruciating cold as they waited out those long hours along the marsh edges for birds to come in…..
On that morning, in late November, winter was in one of her worst moods. A north-east wind bellowed down the shoreline, rain mixed with sleet pelted hard against the windshield where they pulled in to meet their fellow wildfowling companions intent on sufferance for the hours to come.

Dogs weaved in and out among cars and humans, tails wagging, caught up in the anticipation and excitement of what was going to come. Their silhouettes and body language instantly recognisable as Spaniels and labs. Both were breeds they were familiar with and respected and admired.

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The dogs they had been told about, though, sat alone in the back of their owners open pick up truck.  Chief, the male,  and his sister Kuma were Chesapeakes. They showed little interest in the business that involved the spaniel meet and greet. Their amber eyed gaze shifted instead, between what their master was doing and out past the parked cars  into the inky distance towards the sea, noses testing the wind for any signs of what the morning’s hunt might bring. There was an aloofness and indifference about their bearing, not unfriendly, just a sense that  being here was not a social visit but a duty to their Master. With their size, broad muscular chests and thick wavy oily coats their stature and physique left no doubt that no matter how long it took or  how hard the task this pair had every confidence in accomplishing what was to be asked of them..

A call from their master and  the dogs leaped from the back of the truck with surprising athleticism for such big dogs and with tails wagging and a houndy ‘roo, roo’ they joined the procession into the marsh.

Four guns spread out below the seawall that ran in a C- shape around the marsh, breaking only at one point where the wall had long ago collapsed and allowed the tide to fill the salt marsh twice daily.

Tucked in on the southside base of the seawall there was relative protection from the relentless wind although no such respite was given from that cold driving rain. The group settled down, dug their hands deep into their pockets and waited.  The dogs sat alert facing into the wind and rain,never wavering from their posts as sentinals;  staring instead through half closed eyes off into that middle distance again, noses raised to the wind as if challenging it to blow harder.

Nothing changed that was apparent, except a slight shift in the body language of Chief and an almost imperceptible sound like a licking of the lips. It was enough ,though, to make their Master cast aside all conversation, gather his gun and peer into that band of purple half light that promised dawn was coming.

Over the seawall, silent, swift and flying low into the wind came a flock of teal. As the first shots rang out across the marsh there was just enough light to make out the silhouettes of two as they faltered, peeled away from the retreating flock and dived into the marsh in front.

A single command to Chief and he was off , over the wall and disappeared into the darkness.  Whether a bird would remain lost or be found depended on him, his nose, and his desire to use it. Darkness and the impenetrable sea wall precluded any help offered by his master. The bird was found and as he brought it to hand Kuma was sent to seek out the second bird that fell. Their master never rushed them, he had no idea how far they needed to range to find that bird but as long as they stayed out there in the dark hunting they were left to figure it out for themselves. Kuma seemed to have had a harder job finding the second bird, they could hear her splashing through the channels as she worked, snuffling as her nose figured out the myriad of scents that lay within the mesh of marsh grasses, but eventually this bird was also brought back to the bag. Both dogs again settled into their role of sentinals and watched the ever lightening skies for movement.

Sunrise never came that morning it was swallowed instead by an angry mix of grey and purple clouds and as the storm strengthened and the tide rose higher the birds moved from the mudflats in the center of the estuary to the shelter of the inland channels and streams for feeding.  His companions on either side filled their bags but alas apart from the early teal nothing came our man’s way.

The measure of a good wildfowling dog is not in the volume of birds they retrieve, ( most serious wildfowlers will only shoot what they can bring home to the pot ), but in their persistence and game finding skills of working wounded birds on difficult water.  An experienced wildfowling dog will work the current to their advantage, not waste energy fighting it  and steadily follow that bird. They know that once a shot is fired and bird down the place to look for a bird is not the sky but the water and the reeds around the water. They will doggedly pursue a diving duck until called off or the duck gives up but mostly they have to learn to be patient, to endure the harshest weather that winter can throw at them and still wait.

When the tide was at it’s highest that morning, the Chessie owner and his dogs were called to the end of the seawall by one of the spaniel men. The channel here was at it’s widest and the tide was rushing in at a bracing 4-5 knots /min. The plucky little spaniel had made several brave attempts to negotiate the increasingly strong current in an attempt to cross  the water where a pair of teal had been shot and landed on the island. A high bank at the narrowest part of the channel prevented any dog from taking the shortest route across so the only option was to face them into the current and aim for the stoney point at the end of the island.

