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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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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The long blind retrieve….

Close your eyes and cast your mind back…..it is a dark, damp wet day in late January.  The Pheasants are fewer but they fly higher, better and further making shooting more challenging and the dog work more difficult.

You and your dog are covering the end Gun in a field on his own.  The birds are flying well, breaking in small clusters and coming nicely over the guns. A strong north-west wind gives added momentum to their flight pushing them higher into the air as they lift off from the Oak wood in front. Your gun has had few opportunities as the break in cover is spread mainly along the middle guns but then sometime late in the drive his patience is rewarded. A cock bird breaks and swoops right into the wind, gliding over the tree tops he is lazy with his wing beats as he allows the wind to carry him high across the valley at an angle towards the pen and the safety of home.

Your gun, an experienced shot, watches the bird’s approach with a seasoned eye, he keeps his gun down as he gauges it’s speed and height but just as he lifts the gun to his shoulder a hen bird breaks late in front of him. Instinctively the Gun swings onto her and she drops cleanly at his feet. Your dog has her marked. Then in one fluid movement the Gun brings the second barrel  onto the rogue cockbird just as he passes to his left and with another practised shot the bird drops both legs. With wings fixed straight out the wind keeps him  high as he glides to the cover three hundred meters away.

You watch him land clumsily, out of sight in the deep cover that surrounds the pen and know his injuries are fatal and as such a priority retrieve. With  your dog’s attention still focussed on the hen-bird that lies close by you turn him away to face the cover where the wounded cock bird landed in…..

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The small white dot in the center of the picture is the dog…photo by Phil o Sullivan

Now, open your eyes and look at the scene in front of you. It is Summer and you stand on the line at a working test. It is the last retrieve of the day and your dog has run well. But everyone is talking about this one final retrieve that has been the undoing of many dogs. It is the long blind retrieve and although the season is different and the distraction of bird scent and gunshot are absent the lesson you and your dog will hopefully learn today will carry you both through the season ahead when the skills required to find a bird at distance will be called into play.

Dog and handler were set up in a narrow channel of woodland. About twenty meters in front an orange fence had been stretched across the path  at a slight angle, and just before the dog was sent a bolting rabbit was pulled across the line in front from right to left as a diversion not to be touched. Once clear of the fence the woodland opened out to a wide area of meadow grass. The run was uphill all the way with the dummy placed under a large overhanging beech tree just off the left of centre. The terrain, lack of wind and obstacles offered many challenges that needed to be considered before sending your dog.

The jump at an angle would push the dog slightly left and if let run on went quickly out of sight and difficult to get a line going in the long push back up hill. If the jump was negotiated well and the run uphill taken, then a large dip, tipping slightly right pushed the dog right and on into the meadow that ran past the beech tree and again out of sight. Distance now was a big problem as the dog had limited view of its handler in the shade of the wood channel below.

The dogs that succeeded well were those that held the middle line and where the handler stopped their dog about fifty meters out from the beech before casting forty-five degrees left and back to hunt under the beech tree.

Bertie and I succeeded but I made the mistake of allowing him continue the line to the meadow that ran to the right of the beech tree so then when I needed to pull him back to handle he struggled to see me. We lost 8 marks from 30 but to complete such a technically difficult retrieve  was better than winning any rosette that day.

Admittedly, during the winter months much of my dogs’ work involves them using their own initiative and game sense to find birds in places neither of us have seen fall and I am simply the bird carrier that follows in their wake. However, every once in a while a scenario like the one described above will occur that requires a dog to put aside his self-employed status and work with his handler as a team.

Although played out on the shooting field in winter it is through the summer months of training and working test competitions that lay the foundations of building that unique partnership of belief and trust.

Autumn is coming and we are ready, it has been a long busy summer of competition and travel. Now we are ready to put down roots, turn into the north-west wind and face the winter. The quiet and solitude of standing alone with my dog while we listen for the call of a mallard on the Shannon or the shriek of a snipe when it rises from the rushes is nearly upon us….close your eyes and cast your mind forward…..

Many thanks to Midland retriever club for setting this wonderful test.

 

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.

Finding Bertie’s ‘tipping point’.

