Scents and sensibility..

An experienced gamefinding dog is invaluable.

An experienced gamefinding dog is invaluable.

Scent and a dog’s ability to use it in relation to hunting has long fascinated me.  When I watch dogs’ work and figure out the story which a scent trail reveals I can appreciate that this sense, more than any other, in relation to dogs is perhaps their most valuable hunting asset. Dogs trust their noses more than their eyes. Sight will bring them to the area of a fall but it will be their nose that will finish the trail and find their quarry.

Of course, the role a dog handler plays in helping track a bird should not be underestimated either. We have the advantage of height, sight and logic. It is this combination of skills between dog and handler which leads me to the following tale.

It is a story  about scent and the  combination of factors that fall into the mix when a wily cock pheasant decides to play chase. It tells the tale of how scent can be elusive and  frustrating. Even with the assistance of the handler, who often has the advantage of height and sight, sometimes a bird can lay a trail which only the cunning and experience of an older dog can untangle.

So let us go back to mid- November on a cold bright morning at Shelton Abbey. Staffords was the first drive of the morning and the birds were flying well. This drive is a mixture of tall conifers, sitting down in a valley with open areas of low, heavy undergrowth. The birds break from the top  of the bank behind the trees, clearing the tree- tops and offer quick, high challenging shooting to the guns standing on the  narrow path below.

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Staffords offers a narrow window for challenging shooting.

Des was working Mossy further up the gunline but I had hung back for this one as the ground is too difficult for Elly to walk through. We had taken a stroll, instead, back along the path  looking for pine cones and Elly was having fun cracking the ice from some puddles.

Elly enjoying the outdoors.

Elly enjoying the outdoors.

As the drive wound down I wandered back towards the game cart. A bird had come down behind the end gun with a wing down and was on the run. The spaniel directly behind the gun had marked the cock bird well and her handler sent her to retrieve him.  It should have been as straightforward as that, but the cock pheasant had other ideas. The young dog took a line directly on the bird  through the pine needles but lost him when she hit some marshy ground. She quartered the ground well covering the area of the fall and retracing where the pheasant had last been seen. Her owner  helped her by pushing her back further into the swamp in the hope of picking up the trail again.

At the game cart Michelle and Coral could see  the bird as it ran on deeper into the woods towards the roots of a fallen conifer. Coral took her young cocker to hunt the area  in the hope of either picking up the trail, or as sometimes happens,  finding the bird had hunkered down into the cover which surrounded the tree. Both young dogs worked well covering the ground asked of them but for some unknown reason the trail kept going cold; almost as if there were gaps in the scent and where the bird had run.

High birds and open sky.

High birds and open sky.

The drive was over so I took Winnie and Chester out to see if they could help figure out this riddle. I checked with Michelle that the area  behind Staffords was not going to be used that morning so, if necessary, I could allow the dogs range a good distance if they picked up a trail.

I took them to the fallen conifer where the bird had last been seen and set them to hunt. Just like the spaniels did before them, they covered the ground well. There was plenty of scent as many birds had landed in this area throughout the drive. The dogs would have to differentiate scent given off by the uninjured birds that landed  and the one bird running through this area which was injured. Nothing was pulling them away from the area to indicate that the bird may have moved on through the woods. He had to be here somewhere.

Then Chester skipped across a small stream and picked up a trail heading back into the woods towards the gunline, after a few minutes out of sight I could hear the lusty call of a cock bird as he rose and flew into the distance. That was not the bird we were seeking. Winnie continued to work the area but wasn’t showing any signs of hot fresh scent. Chester returned and again picked up a trail on the far bank of the stream, this time heading back up hill towards the area of the sweep drive. He was soon out of sight and was gone for much longer this time. There was no point in calling him, he would not hear me but I knew the ground well enough that he could follow a bird a good distance without difficulty and without endangering himself by crossing roads or fences. He is doggedly persistant and will trail an injured bird until he finds it.

Cover in Staffords .

Cover in Staffords .

We were just heading back to the gamecart when down through the woods comes Chester, carrying the wounded cock bird. He had sought and found the right trail. The pheasant had not made it easy he had outwitted three dogs and three handlers all of whom had worked hard to untangle the scent trail he left or didn’t leave behind as he made good his escape!

