Chester

Chester. Of all my Chesapeakes he was my Husband’s dog. They worked well together. Des just had a better way of handling him than me. For me, Chester was almost too much dog; I lived on my nerves when we worked together on the shoots . He was a big numbers dog; happiest when standing covering multiple guns and clearing everything that fell within his eye line without the hindrance or aid of another dog to impede his progress.

The winter of 2008/2009 , here in Ireland, was a long one.

In October the rains came. The temperate winds from the west  came in from the Atlantic raising the water levels that coincided with the high tides of the Autumn equinox. Dublin flooded, Cork city was impassable and the whole of central Ireland became marooned as the river Shannon burst her banks and shed her load farther and wider into the lands that ran the course of her length. Then the winds changed and down from the northeast came the cold drafts  of Siberia. And so, as the days shortened and winter deepened Ireland lay frozen in one of the coldest hardest winters that I can remember.

It was a morning in early January 2009 that my Husband, Des, set off loaded with gun and dog. He was to meet up with friends in the midlands hoping to get lucky with decoying the flood plains which that had formed along the the far reaches of the Shannon and her tributaries.The northeast freeze up still held most of the country in an icy grip. The winds that persistantly blew in from Siberia that winter had brought in their wake unprecedented numbers of migrating birds…..black and whites, teal , tufties and mallard, all pushed further south and in greater numbers to the more temperate climate that Ireland offered.

 

They picked their spot, the wind seemed favorable enough to keep the birds low but moving and in a position ,they hoped( as that is the word wildfowlers live by), that seemed like a good sheltered spot to draw in teal and tufties to feed.

Under the cover of darkness they spread their decoys  in an enticing pattern. Then the four guns settled down spread about the reeds that edged the field, that was once a summer meadow but was now knee to thigh deep in cold frigid water.

It is the waiting that is the toughest part of wildfowling, when you have nothing to take your mind off the creeping cold that rises from the bottom of your boots and creeps to every corner of your body. As the purple dawn emerged from the bottom of the sky  each man peered hopefully for a glimpse of a silhouette against the lightening skyline. Four guns and one dog, a Chesapeake, named Chester.

 

I know for sure that for him on that morning he most likely breathed deeply the scents of what was about to unfold and felt utterly confident that those four guns no matter how far apart they spread themselves could be covered by him alone.

It was not long before the lightening sky and biting wind forced the birds to move in search of feeding and better shelter from the relentless cold. The men had chosen wisely. The flooded field lay in the bend of the river where the birds were apt to cut across over the reeds to a narrow tributary further south.

The guns were patient biding their time until the birds came within range and one by one they fell. The shots did not deter the birds and they kept coming and falling. All the time methodically sought out and found by Chester as he worked the reeds in the chest deep water. There were long spells where he had to stand waiting on the raised clump of rushy turf behind Des as the cold water lapped around his body but his attention never wavered and his reward was another hunt , another retrieve of warm game all of which were brought back to Des.

He gained the undying respect of not only my husband that morning but also of his three hunting companions. Each and every shot bird that was found by the chesapeake was brought tenderly to hand before turning his attention to the angry grey January skies again waiting for the next one to fall.

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January 2009 River Shannon with Chester.

 

Chester had many vices, ( not least was his knack of singing while waiting for a drive to start),but  once he was given the go ahead to start working he did so with such drive, focus and energy that never let up until every bird he could possibly retrieve was delivered safely back to hand. In all his years retrieving there was never a single toothmark on a bird that he returned with. He remained respectful of his quarry to the end. That is what he thrived on and where his passion lay.

His knowledge of the birds he hunted was uncanny; one of those few dogs I’ve seen that had the ability to differentiate, in air , which birds were hit in a drive of hundreds and which ones lived to go on for another  day. He never gave up on a wounded bird no matter how far it travelled, he would follow the line to where it touched the ground then pick up it’s trail to where it inevitably dug into cover.