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He didn’t mark the retrieve. We were first dog up in a three dog line up and I knew that even though he took a great line, running all 200 + yards until he was parallel with the thrower, he hadn’t locked onto the fall. Everything in his body language from the send off told me he was unsure. His nose was not going to help on this occasion either as  it was one of those dead-air Summer days with not even a wisp of a breeze to kick up scent. He was going to need my help now to find it and I knew with every whistle our chances of finishing near the top on this day were tumbling away.

I could have left it at that, put it down to a combination of factors that caused a mismark but I know my dog and have seen him pin many more difficult and technical marks than the one presented on that day. I allowed for the fact that I had two bitches in season and tensions among the males were particularly high in the days preceding competition, he was certainly distracted but had held it together in the line. I also allowed for lack of scent and the fact it was a green dummy thrown against high green trees but were there other factors?

The following week we met up with our small training group for a complete ‘marking’ session on the Hill of Tara. The ground here is wonderful for setting up scenarios of different marks long rolling hills with wide open grassland and a scattering of trees with ditches. Almost any combination can be worked on. We set up three dogs in line facing a thrower about 100 yards away throwing into short grass into the corner of the field. A simple seen. Bertie again was first dog up and when I sent him there was that same lack of committment I had seen the previous Sunday.He ran over the dummy had a quick sniff around and then instead of persisting he started to come back in!! Now I knew there was something going on.
I sat him out for the remainder of the session and he was content to sit and watch as I threw dummies and laid blinds for Stevie and Otto.
I left him off training for another week until the bitches were well clear of their respective seasons and reintroduced him to marking practice. Simple singles both long and short, keeping it light and fun with lots of praise his drive and confidence returned. I increased the difficulty of retrieve work again offering in the odd blind and diversion and was pleased to see he coped with these in the same way. Always returning to marking practice varying the distance and leaving off the whistle to allow him figure out that fall on his own.
Then one evening I happened to flick into a retriever forum and picked up on a post where a guy was having problems with his young lab marking. This particular dog had been a very reliable marker during his first year of competition but now he was struggling, even with simple marks…the problem sounded familiar. The solution offered to this handler made perfect sense. It would seem that often when a dog is being drilled to perfect a certain aspect of their training they may struggle with tasks that came easily before. I had spent much of the spring perfecting Bertie’s blindwork and tightening up on his response to the whistle. Was it possible that the pressure on him in training along with the other factors had spilled over and had affected his concentration to mark? Certainly the adjustments I had made to his training in the weeks following seemed to bear this out but I would not truly know until he was tested again in competition.
We entered the working test in Castlehoward primarily to support a very worthy cause. The event was organised by Mr Jim MacAul a stalwart around the shoots in Wicklow. It was run by the All Ireland Utility Gundog Club and all proceeds were being given to Our Lady’s Hospital for Sick Children Crumlin.
I was only looking for one aspect of success with Bertie on this day…a good confident mark.
The mark that day involved a two dog walk up. We were second dog up. Distance was about 250 yards we were set up along the lake bank. It was short grass to start with then out across a path under a fence into longer grass then under a second fence through some rushy cover then open ground to where the dummy fell.
Our turn came. When my number was called by the judge I sent my dog. This time there was no hestitation in his run out he covered the ground with the same confident stride that brings a tingle up my spine when I watch him. Coming to the rushy  cover he caught the whiff of scent where dummies had been thrown in the novice test that morning but a quick cast around and without prompting he pushed on up the slope and picked that dummy. The retrieve, although not perfect, was a long way towards the return to the standard of marking I had seen him deliver in the past and most likely helped him gain second place that afternoon.

Second place at Castlehoward flanked by two FTCH's.

Second place at Castlehoward flanked by two FTCH’s.

Encouraged to see his form returning I stuck with an easing off on training, keeping everything light again, lengthening the marks every now and then but all the while keeping blind work simple with memory blinds along known pathways.
This past Sunday we headed west to Mohill Gun club along the shores of Lough Rynn. By the time the advanced test started in the afternoon temperatures had risen to the mid-twenties. Nothing moved to bring coolness or scent to the air. It was a single long seen with two dogs in line. Distance 250 yards+. We, again, were second dog up. Our number was called and I sent my dog. I put my whistle between my lips and watched Bertie roll on up the hill. His line was good…the dog before him had cast around and needed handling…I prepared to help him but resisted the urge to blow on that whistle…he was almost at the spot,twenty feet, ten feet and then I watched with relief as I saw him dip his head and pick that dummy.
He scored a perfect 25 that day and although he didn’t finish in the top four placings only 2 points separated him from the leading dogs.
Lost points are something I can ponder on for another day, something to work on and aim towards but today’s score was simply sweet. It taught me to trust in my dog more, to watch him and listen to him when he is giving signals that something is just not quite right or that he’s simply reached his ‘tipping point’. To know that the ‘tipping point’ is not the end but an indication to cease pushing on until the dog pulls through that period of adjustment…what do you think?