Kuma was to be sent first, her master aimed her for the point of the island. She slid into the water and faced the current and the wind that whipped the water high into frothy peaks around her. It took her a minute to gauge the water but she settled into the current, lifted her head to peer above the waves, aimed for the island and engaged her powerful shoulders to push through that heavy current. Once she banked on the far side the north wind that worked so hard against her on her swim across now became her ally in helping her find that lost bird. As she returned Chief was sent to retrieve the second teal.

He took a similar line to his sister, pushing against the incoming tide as he made his way to the island point. The wind again guided him to the point where Kuma had found her bird but a quick search told him there was nothing there. Without guidance he hunted on, lifting his head intermittantly to test the wind for any hint of scent, retracing his steps to recheck where that bird may be or may have moved from. Then, as before, the men could see his body language change with an increased waving of the tail and nose to the ground he took off through the reeds  towards the back of the island and out of sight. The men waited, they could hear him splashing through the deep channels that cut through the marsh bed, the bird was a ‘diver’ it would take time and perserverence to bring this one to hand.

The Chessie owner had learned to trust his dogs, he knew they were serious about the role they played when hunting wildfowl with him. They had long deciphered the difference between a wounded bird down that was worth hunting for and a bird that will live to flight another day. He watched and  waited, with the same patience that his dogs had waited out the morning with him he gave his dog time to do his job.

Then the reeds on the far bank parted and Chief was there with his hard won teal in his mouth. He slipped into the water,  allowed the current to carry him across and made his way to the end of the sea-wall. He shook the icy sea waters from his thick brown coat and hesitated as he scanned the line of  fowlers and their dogs waiting on the shoreline. None, in his eyes, deserved to receive this bird save one. His eyes searched again beyond them to the top of the seawall and with one final bound and a slight wag of his tail he made his way through the waiting crowd to where his master waited.

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Does too much control impede Gamesense?

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Trusting Bertie to develop gamesense.

There are no Field trial running dogs on the picking-up team at Shelton and when I took Bertie out on the Shannon for the first time this season I remembered why this might be.

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His Summer spent running advanced level retriever working tests both in Ireland and the UK had brought  a level of control in his work that I have never before achieved with my dogs. He had learned to shut out all distraction when taking a line, to respond promptly to my whistle when I asked him to stop and to hunt a specific area, to take a back cast, a right or a left cast and to sit quietly and steady in line. Yes,all those hours of training had taught him to trust me implicitly when it came to finding a retrieve but now that gameplay was about to change.

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The back of the Oaks.

If I wanted to continue the winter season with this level of control I knew, quite simply, he would be unable to participate fully in all that is required by a picking up dog at Shelton. The cover here is just too dense and a dog in pursuit of game is quickly out of sight. Lines are lost  as the most efficient way to cover ground and hunt game is to quarter freely, working the nose for the slightest whiff of scent.

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Holding just enough control.

As I’ve said I had asked Bertie to trust me in everything through every aspect of his training during the summer but now I was going to have to take a step back, drop the reins and trust him . A dog now has to pull together every ounce of his natural hunting ability to trace and track game. He must also develop a skill that will save him much time and energy when it comes to differentiating between birds that are wounded and birds that are not as the cover behind the gunline will hold both types of bird. This skill is called ‘gamesense’ and a truly effective working dog will have developed this skill over many seasons.

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Winnie, an accomplished gamefinder

So as we approached our season for picking up at Shelton I knew the balance of free hunting  versus control was going to be tipped heavily in favour of the former. Steadiness I wanted to hold on to but straight lines and response to whistle once committed to a bird would slide in favour of allowing my dog to figure out how and where wounded birds fall amongst the mess of brambles and gorse which makes up the bulk of Shelton cover.  And so this is where working dogs at Shelton and field trial dogs must part company for the winter months.

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Cover here is tough.