It is a retrieve which stuck with me in the weeks following and one which I am still perplexed by. Why did the trail go cold so quickly after the bird hit the ground? One old timer’s theory, when I told him about it, was the pine needles. He reckons they disrupt scent and recounted an incident where he almost lost a young dog in a pine forest some years back. There may be some truth in this as when Chester crossed the stream the woodland becaome more mixed with decidious leaf litter as opposed to pine needles but I will never truly know.

I also wondered about the retrieve from a trialling perspective. It was through no fault of any of the dogs that they lost the trail of the pheasant but what would have happened in a trial? Would each subsequent handler be allowed to move further into the woodland in order to pick up a trail? The line which Chester initially took flushed a bird, possibly lightly pricked, would that have been taken as the initial bird or could Chester be allowed try again? Sometimes the confines of trialling may limit gamefinding skills rather than enhancing them perhaps?

The indominitable Chester.

The indominitable Chester.

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Mountainstown.

Deep within Meath countryside is Mountainstown House. It has been home to the Pollock family since 1780. Unlike most grand  homes of its era it does not command a position of height, overlooking all it surveys, rather it sits nestled in a shallow basin hugging the very land that surrounds it. It is a home that has welcomed many through its gates over the years. It has a long association with the competitive gundog world and has hosted trials across the spectrum from Spaniels to HPR’s and Retrievers.

I have been coming here for seven winters now and never tire of that first glimpse of the old house as it emerges through the trees. For me, when I enter the courtyard and join in the bustle and mayhem of meeting and greeting it is like coming home. The sounds of laughter and banter ring around the walls with dogs mingling and people catching up after a long summer. Then, people and dogs pile into the back of the picking up cart and head to the first drive. Everything goes quiet.  I stand back, often under the cover of the trees, and drink in the silence until the tap, tap, tapping of a stick against a tree starts. The dogs sit up and pay attention. The drive is about to begin.

Up until now my dogs have had ample time to adjust to the rigours of working, taking in the odd day duck shooting. Competing in working tests throughout the Summer also helps keep them in good condition. Nothing, however, will compare to the massive amount of energy they will expend in the coming months. I will have to double if not triple their food intake and add extra protein in the form of fresh meat and fish to counteract the huge toll that their bodies will indure as they work tirelessly in the most brutal of cover in search of pheasant and duck. Added to this workload will be days of roughshooting and some flighting on the lakes.

To the uninitiated this may seem like an extremely strange way to spend the winter months. Hours of standing with cold fingers and toes waiting for a drive to start. Often on these days Winter shows her worst side and will throw in a blast of wind from the North with driving showers of sleet and snow.

The pheasants don’t always fall where you want them to either and any picker up worth their salt must be prepared to work their dog through all sorts of terrain and cover. This often means crawling on hands and kness through thick undergrowth and woodland as your dog picks up the trail of an injured bird. Across peat filled swamps and ditches with the likelihood of losing a boot. Those are truly the retrieves I value most as these birds would otherwise be lost. All of this is done, believe it or not, for no monetary gain. Yet every person who partakes in the business of beating or picking up will rarely miss a day throughout the season. Why? You may well ask…

I think something unique happens when people gather at a shoot on the first morning of the shooting season. It brings together communities and  multiple generations. It is one of the few winter pastimes remaining in rural communities that facilitates a mixing of age groups. In an otherwise bleak and lonely time of the year when people are more inclined to feel cut off this offers an outlet outside.

For me, it allows me the freedom to forget my professional life for a few hours. To get dirt beneath my fingernails. Nothing is more thrilling than watch my dogs working hard and feeling I am part of that team. For these precious few hours on the shoot all I have to think about is marking birds and working my dogs. No more, no less…

I am always mindful of the fact that this pastime, which I am lucky enough to partake in, is due to the generosity of the landowner, the gamekeeper and the syndicate guns. I think anyone who participates as a beater or picker up is obliged to remember this. It is the landowner’s and the gamekeeper’s livelihood that we trample on each week in pursuit of birds. This we must always respect…

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!