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.

DSC_0046

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.

Advertisements

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.

DSC_1433

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.

Day 2 Mountainstown new ground

November 6th.

We met in the yard of Mountainstown House and headed in convoy to  ground five miles north, a place called Rockfield. I had not been here before, it was new ground . James, the gamekeeper  had told me about Rockfield when I was dogging in a few weeks ago. The ground, managed by Demise, would offer more diversity with regard to drives as the land was quite different to Mountainstown. As we travelled north the landscape changed to drumlin country. Lots of rounded hills topped with woodland  which are cut through with fast flowing rivers.

Landscape , topography and of course weather play a hugely important role in driven pheasant shooting. I will not claim to be an expert but I think anyone working on these shoots should, at least, have some understanding as to what holds birds, what makes them fly and where they fly to. They generally will not fly into the sun and this can have a bearing on whether a particular drive should be carried out early or late in the day.  Hills and valleys give the added advantage giving height to the birds as they fly. This offers  more challenging shooting to the guns, but from the picker’s point of view  the bird will carry further if hit and they must take this into consideration when marking birds. Pheasants are affected by wind, rain, frost etc meaning they will range in or out, depending on the weather, in search of food. All of these things are taken into account by the gamekeeper when he’s planning his drives to best advantage. I won’t even attempt to start to try to describe the mechanics of the beating line to allow an even spread of birds both throughout the drive and along the gun line…..

Three drives were planned for the day with an expected bag of 150 birds. We had been told that two of the drives were quite close. This could possibly affect where birds could be picked from at the end of the drive. I took up my position along the river bank below the level of two guns in front of me and I also let the gun across the river to my right know where I was. The birds were expected to fly from right to left towards a pheasant pen on top of the hill to my left.

It began, slowly at first, with one or two shots fired then silence. I had two dogs with me this morning, Winnie and Bertie. I kept Winnie on lead for the start of the drive as I didn’t know exactly how busy these pegs would be and until I got a feel for what level of work was needed one dog off lead was enough to control. It soon became clear that some birds would be falling into the river which calls for quick and efficient retriever work as the current otherwise will sweep them downstream and out of view. Bertie worked the river well. He was retreiving what I asked and avoiding the tempatation of retrieving from the far bank which was covered by other dogs. So far, this season I have avoided the tempatation of relaxing whistle work and I have to admit it is a pleasure to be able to work a dog under control during a drive if needed.  The drive got heavier and the gun to my right was shooting very, very well…birds were falling both on the bank in front and in the water upstream. I untethered Winnie and worked both dogs alternatively.

Of all my dogs Winnie is the one with the most ‘game sense’. She is my favourite dog for wildfowling and she is an incomparable gamefinder. She came to the side of the bank and waited. The guns had gone quiet for a minute. Then another flush of birds broke. Winnie did not look up she watched the river below her and waited…years of working the river in Wicklow had taught her that most likely the birds would appear in the water after shot was fired and within minutes she was rewarded for her patience. Sure enough upstream a pheasant was being carried with the current. She watched its approach until it was just below her and then entered the water for a clean retrieve. Again and again she repeated this exercise, none were lost. Drive over and we swept the bank in front for birds and then followed the river down in case any birds had been lost further along the bank. I saw one on the far bank that had been caught up in reeds. I cast Winnie over and directed her to hunt left until she found it.

Our second and third drives were quieter but these drives offer the opportunity to instill steadiness and patience in the dogs and to watch quietly while other dogs work.

The third drive really was beautiful to watch. The beating line was taken along a larch plantation which was still holding its fiery colour against the back drop of the grey November sky . Standing on the hilltop with my dogs behind the end gun, there was no other place in the world I would rather have been  at that moment.

“Fall colors are funny. They’re so bright and intense and beautiful. It’s like nature is trying to fill you up with color, to saturate you so you can stockpile it before winter turns everything muted and dreary.”  ―    Siobhan Vivian