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.

Riverrun Caution to the Wind, Uisce, aged six months.

Uisce is now six months old. In many repects she has now reached a major milestone in her life. She is now at the age when she can officially compete.

Although it will be a while yet before she will be ready for gundog competitions, her career as a showdog is already underway. Over the summer, once she reached the age of four months, she was eligible to compete at baby puppy level at some championship shows.

These baby puppy classes are an excellent opportunity to allow a young puppy enter and experience the hustle and bustle of a championship show without any pressure.

I am hyper critical of my own dogs , throughout their development, and only when they enter the show ring or compete at a working test  can I really justify any glimmer of hope that they may be something special or not as the case may be.

The judges have been positive and given good feedback so her future in the show ring looks promising.

I am happy that, like her sister before her, she has been blessed with a fantastic personality. Uisce is every beings friend whether it’s animal or human. She is easy to have around other dogs whether she knows them or not and we have had plenty through our doors in the last few months.

I have been consistant with her basic obedience and now have an almost perfect recall. Heel work on lead is good and she will sit and wait for short periods. I have remained cautious around water and until I have a perfect land recall I will remain so. This is something I will be working on throughout the Winter months.

From a working gundog perspective she shows potential and that is all I believe you can really tell at this age. Until the pressures of formal gundog training are applied in the future it’s impossible to know otherwise at this age..I have taken her along with Zoe while dogging- in and have been happy with her reaction . She is not overly ‘birdy’ so does not get over excited when a bird rises in front of her.

Dogging in and damaged toes….

Less than a week after returning from holiday it’s back to earth with a bump and a bang. While Elly attends pre- school I have being taking Zoe to Mountainstown to ‘dog-in’. This basically involves combing the boundaries of the estate and pushing the young pheasants back to where the gamekeeper wants them. It’s a two hour workout but my little gun-shy spaniel that won’t retrieve has finally found her niche.

With just under two weeks to the Chesapeake Bay Retriever Autumn working test in Essex training is ongoing for Winnie and Bertie. A week spent in kennels has left them with an exuberence of energy. I’ve spent the week doing regular short training sessions to allow them regain focus. Mossy had also been on the cards to compete but is unfortunately recovering from a fractured metatarsal.

The fracture was diagnosed by x-ray on Monday, followed by surgery to remove the bone fragment on Wednesday. There was no point in waiting to see if it would fuse as it was a ‘floating fragment’. I had my suspisicions he had been carrying the injury for quite a number of weeks. Intermittant lameness on hard ground, I had written off as having picked up a prod. There was no obvious injury or swelling to the paw or any tenderness on palpation. He was weight bearing but yielding ever so slightly .

Anyway after the week in kennels  all the dogs were fizzed up and raring to go. The corn had been cut behind our house. So Saturday morning I opened the gate and off they went. Galloping like young colts let out on fresh grass.

It was when we returned  from that walk  the injury to Mossy’s foot became apparent. The toe started to swell, it was extremely tender to the touch and he could now  no longer bear any weight while standing. Still convinced, however, it was a foreign body of some sort I booked him into the vets for Monday morning. The diagnosis came through that afternoon.

Following surgery Paul, my vet, confirmed it was a fracture that was at least six weeks old. The decision , therefore, to go ahead with surgery rather than defer was the correct one.

I am pleased to report that the surgery was a success and he is recovering well. He will miss his opportunity to compete at the Chesapeake Bay Retriever Autumn Working test but thankfully long term this injury will have no lasting consequences.

The week ended with Bertie winning his fourth green star towards his Irish Show champion title at the Irish Kennel club International show. He also won his second CACIB and BOB.The judge was Mrs N Davidoc from Serbia. Three more to go….

September Duck…

There is something deliciously exciting about rising before dawn and heading West to hunt. To be the first to walk across the dew covered fields towards the banks of the River Shannon. All the world is still asleep and missing the magic that is about to unfold.

This morning was bright with no wind. It would not be a good one for decoying. We were prepared for a morning’s walking through the flood pastures and  six foot high elephant grass that grow in swathes along the Shannon. The ducks, we hoped, would be feeding in the shallow waters among the reeds.This type of shooting is hard  as the marshy ground along the river bank pulls relentlessly on legs.