For a dog that was precious about entering cover at a working test in the quest for a green dummy I watched in wonder many’s a time as he belly crawled under and through bramble patches that would have tested a cocker spaniel to get that bird that he knew was in there. But so too was he clever enough to figure out that if cover had an exit point it was quicker to skip around the back and look for an easier path through. He had no interest in unwounded game, learning quickly that they took too much energy and time to hunt but in a contest of wills between diving duck and the Chessie he was always the more determined not to fail.

Shelton was his last love, he loved the freedom it gave him to hunt unhindered without being inhibited by tight drives.

And so it will be His final resting place. When the time is right we will bring His ashes and scatter them across the tailings for one final hunt through the bushes, brambles and the river that he came to know so well.

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Chester at Shelton with Des.

 

 

 

Rest In Peace Penrose Nomad

5/3/2002 – 21/9/ 2017.

 

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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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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!

The story behind ‘ The Long Retrieve’

The short film below was first published just over a year ago. In itself it is a wonderful protrayal of a chesapeake working in the environment it was designed for. Echo has long been a competitor at the CBRC working tests and inter club team events and without doubt is one of the most exciting dogs to watch in competition. The story behind the making of this film demonstrates exactly why strength, inititive and persistance are two qualities that are invaluable in a good wildfowling dog.The following piece was written by Mark and he has kindly allowed me to reproduce it here :

“The task of capturing footage for this film presented several practical challenges for our cameraman who, as a non-shooting man, had never been near a marsh in his life. Thes included:
– walking long dostances carrying tons of expensive and heavy camera equipment, bags, tripods and so forth
– walking through tidal channels ensuring said equipment remained dry
– wading through knee deep mud making sure camera lenses remained mud-free
-generally stumbling around in near darkness desperately trying to keep hidden, so as not to put birds off to capture good quality footage of me wildfowling.
This was all a whole new area of filming and took, as you can imagine, several attempts to get something that we were both happy with.
During one of our visits to the Dee Estuary, I shot a Mallard whilst shooting a tide flight, and had occasion to perform the long retrieve. The bird landed 200 yards to my right, on the opposite side of a very wide tidal gutter, on an area of vegetated marsh. It was a blind for the dog as well as a very long swim against a tide which was flooding fast, towards the camera. Tides on the Dee flood very, very quickly and with huge force. i have in the past tried to stand in the same gutter to collect decoys when the tide is flooding and it is just impossible.
The distance, combined with the tide and that the fact that this was a blind, I can confidently say that Echo had never done anything quite so testing. I remember being aware of this before sending him into the water. But I knew that even in such demanding conditions, if there was one dog in the entire world I could choose to do this, I would have absolutely no hesitation in choosing Echo, with his characteristic, ‘I am going to get that bird, even if it means swimming back to Iceland,’ sort of attitude.
I got level with where I had marked the bird and sent Echo and as you can see from the film. he took a little encouragemnet to get across the tide. He looks back once or twice as if to say, ‘What across here?’ Yes please Echo, keep going. An additional difficulty was that because of the strength of the tide, when he did eventually get out the other side, he had been pushed 50 yards to the left where the bird had been marked.
I handled him into the area where I thought the bird was, then it was over to him, to use his scenting ability and persistence to find the bird. Because of the topography of the marsh, I simply could not see him when he was hunting for the Mallard and I did not know for certain where it was. So, as is so often the case when wildfowling, when shooting in difficult conditions or in darkness or half light, I have to trust Echo’s ability.What I love about this part of the film, is that once he is hunting for the duck he never looks back to me once. After eight and a half years of training and 7 seasons of regular wildfowling, it is safe to say that Echo is fully up to speed with the job description. A true gundog, he knows exactly what is required of him and is able to use his ability and initiative to hunt for and to bring the bird back to hand.
It seemed to take ages for him to cover the ground, but after a while he stopped. I cannot tell you what it felt like to be watching him when he suddenly stopped, his head went down, his tail started wagging that little bit quicker and he raised his head and I saw that he was holding a big drake Mallard in his mouth. I was elated! I knew then that it was a superb effort. I do not remember feeling too worried about the prospect of him swimming back. I suppose that he had made it across so he could make it back. As he swam back he was again pushed sideways by the tide, hence why I am walking towards the camera to meet him at the point where I thought he would exit the water. I love the fact that I give him a big stroke when he delivers the bird. Also, considering the physical effort that this must have taken, when he was walking along after all this he still looks like he is ready to do it all again!!
I was so focussed on handling Echo, that I had totally forgotten that the camera was running, and anyway, I thought that the distance we were away from the camera would be too far for a decent film. Until, that is, as walking back back I do a little wave to camera by way of acknowledgment. Inside I was doing cartwheels I was so delighted.
It is a pleasure to have this to enjoy now and to have in years to come. I think that it shows the breed in a very positive light and I am just so pleased as an owner, a handler and a wildfowler to have this film.”
Mark Greenhough( BASC Wildfowling Officer)
First published in Chessie Chat no. 92