The area behind the Oaks drive, known as the tailings equates, roughly to the size of three football pitches. That’s three pitches covered with a mix of heavy gorse and bramble . The birds are coming off the Oaks at approximately the height of the top of a football stand and taking wind, rain and sunlight into account are likely to glide in anywhere among that mass of undergrowth. Once they hit the gorse, if wounded, they know the area well  having spent the previous summer roaming freely through that vast expanse of wilderness. They can navigate quickly through a of maze of tracks and runs which they’ve created beneath the cover during those months and a wounded bird can be lost quickly if a dog does not have the knowledge, drive and desire to find it.

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The desire to retrieve at all costs must override almost everything else as this type of cover will take its toll on a dog when time and time again they face the onslaught of thorns beneath the brambles.  The fairest way to ask a dog to work this type of ground is to allow them the freedom to figure out the nuances of gamefinding on their own. By allowing them to run in on the flight path of a winged bird once it’s passed the gunline but before it hits the ground they learn to follow its flight path and figure out how to run round the banks of bramble rather than having to work straight through them. Or following a bird directly into the gorse is easier on a dog than asking him to hunt blindly after a drive has finished. They learn then that this is where birds go and when asked to hunt and clear the area after a drive heading deep into cover on just the mere scent of a wounded bird becomes second nature to them.

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I found losing control difficult at first but as the season progressed and I allowed Bertie that freedom all that wonderful promise of instinct and natural gamefinding ability coupled with a certain level of control began to emerge. I wanted a dog that had all of his father Chester’s uncanny game sense and desire to find birds at all costs but enough control to sit steady and focussed when under the pressure of a drive. And I don’t think I would have been able to achieve this without that deep grounding of steadiness throughout the summer months. In the course of allowing this loosening of control he did go through a stage of running in and completely ignoring my commands  but I was able to pull that control back , just a notch, to keep him just on the edge when all it took was a quick call of his name and he was off in pursuit of the bird he had marked.

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Chesapeakes are not a breed that naturally has the same level of self-control as the Field-trial bred Labrador. However, their natural inclination to figure things out for themselves and that gritty determination to retrieve game at all costs no matter what obstacle is thrown in their path be it heavy open water, estuarine currents or dense bramble makes them an invaluable asset when the name of the game is birds in the bag.

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Trust each other.

A dear old wildfowling friend of mine, John Battle, has a favourite saying in relation to working dogs, ‘we train our dogs to untrain them’, and perhaps that is true. What I learned, however, as we passed through the season is that  tight control over a working dog may impede  natural ability and instinct  and as a result the complete potential of that dog may never  really be uncovered. By allowing some loss of control and trusting my dog more I feel I got a better deal, a working partnership that I hope will endure for many more seasons to come.

Game Pie using Pheasant.

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A brace of birds is usual payment for working your dogs on a shoot.

The brace of pheasant I used for this pie were birds I received as payment for working my dogs on a shoot last Friday. They had hung too long for me as roasting birds so I decided to use the breasts and legs to make a game Pie.

After preparing the birds set them aside, turn the oven on to preheat  and make the pastry. Regular shortcrust pastry is fine. I used 12 oz self-raising flour to 6 0z full fat butter. Set aside to rest in a cool place.

Meanwhile chop an onion and at least 2 cloves of garlic. Peel and chop into fairly small pieces 2 potatoes.

Melt a generous knob of butter on a pan and add in the pheasant joints to brown. Remove from the heat to cool slightly and add in the onion and garlic to soften in the juices. Also add some chilli flakes, salt, pepper and Lea and Perrins Worchester sauce ( invaluable ingredient)…

Remove the onion and add a carton of the small bacon pieces from Lidl. These are great as they come ready chopped, have plenty of rind and are slightly smoked.

Shred the meat into smallish pieces and add it and the onion mix to the bacon pieces. Pour in a generous slug of Tawny Port and about 300mls of chicken or pheasant stock. Turn the heat down and allow the sauce to reduce slightly.

Par boil the potatoes.

Line a deep pie dish with some of the pastry and once the potatoes are ready add them to the meat mix and pour everything into the pastry lined pie dish.

Cover with a lid of pastry, glaze with some melted butter and place in the pre-heated oven at 180 degrees celcius for about an hour.

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The true test of a great pie is will it hold shape the next day??

Remove from the oven and serve with a suitable French Red Wine. There will be quite an excess of juices left when serving hot straight from the oven.

Of course the true  test of a good Game pie is the following day when all of those excess juices have soaked into the pastry crust and the layers hold their shape when cut through….it did 🙂 and my recommendation for today’s cold pie is a deliciously cold bottle of Jarv’s homemade Apple Cider made using some of the apples from our own trees. Bliss….