A dog that will keep to heel, has a good nose, (as most retrieves will be blinds beyond the reeds) and can work on their own is invaluable. This morning, Winnie was the dog for this job.

After all the anticipation and build up over the last few weeks first mornings’ can almost be an anticlimax. The full flush of migratory birds has not yet descended on our shores from northern Russia and we also knew that by going out  on the second of September we could be dealing with skittish ducks that had been rattled by the previous day’s onslaught.

Our first approach held promise. As we discussed the merits of whether or not to climb over or under an electric fence a batch of about thirty mallard rose from the bend in the river…we cursed our hesitation, hastily fired off a couple of very ambitious shots but watched in dismay as they scattered and flew on down river. This was to be the pattern of our morning. Plenty of duck and plenty of missed opportunities…but every once in a while everything falls into place and all those misses are instantly forgotten.

Winnie worked well. She is a pleasure to have for this type of shooting. Her first retrieve of the morning was a perfect warm up for any to follow. The bird rose nicely from where it had been feeding in the flooded meadow and curled out over the reeds. One shot and she fell cleanly among the rushes from where Winnie retrieved her efficiently .

It was the final retrieve of the morning, however, that makes you realise just how valuable a dog is for this type of pursuit. We had, by now been out for over four hours and were headed to a spot that Emmet had seen geese on last season. We parked just short of a slipway, jumped the gate and quietly moved along the bank to the far end of this small lake. To our right was a bank of high grasses, which rose above our heads and formed a four foot barrier between us and the water. Nothing was moving. We reached the end point of the lake and surveyed a pool among the rushes that birds had been feeding in. Again nothing….then suddenly there was a splash and a quack and two mallard rose from the water. Shots were fired and one bird brought down beyond that bank of tall, tall grass.

Winnie had been with me, the far side of the ditch and although she heard the gunshot she, like me, had no vision on where that bird had fallen.

The boys had a rough mark.They reckoned she had dropped about thirty meters out beyond the bank of grasses. I gave Winnie a line through the grass and off she went. It was like lifting a curtain and letting it fall. We, on the bank, could give her no guidance. She was going to have to use her nose and her initive. Experience, hopefully also,would tell her there was a bird in open water. After a couple of minutes I could hear her coming back through the reeds. Her breathing told me that she may be carrying something and then she emerged through that curtain of grass with a fat female mallard in her mouth. My sweet, sweet girl.

As we made our way back through the cowfields, conversation was mixed with laughter and banter about what could have been and what should have been and what was. We had worked hard for our brace of birds but that will surely make them taste all the sweeter…

Short days, cold Gun barrells and numb fingers…….Shooting season is here…..

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It happens sometime in August. You go out one morning and the steady beat of Summer has given way to the restlessness of Autumn. It is an almost imperceptible change. Those of us that have lived and grown up in the countryside feel it. We can almost taste it. Suddenly we are sent tumbling back to childhood , where happy afternoons were spent roaming the hedges for blackberries and picking apples from the orchard in Brickfield. In recent years, however, this change marks the approach of something different for me and my dogs…..

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Time is approaching. The giddy excitement of looking forward to darker evenings and shorter days. Standing on the lakeshore or walking a riverbank as the first fingers of sunlight reach across the sky in midwinter. Sitting in a boat as an angry northeast wind pounds your back with sleet and hail or  standing in woodland, alone, with only your faithful dog for company shivering as much in anticipation as from the cold while you both wait for the sound of a hunting horn and the pheasant drive to start. Walking through miles and miles of heavy plough, fingers numb on the barrel of the gun, breath hanging in the air as you pull tired heavy legs from the thick brown clay. All the time just waiting, watching and listening…Time slows down. There is nothing else to think about. It’s just you, your dog and nature.

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Then it happens. Just a flutter of wings in undergrowth, the call of a drake as he rises from the rushes or the simple change in the body language of your dog. All tiny clues but because you have learned to watch and wait and be patient, you and your dog have become good at this game….and sometimes, maybe just maybe you’ll get lucky.

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Happy hunting everyone!