Scottish gamekeeper Fraser Kay explains what makes a good beating dog.
Author Fraser Kay
A question that is quite often asked on social media gundog groups is “I’m looking to get my first dog for beating, what breed would you recommend?”
Well, I suppose it all comes down to what type of shoots you’ll be beating on; whether it be pheasant shoots with thick cover, where say a spaniel might be useful, or on grouse moors or large upland partridge shoots where an HPR or a labrador might suffice.
The dog of a lifetime
I got my first dog at 16 when I was a trainee keeper. She was a small type labrador bitch called Judy that I was gifted by a local gamekeeper and in my eyes she was perfect. She just seemed to know what I wanted her to do and she did it. She never left my heel until she was told and was always willing to please. She was a great all round dog and from beating to picking-up or even tracking wounded deer, she did it all admirably.
Back then I lived on my own and she was my only dog and companion so she got my undivided attention and came everywhere with me. She came round pheasant pens walking poults back in, walking round checking traps on my rounds and even stalking. She would retrieve everything I shot including squirrels, rabbits and crows so I just trained her as I went. She was definitely the dog of a lifetime and I will never have another like her.
Finding time to train
Sadly these days I don’t seem to be able to find as much time to train, what with having a young family and having a lot more responsibilities. I get the basics started when they are pups by getting them to sit and stay for their food and retrieving tennis balls in the house and progress their training as they grow.
In the summer months whilst dogging in I get the older dogs sharpened up for the season ahead and use this time to develop the pup’s training further with real game scent and I find it really helps to steady them up. It works well for me and I find that the young dogs pick up a lot from just running with the older ones. As I write this I have an 11-week-old labrador pup lying at my feet and I have high hopes for her.
All sorts in the line
When I first started beating many years ago, you got paid extra on some estates if you brought a dog. You used to see all sorts in the line with terriers, lurchers and collies and a lot of them were that wild they were never let off the lead. I’ve seen terriers down holes and lurchers coursing rabbits through the gun line but in all fairness I’ve also seen some very useful alternative beating dogs.
When I was a trainee I worked in the Highlands on a game farm and commercial pheasant shoot. The keeper at the time had a springer spaniel cross collie called Jim and he was one in a million. He would do everything from herd sheep to pushing pheasants back into the night shelters and retrieve game. He wasn’t the most stylish of dogs but he had a tremendous nose and knew his job in the beating line.
The dog for the job
So what is the perfect beating dog? Does it need to be a gundog breed? In my opinion yes it does. These breeds have been developed over hundreds of years to be fit for purpose. Yes you’ll get other dogs that will thrash through cover and hunt out game but are they really as good as a dog that was developed for that purpose?
When blanking in I will often tell my beaters to let the dogs off and hunt, sometimes getting answers back like “Are you sure as if I let him off then he’ll just go” usually answered by “aye he’ll not do any damage in here”. And then when we get into the main drive the dogs are brought into heel or put back on the lead. This is because a lot of my drives are bare bottomed spruce woods and the birds tend to run forward to the flushing point without much persuasion and usually a good chap with a stick or clap of the hands suffices.
There is no doubt the most popular dogs you will see in the beating line are labradors and spaniels although a lot of keepers up here, especially the grouse lads, seem to favour pointers and pointer labrador crosses. A beating dog needs to have a good nose, be able to work thick cover and have enough drive and stamina to last the whole day and most people would agree that a spaniel is the ideal candidate for the job. Be it a springer, cocker or a sprocker, which seem to be the flavour of the month these days, they will all do the job admirably if trained to a decent standard.
Keeper’s dogs are always perfect
Ideally you want a spaniel to quarter close in, covering all of the ground in its path as it goes but sometimes this isn’t quite the case. I’ve seen a lot of very well-trained spaniels over the years which are a joy to watch but I’ve also seen some uncontrollable nut jobs that just rake about uncontrollably flushing birds as they go, yipping and chasing flying birds towards the flushing point and paying no attention to the peeps on the whistle or roars of obscenities from their
handler whatsoever. This is usually followed by rants over the radio from the keeper of “Whose bloody dog is that at the flushing point?” when 200 birds disperse over the guns in one big flush heading in various directions.
It can be quite embarrassing for the keeper when he looks down at his heel only to discover that the dog in question is his. Although it will be much to the amusement of the beaters and it usually ends up with said keeper getting a bit of a ribbing as he emerges from the other end of the wood with his dog on a lead. I’m sure we’ve all been there at some point - I know I have!
Labradors for me
We often joke amongst ourselves that you can tell the grouse lads’ dogs from the pheasant lads’ as they have been out beating on the moors since August so come the pheasant season they are fit and switched on. And as they’re not required to hunt in quite so close on the grouse moors they can be a bit rangier although this isn’t always the case. It all adds to the shoot day banter and is usually taken in quite good humour. Labradors can also show us up from time to time but they tend to be more biddable and easier to train. As the old saying goes, labs are born half trained and spaniels die half trained and in my opinion this rings true more often than not.
Personally I mainly keep labradors as to me they are the perfect all round dog and to be honest I’ve not really got the patience for a spaniel, although I do have an aging springer who is a very useful old lad now that he is a pensioner and calmed down a bit.
I can have my labradors picking-up one day and in the beating line the next and they seem to adapt very well. They hunt close in quite happily and if they do range too far out a quick double peep on the whistle brings them back in to heel before casting them out again. They will hunt most cover just as well as any spaniel but admittedly not just quite as quick and with not as much style but that suits me fine and they get the job done. They are sleek, athletic and have plenty of drive and stamina to last the whole day. They have good noses and are by no means world-beaters but they do everything I require of them.
To the moors
Grouse beating is very different. A lot of HPRs are used on grouse moors as the beaters tend to be spaced a lot further apart and vast areas of ground need to be covered.
German shorthaired and wirehaired pointers, English pointers, setters and vizslas tend to be more favourable as they were bred for the job and have enough stamina to run all day and quarter over much larger areas of ground. Labs and spaniels are also very capable and can do the job just as well. This is when the aforementioned nut-job spaniels come into their own and can’t really do a huge amount of damage apart from when they appear back from the direction of the line of butts with a hare or a grouse in their mouths.
Breeding does matter
Do pedigrees matter when it comes to choosing a pup?
Personally I think they do and I like to buy pups that are ‘right’. I always make sure the parents have at least low hip and elbow scores and current clear eye certificates when buying a lab pup and a good pedigree is always a bonus. Another old saying is ‘put the best to the best and hope for the best’ and again this rings true in my eyes. If you put a good working dog to an unproven dog then you might end up with a good worker but if you put a worker to a worker then you’re more likely to end up with good working progeny, but it’s not guaranteed.
My old bitch Judy was very well bred. She was out of Garendon Captain (who was a very successful dog, winning the IGL Retriever Championship in 1998) to a Saxaphone bred bitch that was out of Symington Clarerone of Leadburn. She was very biddable and was a dream to train and her nose and drive were exceptional.
To a lot of people pedigrees don’t matter in the slightest. And as I said before, I’ve seen a lot of non-pedigree dogs from good working stock do the job well and you will only get out of them what you put into them.
Is there an answer?
So back to the original question, what is the perfect dog for the beating line? Is there such a thing? Everyone is different and like different things so they will keep and work the breeds they prefer for the purpose they require.
I hope you all have a brilliant season and there really is nothing better than getting out into the field and working the dogs that you have put so much time and effort into and seeing all that training come together.