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Jarv’s homemade cider.

When man created the Chessie ….

When Man created the Chesapeake Bay Retriever it was for places like the River Shannon.

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Its name, taken from the Irish goddess ‘Sionna’, means wise river, a name that certainly is reflected in the secrets it holds as you travel its length on a cold Autumn morning. When the skies above and around are filled with thousands of wildfowl, the depth and variety of which is unparallelledd anywhere else on this island, you wonder what is it that attracts them to this particular place.

From where the Shannon rises in the Cuilcagh mountains of Cavan it cuts a path through the very heart of Ireland on its way south to the Atlantic. Separating the east of Ireland from west of Ireland, passing through eleven counties, fed by many substantial tributary rivers and widening its girth at three points to form the lakes of Lough Allen, Lough Ree and Lough Derg. It runs for almost three hundred kilometers and most of that is through quiet, unpopulated countryside.

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The secret to the river Shannon’s success in drawing in such diverse numbers of birds most likely is due to her shallow basin. This has prevented massive use of the river for industrial development and also much of the surrounding land is bog land thus preventing large scale intensive farming. Once the first heavy rains of Autumn blow in, the Shannon spills her banks and spreads for vast distances across the surrounding countryside sometimes reaching widths of a couple of miles.

A dog worked over this type of flooded bog land does not require great speed or knowledge of straight lines. Strength, soundness of limbs, endurance and the tenacity to stay on a bird when all the elements of nature are fighting against him are much more valuable in a wildfowling dog in this particular environment.

When I arrived to my friend Pat’s house last Tuesday morning the river level was at a tricky stage, it was not quite high enough yet to decoy on the floodplains, our only option was to take the boat and walk into spots along the way. I wasn’t expecting much, the weather, which seems to be usual for my forays wildfowling, was bright and sunny but it was wonderful to be out in such beautiful surroundings with my dog and gun for the first time this season.

By mid-morning we had pushed off from shore and Bertie’s tail beat a  steady rhythm against the side of the boat as he snorted in great gulps of air, his eyes scanning the reed banks for movement as we clipped along the water.

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Even on its calmest days, like last Tuesday, the Shannon waters’ demand respect. As I looked down into the peaty waters that flowed past the boat a shiver ran through me. The wide expanse of water allows the slightest breeze to whip up a swell. The prevailing winds coming from the south west and the rivers current, which is flowing south, are at constant odds with each other.

There was no shortage of birds to be seen either. Migration had started and the low fields on either side of the river were filled with lapwing, starlings and golden plover. All rose in one single mass as we passed and synchronised their erratic flights making it difficult to my untrained eye to pick out the goldens from the lapwings and the starlings. They were here in their thousands. I could see vast numbers swoop in black bands against the grey sky in the distance. We saw reed buntings, mute swans, whooper swans and  all the while on either side of us, but just tantalisingly out of range, flocks of  mallard and teal got up from the reeds and saluted us as we passed.

Pat has spent his entire life hunting and fishing the Shannon and having somebody who knows these type of waters well is essential for this type of shooting. Not only to have knowledge of where the birds will drop in to feed but more importantly knowing the water and all the factors which influence the river such as wind direction, surrounding land and movement of the birds. One foot placed in the wrong spot can have catastrophic consequences and I’m not just talking about a soggy sock!! When the river floods over bog land what looks like three foot of water is in reality an extra two foot below as your foot sinks through the peat. The effort required to walk this type of terrain certainly made decoying a more appealing option.

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Our first bird in the bag that morning was a female mallard. We had just pulled into reeds after seeing a group of teal lift along with some lapwing. A good spot for feeding, and on this occasion Pat’s instincts were spot on. A duck and drake mallard wheeled off to our left. One clean shot brought the female down in the field beyond the reeds. I sent Bertie and he launched himself from the boat and waded through the reeds . The water here was chest height but the peat bottom made it doubly difficult. It would have been almost impossible for either Pat or myself to wade through that type of ground. Bertie needed to use a combination of drive from his rear and strength to pull from his front to keep his momentum going as he worked a path through to dry land. He needed no reminder as to where the bird fell and swiftly picked the duck for  His first retrieve of the season.