In praise of the working gundog.

This is a story in praise of the working gundog. We all know them and of them. They are the foot soldiers of the gundog world. The ninety-nine per centers that are owned by Tom, Dick and Harry who regale us with their dogs’ exploits. We smile indulgently but smugly choose to only half believe the owners biased opinion of their ‘fantastic’ working gundog.

We may enquire as to whether this superb dog has any field trial awards or even been placed in a working test? If the answer is ‘no’ then that is all many of us want to or are interested in knowing.

I have one of these working gundogs. His name is Chester. He is a Chesapeake. I have had dogs before him and have had dogs since him but none could or can equal his skill as a gamefinding and pure working gundog. His  real talents never lay in the competition field although he has had his fair share of success there also in working tests. As a field trialling dog he was too noisy. A real shame as he is a fantastic handling dog with the softest of mouths. Both of which he has passed onto his progeny.

This year will be his tenth shooting season. He has never missed one due to injury and as can be expected there are many tales and adventures I could share of our Winters’ together.

Today , though, I want to tell you a story of a day Des took Chester when he went shooting along the shores of the Shannon.

It was the 10th of January 2009. Des had been asked to join a friend of ours, Pat, and three of his friends for a morning’s decoying on the Shannon. It was a cold one, frost lay heavy on the ground and the edges and shallows of the river were iced up where they spread out the decoys. The temperature was well below freezing. For one reason or another Chester was the only dog there that morning. The thing about decoying is that you never really know what to expect. It could be a slow morning. The likelihood was that this particular morning was expected to be, as it was mid January and by that time in the shooting season calender the Shannon Basin is generally well plundered. One dog should have been more than adequate.

The boys settled down and waited. As daylight dawned the action began and continued for several hours until a halt was called at about mid-day. Bird after bird had to be retrieved from the icy waters. Again and again the chesapeake hunted for and found each bird brought down. Many times having to swim through ice and rushes to find wounded birds. It was so cold that although Chester initially waited in the water for each retrieve, he had to be moved on to a clump of rushes to avoid the risk of hypothermia. In the end the bag was 47 duck, a mix of Teal, Shoveler, Wigeon, Pintail, and Gadwall. A few birds got away that fell injured a distance away while Chester was returning with a bird, some were picked afterwards but two or three were probably lost. Chester worked himself to a standstill which was where a combination of exhaustion and the cold meant he couldn’t continue and he wasn’t asked to, he had retrieved probably 30 of the 47 birds, breaking through ice for many until Des decided Chester had done more than enough. A combination of the wind and currents meant that the birds shot afterwards were drifting into an enclosed area and were picked up afterwards from the boat.

Chester has put in many more working days since then but unless you’re one of the lucky ones to stand with him on those mornings you will never fully appreciate the value of the true working gundog. The dog that may whine while waiting to retrieve. The dog that may run around a bush rather than through in pursuit of a retrieve. The dog that may not be completely steady to gunshot. He is the dog, however, that will work tenaciously and tirelessly in pursuit of his quarry and bring each and every one back gently to hand and fit for the table.

So the next time Tom, Dick or Harry regales you with tales of their amazing working gundog. Stop a minute and listen more carefully he may just be the type of dog you’re looking for.