Having had springers most of my life, I wanted a change on several accounts, but primarily because I was spending ever more time behind Guns as a sporting agent. Although springers will sit happily at a peg, I wasn’t good enough at teaching them and never managed to train one to be totally silent. This led me from a German wirehaired pointer (seldom in the same county!) to a wirehaired viszla because of a feature I saw on Crufts, where a woman was showing her gamekeeper husband’s dogs. A comment of his stuck with me: “They are the only pointers which work for you and not for themselves.” And so, I bought my first one from the wonderful Lydney Park keeper Josh Theobald.
But, after my experiences with the GWP, I trained my first one, Djinn, way too close. As a result, on the moor he will point and hold a point brilliantly, but he seldom ranges further than 30 yards. So when Josh said he was breeding one more litter out of the same parents, I jumped at another and that’s when Puck appeared.
I quickly realised he was more intelligent than Djinn and had more drive. After the initial training phase I was happy to allow Puck to range much, much further than I had allowed Djinn. All went well until his first point, where he was perfectly backed up by Djinn. I was going to just hold them steady for as long as I could, when my old springer waffled along and flushed the partridge – bugger!
That first point can be crucial in their steadiness, and so it proved. Luckily his stop whistle worked, and from then on as soon as he comes on point I blow said whistle and he sits until I come up behind him. He’s out with me 50–60 days a season just picking-up pheasant and partridge, as well as the odd day on snipe, woodcock and duck. He’s happy in water unlike his brother – I’ve had to jump in three times to save that one.
Puck has swum in many rivers, although not always at my command. Last season he produced two retrieves that filled me with pride. The second one happened when I was picking-up on a steep bank and he came on point silhouetted against the sky on the top of the bank. On command he flushed a wounded partridge and I watched in delight and amazement as he neatly sprung some 4 feet in the air and caught it. The memory of that image is lodged deep within my mind.
Like his brother he’s quite a talker, and there’s plenty of chat until it’s time to work, then silence reigns. He loves people and children and has been a great ambassador for the breed.
So my dog of a lifetime is really a Jack of all trades, in that he hunts, points and retrieves in all fields and is always desperate to work. I don’t think you can ask more of a dog.
Will Templer runs Field Sports Services, offering game shooting, stalking and fishing.
Chairman, National Gamekeepers’ Organisation (NGO)
It is difficult to pick a single dog out as the dog of a lifetime, when you have been fortunate to have had more than your fair share of good ones. True, I have had some dreadful, almost untrainable ones, and a couple of unexpected failures, but on the whole I have had very good experiences with gundogs.
And after all of that, my dog of a lifetime is currently sat in the sun in my kennel. Old, stiff, deaf and a little unsteady on his legs, he potters on and seems very happy with his life in retirement. As always he is very pleased to see me too.
I bought him as a pup from a farm on the estate. His father was a field trial champion, his mother one of a long line of bitches that went back to those famous, and very local, labrador stud dogs FTCh Greenwood Timothy of Holdgate, and FTCh Holdgate Willie.
Out shooting with the owner of the dam, I was hugely impressed with her ability to take a line, her athleticism, and her gentle mouth.
She was at the time a maiden, five-year-old bitch and after a bit of gentle persuasion on my part, the owner agreed to breed a litter. I suggested the dog, and booked a dog pup, on the condition I could have the biggest and boldest – always preferring a dog to a bitch as they tend to be harder going, slightly stronger physically, and of course you don’t lose them for a month in the middle of the shooting season when they come into season.
He was a rather uninspiring pup when I picked him up; he had been named Dougie by one of my friend’s daughters (after a member of a boy-band) and was immediately re-named Dyfi after an estuary I shoot in mid-Wales.
He didn’t like water and, despite his boldness, refused to jump even the smallest of logs. On the plus-side, he was loyal, obedient, quiet and, quite honestly, the best companion you could have ever wished for. A much-added bonus, for an at best moderate trainer of dogs such as me, was his ability to mark, a quickness to learn and a phenomenal memory.
The jumping took time, the introduction to water a little longer. But the rest of his training was so easy that we’d walk back as though we hadn’t even beentrying. There were very few frustrations and, more importantly, never any fallings out between man and dog.
As he grew, so did his reputation, and I have to say my pride in him too. He was quiet off the lead at a peg, steady when dogging-in pheasant poults, determined on the line of a seemingly hopelessly lost runner, and bold beyond words marking and retrieving wigeon and geese from a wild sea.
He was so good I almost took him for granted, and expected him to do things others thought almost impossible. And not once, I might add, did he let me down. There were runners that were unpickable, of course there were, but he always tried and always gave it his best. If he didn’t find it, it simply wasn’t there.
I’d had a few dogs before him, and have had quite a few dogs since, including two labs that are in my kennels now, but none of them, whilst great dogs in their own right, have quite measured up to him. He is quite simply my dog of a lifetime.
Interestingly, I have recently had a call from a keepering friend to update me on a litter of pups his (and my) favourite bitch has had. He told me one of the dog pups is huge, and there is something about it that he can’t quite put his finger on that makes it stands out...
Liam Bell is Chairman of the National Gamekeepers’ Organisation and a Headkeeper on a south Shropshire estate.
Pick the gundog of a lifetime? I think it would be easier to choose my favourite child. I have been blessed to own several really special dogs, but choosing between them is no simple task.