Work AND Show can co-exist.

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…he hides behind no mass of coat….

Today the dog that stands before you  on the green carpet  is a showdog. He hides behind no mass of coat or flashy eyecatching movement. He is a functional no nonsense breed of dog and He has come as a representative of everything that is great about the breed from which he developed.

All those noble dogs that spend their winters working hard along a frozen foreshore watching and waiting in the fading light for the geese and duck to come. A loyal hunting companion whose superior scenting abilities and tenacious spirit make him equally proficient in pursuit of upland game and perhaps most important of all a valued and trusted family member.

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All those noble dogs that spend their Winter waiting….

Stand back for a moment and take the time to fully appreciate perfection in simplicity. As you let your eye follow down along his body the story behind the dog may start to reveal itself. His demeanour , as he stands before you, is one of power and confidence. He does not feel the need to greet with the eager exuberance of a puppy. This is a working dog and although his face may still bear the scars of a Winter spent hunting heavy cover, the tools of his trade, the very reasons this breed has been made the way he has, are immediately evident….that nose that will hunt a diving duck through the thick swathes of elephant grass has wide clean nostrils,the length in his muzzle and sculpted bones of his jawline give a clue to his ability to carry his quarry with a gentle mouth. His body is fit and lean, he was not built for speed but power and stamina.  The confidence that saw him through a season of taking on the heavy winter waters, tidal estuaries or following on the tail of a wounded cock pheasant no matter how deep the cover is borne out in his easy, fluid movement around the ring,  in the way he carries his head and watches his master with an alert and happy attitude.

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His confidence is seen in the way he carries himself.

There are many who fail to see the relevance of showing dogs in relation to what is required in the working field. It is all too easy to look at the finished picture of the dog before them standing on the carpet at Crufts and see only a groomed dog presented to perfection and forget the story behind how they and their breed come to be there……perhaps then the BASC gamekeepers classes go some way to reminding us that working AND Showing gundogs can sit in the same sentence.

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Work AND Show can co-exist.

For the last three years, along with entering the breed classes at Crufts we have also competed in the BASC gamekeepers classes. It is a separate competition which runs concurrently with the breed classes. Every dog entered has to have written confirmation from the gamekeeper that they have worked with during the shooting season. The classes are big, over 20 in most cases , and they cover all the subgroups in gundogs. The vast majority of these gundogs also compete in their respective breed classes.

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Chester, competed in gamekeepers aged 11.

Mossy and Chester were the only two representatives of our breed that stood in the  BASC Gamekeepers classes at Crufts in 2013. That year out of a class of 27 dogs made up of Flatcoats, Goldens, a Curlycoat and Nova- scotias it was a proud moment when Mossy was pulled 2nd behind the eventual overall winner. It was an even prouder moment that his father Chester, at the age of 11 years, was there also and testament to the fact that age does not limit fit for function.

In 2014 Mossy and his half sister Uisce pushed the boundaries one step further in the BASC Gamekeepers classes. For the first time in the history of the breed Mossy won The Shooting Gazette trophy for Best Any Variety Retriever Dog and Uisce won the Marsh Trophy for Best AnyVariety Retriever Bitch.

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Uisce and Mossy in BASC gamekeepers Crufts 2014.

To be associated with a breed where form and function remain so inextricably intertwined is something I feel passionately about and proud that when we hand back the trophies this year the names of the two Chesapeakes also carry the titles of Show Champion and Champion.

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.

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.

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.

Lough Sheelan..the trials of a wildfowler.

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

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

Sunrise

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

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

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

Winnie studies Malcolm closely as he sets out the decoys.

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

My favourite picture of the morning.

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

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

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

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

A well desreved retrieve after much patient waiting.

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

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