We had just passed Clonmacnoise Abbey and as we came round a bend in the river there was movement everywhere. The fields on either side were low and green and had attracted large flocks of lapwing and plover, the wind carried their high pitched screech up towards us. Swans were feeding in the shallows behind the reeds. This looked like a promising spot. We edged the boat into the reeds again, cut the engine and waited. It didn’t take long before a group of Wigeon passed just within range. The first hit the water with two more winged and flying on to the far bank.

The bird on the water was stone dead, not going anywhere, but it was the obvious one that Bertie marked. However, the two wounded birds on the far bank were the more important retrieves to take. We  moved the boat out and retrieved the bird from the water en route to the far bank. Pat had a rough mark on both birds. The first was easy, I spotted its head up before we reached shore and cast Bertie from the boat, hunted him to the area, he found it easily and brought it to hand. We pulled the boat to shore and walked in from there. Finding solid footing was difficult. Each step found my leg disappearing to knee level. I sent Bertie on ahead to a fence line where Pat had seen the bird come down and asked him to hunt from there. He picked up scent quickly and hunted a tight area but lost it again. I cast him left down towards the river where he dropped his nose to follow a trail and there just along the shoreline we found our duck.

Friday November 1st.

River Duck on the Avoca river.

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This is a completely different type of water but equally as challenging. The basin is deep, carved out of the granite Wicklow hills and fed by numerous fast flowing rivers. By the time the river reaches the point where the Shelton drive begins it is wide and fast as it hurries towards the Irish sea. The loose gravel bed means the water channels shift and swirl developing sweeping narrow streams within the river that are flowing at twice the speed of the remainder of the water.

As we set ourselves up beyond the gun line on the river bank it was almost four o clock. The dogs had been working solidly, retrieving driven pheasant, since ten o clock that morning. The light was fading fast and temperatures were dropping.

The dog’s knowledge of how the currents work is important, they need to know not to fight against the charging white water. An experienced dog will slip into the current with little effort then turn into it and work slowly across. The fact that they may be carried downstream as they work forward will not bother them , in fact many times they will calmly thread water focussing on the river ahead and waiting for the current to carry that bird to them. Once retrieved an experienced dog will go with the current until it carries it close to the bank, which again will be forty- fifty meters below its starting point. The drive is fast, intense and finished in thirty minutes. In that period of time any single dog working the water here will have made a minimum of ten retrieves.

Only the strongest dogs on the shoot will work the waters at the widest and fastest point in the river. It is exhausting cold work for a spaniel or some of the finely built Labradors who remain on the riverbank but are kept busy with any duck that land in the cover there.

It is easy to see why the Chesapeake excels at this particular type of work and why it is so important that not only  their structure remains as it currently stands but also perhaps to a greater degree their strong mental attitude. The terrain they were built for gave no quarter to half hearted effort.   A strong front and sound rear drive is certainly an asset when a dog is pulling its body through the glue-like peat in pursuit of a retrieve along the banks of the Shannon but without an equal measure of bloodminded determination ( which Chessies possess in abundance), many more birds would be lost when tough retrieving is required.

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Our final bag on the Shannon yielded one mallard, three wigeon and two golden plover. I marinated the wigeon and mallard breasts in spices and orange juice. Roasted them for twenty minutes and then deep fried for a minute. Served with some sweet chilli dipping sauce….absolutely divine….

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..

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.

Winnie’s water retrieve.

Duck rising off the Tailings at Shelton

Duck rising off the Tailings at Shelton

It is a thought, universally acknowledged in the gundog world, that the most brilliant retrieves and work your dog does is for your eyes only. They prefer a gallery of viewers if they’re really going to mess up a retrieve, run in at the wrong time or run over a bird in plain view!!

Most of the work which our dogs undertake during the winter months consists of good ol’ solid, ploughing through muck and brambles in pursuit of birds type of work. Once in a while, however,  your dog does an amazing piece of work; it may not be the most stylish or polished performance ever seen but it is brilliant purely because it involves either gritty determination or ingenious gamefinding on the part of the dog and we, the handlers, can  stand back and exclaim aloud to each other,’ Wow! How did they do that?’ It’s what makes working our dogs such a pleasure.