I should make it clear that I am a picker-up. By which I mean I work my dogs very hard in the pursuit of wounded game and in the best interests of the shoot I am working on. I believe wholeheartedly that a good picker-up makes an enormous difference, and that it is my duty as a countrywoman to try my hardest to find all game that is shot.
But no, I cannot handle my dogs at 400 yards, and no, they are not all peg steady. And no, there isn’t a FTCh amongst them. So, with no certificates or awards, who is the ultimate? Princess Ellie? Best friend, however, unfortunately, chronically lazy and the chairwoman of the labrador workers’ union. How about Honey? The white wolf-like creature of unknown breeding who found game relentlessly. I owe her a lot, she taught me how to be a good picker-up. However, she was also prone to random and violent fighting and had jaws of steel that nothing, including deer and foxes, ever escaped.
Snoop then, my man of the moment? His work ethic is unrivalled. He loves his job. Handsome and enigmatic, he single-handedly does 50 per cent of my pack’s work (and they are a serious team of dogs). He definitely qualifies given his performance alone and from the unavoidable truth that when I lose him, I will need four decent dogs to fill the void. However, he is also a sex pest and a murderer. Whenever he isn’t being outstandingly wonderful, he is illicitly impregnating another dog or killing something.
All things considered then, I have made a decision and I have selected Pippa. She was lightweight and fast, with a natural, untrainable game sense. The thing which separated her from her competition was her phenomenal eyesight. She could see a runner from the opposite end of the Gun line, and pinpoint a towered bird from two fields away. If I spotted a wounded bird, I could point her in the direction, and when she saw it she would freeze, totally statuesque, until I said her name, whereby she was off like a bullet. She was always straight and true and undeterred by the chaos of a shoot day unfurling around her.
Her ability to follow the line of a wounded bird was uncanny, and she frequently found things that had been declared unfindable.
Pippa was also kind, loyal and doting. On long journeys to the grouse moors she would sneak onto the front seat, where she promptly lay on her back and wedged her nose under my hand at the gear stick. Not badgering, just touching. Occasionally a wafting foot would signal she wanted a brief stroke, but she was always content to just be with me.
She earned many shoots thousands of pounds by retrieving ‘unpickable birds’. Even in her 12th shooting season she eye-wiped some decent dogs and made four days out a week – albeit in a more supervisory mode. The irony is that I was asked to write this article the morning after she took her final dog walk. This is a tribute to a great friend and servant. I will miss you, Pippa.
Louise Buckenham (née Stimson) used to work for the National Gamekeepers’ Organisation. She is now married to a single-handed keeper in Leicestershire and describes herself as an “unpaid underkeeper and mother of two micro gamekeepers”. Louise is a virtually full time picker-up in the shooting season and also shoots English sporting clays for Leicestershire, and shoots game whenever she gets the opportunity.
Well-known game shot
Where does one start? As a shooting family but with young children then, we got our first gundog some 35 years ago when we moved out of London. A beautiful, magical, brilliant black labrador bitch called Puffin. She was born out of a Brocket bitch and McGillycuddy sire, I remember. She was the gundog love of my life, but it wasn’t just me. The whole family adored her and she was definitely the dog of a lifetime.
The most memorable retrieve? A strong running cock pheasant from across a torrent of water coming down the river in Strathbraan, Perthshire, more than 30 years ago now. It was in front of all my chums and all the Logiealmond keepers, who were led then by the wonderful Headkeeper Roddy McIntosh.
Like most of that wonderful breed, Puffin loved food, and some kindly, but mistaken, locals in the village where we lived then always fed her when she appeared on regular ‘patrols’. Sadly, that led to her ghastly, premature death – when she was run over early one night, returning from a gastronomic evening. It was a tragedy that was only slightly eased by retaining one of her puppies, Pintail; later followed by Plover, Petrel and Dipper. All wonderful family dogs and good ‘normal’ shooting and wildfowling companions – much loved and extensively utilised by both my sons and myself. They are all gone now and two of them also died too young – one in another car accident and the other due to suspected blackthorn poisoning.
I feel obliged to report that not all of our gundog ventures have been successful, though. For instance, we did have to return one ‘trained’ young dog that was most certainly not. Where are we now? We have moved away from labradors and are now on to the third generation of cocker spaniels from the Altnaharra line – Eider (RIP), Teal (retired) and Wigeon, who is still going strong.
They have all been wonderful dogs and brave workers. Wigeon is a beautiful blue roan and she is a loyal, hardworking dog, but squeaks a bit at the peg now. I put a sock over her head during drives which helps and does not seem to deter her from picking-up, at which she excels. She adores the grouse moor and wildfowling, having to be carried off the Norfolk Coast last year after being out with my son, Bertie, and retrieving 12 wigeon off the tide.
Where to now? We will probably try and have a litter off Wigeon and maybe retain one, but as I have grown older I have learnt two things. Whilst I adore cockers, they really prefer to be at ‘the other end’ – working away with the beaters or pickers-up, and not with boring old me on a peg. Secondly, I miss labradors and their intelligence and reliability as well as their easy-going trainability.
When Mrs Troughton allows me, I shall be going for a new labrador puppy – but what colour and where from? Who knows, but I’m sure the right opportunity will present itself.
Lastly, I cannot miss out my wife’s brilliant Lucas terrier, now 10, which loves picking-up, especially grouse and partridges, and very effectively.
Alistair Troughton is passionate about game shooting and has two shooting sons, a shooting son-in-law, four besotted shooting supporting grandchildren – and a very supportive wife and two daughters