Last sunday was one such moment. I had taken Winnie and Mossy to our spot along the river bank, behind the prison at Shelton Abbey. It was the final drive of the day, river duck. We had a good view of birds falling and dogs working up river as we watched the water flow on beneath us keeping an eye for any duck that had dropped past the dogs further up. It was a great oppurtunity to practice steadiness with Mossy.

The river Avoca looking towards the gunline.

The river Avoca looking towards the gunline.

Plenty fell but nothing came our way except one drake mallard. I saw him drop down behind the gravel bank just where the river sweeps round in an ‘S’ and gathers itself to a slower,deeper flow. He drifted in under some deadwood on the far bank and stayed put. I sent Winnie across, it’s about fifty metres wide here and although the current is strong the deeper water makes for a slightly easier swim than further up river where it rushes over the granite bed. She was able to take a straight line across without being dragged down stream. Just as she came in on the drake he found enough momentum in his wings and lifted off and up towards the pond at the tailings. I always feel disappointment for my dog when this happens, after putting in such an effort on the swim only to have a duck dive, or fly and the retrieve is lost. Winnie returned to her spot on the rocks beside myself and Mossy and we watched and waited but nothing else came our way.

The drive ended and, as I usually do , I worked the dogs along the bank back up towards the gun line searching for birds that may have fallen in the cover or drifted in under the bank while all the time watching for birds in the water. We found nothing.

Then we arrived out onto the gravel island where a group of my fellow picker’s up were standing. Across the river, tucked in under an overhanging bank was a drake mallard. It was an easy mark for the handlers but a blind for the dogs. Four dogs had tried and failed to swim the river at this point. It’s at it’s widest here, about seventy metres across, and although the water looks very manageable it is deceptively difficult. Most of the way  the dogs had to deal with a fairly manageable current, then about fifty metres out there was a channel of deeper faster water caused by the shifting gravel bed, a deep fast channel that was grabbing the dogs and no matter how hard they tried they were being swept sideways and carried down river. Young and inexperienced dogs will lose confidence easily if repeatedly pushed through water like this, particularly if they have not seen the bird fall.

I cast Winnie back, she took a good line initially then the further she swam out the stronger current took hold of her. I coaxed her on with my voice, letting her know that she was doing fine, giving her the confidence to take on the cold, hard, fast water. The current was carrying her further and further left but still she swam on, pumping those powerful front shoulders through the water. She reached the far bank and looked to me for direction. I cast her right. The current had pulled her about one hundred metres down river of where the drake lay tucked well under the bank overhang. All the way along the top of the bank she ran, using her nose for any clues as she went. She reached the point above where the drake was hidden from  her view. I stopped her and asked her to hunt. She worked the area well. Covering the ground around the area above where the duck lay. I steadied her at the edge of the bank, not wanting her to make the error of re-entering the water and missing the bird after all that effort. If she jumped the bank here she would have been carried back down river to where she’d started from. Thankfully that wonderful nose of hers, that’s found many a difficult duck, caught his scent. She leaned over, reached down and pulled him into her hold.

I think we often underestimate the difference a bird in a dog’s mouth can make to their balance. Winnie was about to re-enter the water where she had initially banked without any problems. The fast flow, however, left her uncertain and she changed her mind a couple of times and tried different points. None were suitable and she knew it. All this time she held that bird firmly in her grasp. I coaxed and called, she entered once and was pulled under. Duck in mouth, she resurfaced and returned to the bank to try again. I moved down river then, towards the end of the gravel island, calling her as I walked. This gave her the confidence she needed as she knew that the current would carry her down towards me.

Winnie returns with the drake after an epic swim.

Winnie returns with the drake after an epic swim.

So with one final leap of faith she launched herself from the bank and entered the water, disappeared under then bobbed with the current until she found leverage and reached the edge of the gravel island.

It took my breath away as I watched her long swim back. What a brave little brown dog. She trusted me to send her across the water and would not give up until the bird was brought back.

As a footnote, this type of retrieve is not one I would have expected a young dog to accomplish. Winnie knows this river well enough, having worked it for four years. Even so, I would not have thought less of her if she too had decided that the current was just too much. I have to trust my dog’s judgement just as much as she trusted mine. I had intended to allow her one attempt then quit. Her success was due as much to experience as it was to gritty determination.

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That was one retrieve to be cherished, a day when a gallery of lab men watched one brown strong-willed dog succeed where their black dogs failed.