shot my first gamebird at the age of seventeen. The snipe broke from the edge of a forest clearing, I steadied myself long enough to get a shot off - and she disappeared over the edge of the conifers. Minutes later, despite the rhetoric from my friend and his father, the little spaniel bitch retrieved the limp bird directly to my hand. We spent the rest of the day in a silent landscape hunting woodcock. That was the only bird I shot that day and I still have her cured skin skulking at the bottom of my chaotic fly tying box. Every morsel of flesh was consumed on a bed of toast. I had dreamt of this moment since I was a boy.
"However, I did eventually get a spaniel, which was one-quarter cocker and three-quarters lunatic, and for some inexplicable reason I named him after an ex-girlfriend."
That dog was called "Bella". Not conscious at the time of the subtle nuances of spaniel work, I canít tell you how good she was. In all likelihood given the retrieve that day (there was several other spaniels hunting for the same bird) and the fact she had hundreds of head of wild game shot for her, she was a "good dog". I can tell you she was tough. On more than one occasion I sat with her in the freezing cold waiting for teal or widgeon to flight in and she would have spent the better part of day hunting woodcock. The handmaiden... the all around dog. She wasnít mine, of course, as I was a dogless teenager.
Several years later, I spent a Sunday afternoon in more or less the same company shooting over spaniels. Dogless and gunless again, I was relegated to the chore of "walking gamebag". Over the next few hours, I had in rapid succession woodcock and rabbits thrown to me without ceremony. I don't know whether I was disgruntled at being left out or whether I disliked all the killing (I suspect the former), but looking back on it now I recognise it for what it was: classic spaniel work in rough country. One bird stands out, to this day - a flushed woodcock flew out low over bracken and when it was hit it folded in a puff of feathers, then the bird was retrieved without fuss by a liver and white dog. Only for this scene involved the death of a bird it was a thing of beauty, straight off a Julian Novorol canvas.
For many years, I yearned for a dog of my own. During one particular bleak spell at university I fantasised about getting a spaniel, a cottage up the in mountains and living the life of a reclusive hunter-gatherer, reading by oil lamp at night. Of course the whole thing was completely impracticable and like most fantasies, it never materialised.
However, I did eventually get a spaniel, which was one-quarter cocker and three-quarters lunatic, and for some inexplicable reason I named him after an ex-girlfriend. We used to travel around the country with an old Spanish side by side in an opel corsa looking for woodcock covers; he travelled, of course, in the passenger seat and shared whatever I was eating. He was - and still is - far from perfect but he can hunt. When other dogs are running out of steam, he still manages to find game in the most unlikely of places. Of course, I cannot hold him and God forbid if we come across a hare, but as a good friend of mine said, "The perfect man and the perfect dog has yet to be made."
Now that itís all gone professional now and Iím bursting at the seams with dogs, I miss the simplicity and naivety of those early days afield. We would take our dogs into pubs and talk to them and generally make fools of ourselves.
One particular day stands out from that period, and for me, like that first initiation, it epitomises what shooting over dogs is all about. It was the last day of the season and we poured all our youthful enthusiasm into it. The weekend was seamless - there was as I can recall very little sleep and much of the waking hours seemed to be spent drinking. I slept in a chair next to a stove. We were, of course, wrecked the next day but hangovers can have a settling effect and the day was good. It was, though, that last hour that stands out. When Liam collapsed and pronounced he could go no further, I crouched next to him put a hand on his shoulder and promised him there was still enough light to shoot. Birds and his weariness would lift. His brother, Fergus, was, as always, still chomping at the bit.
I knew I was pushing it, but despite an initial weary look he rose to his feet. What followed was about 45 minutes of near perfection as we shot birds - not just any old bird but woodcock, the "lady of the woods" (I am coming close now to not killing these birds at all).
We reached the top of the hill and looked out over a lunar landscape. The weariness from the night before evaporated. We lay the birds out on the ground, admired them and made a fuss over the dogs. We washed down the whole experience with a couple of rounds of cider in a country pub; it was like stepping back in time. Almost every day shooting has some sort of magic - whether it is the company, or the landscape or the dogs. But I have yet to recreate that last magical hour on that final day.
Of course, it didnít stop there. My next spaniel was out of a dam that had just won a diploma of merit in the AV championship. (She is now a FTch - a title she well deserves.) I christened him "Rob" and for the next 18 months I poured my heart and soul into his training. This dog could hunt with drive bordering on lunacy. At first, I put his head shaking and general messing about with retrieves down to puppyishness, but it was soon to be apparent that this dog had a problem. A fault he inherited rather than aquired and in all likelihood it didn't come from the damís line.
At our first trial, he had a rabbit shot cleanly out in front. It was a good find. Miraculously, he held and waited to be sent, went over gave the rabbit a lick and kept on hunting. When the judge asked me to put on the lead, I felt like an errant schoolboy at the headmasters office. In fairness, we always went out in style. Whether it was pegging game or chasing pheasants in full flight, it was clear the dog was enjoying itself. I suppose I could have forced him but it is one thing to force a bird dog to retrieve game and another to correct a deeply ingrained fault in a spaniel (not trainer induced I hasten to add). At the end of the day the dog has or hasn't got what it takes. The final straw came when I shot a rabbit in training and I could hear him crunching ribs at 30 yards. We parted company.
"Almost every day shooting has some sort of magic - whether it is the company, or the landscape or the dogs."
Several more "well bred" spaniels later, I came to the realisation that all spaniels donít hunt. So why is there now quite a few spaniels around with retrieving faults and some who won't hunt unless they've several hundred pheasants running in front of them or youíve got a boot planted firmly in their behind? I now detest meekness in a spaniel. When you consider that hunting and retrieving are the essence of this breed, as Joe Irving called them Ďthe handmaidení of working dogs, where is the handmaiden now? Have her best qualities been compromised? There is silent discontent among some spaniel people.
In the cloak and dagger world of spaniel trials it can be hard to get your hands on good stuff but I have decided to follow the late Keith Erlandsons words to the letter. I am referring to the principle of using the potent sire - as opposed to the fashionable one - and the sound dam. At last I think I have found her (she happens to be by a potent but not very fashionable sire, there is a difference) and she has all the hallmarks of it. I have called her Tara and she is not unlike that first spaniel I shot over. She has a solid liver head and that dark eye they talk about. She has tremendous drive bordering on being suicidal - but she is no lunatic. At worst she will make a super shooting dog (a term believe it or not that some well informed spaniel people dislike and it is this attitude I have difficulty with).
I suspect, based on the little free hunting I have seen, she is capable of much more and looking on her ancestry she is certainly capable of producing good progeny.
So what is the good dam? This is the definition I like most and Bill Kelleher gave it to me. Bill's prefix is "Monalue" which goes back to Don of Bronton. It can, of course, be applied to all spaniels. "The good spaniel should quest for scent in its absence becoming more animated when encountering it, it should go to cover of its own accord. It must also go to water and have a sound mouth." It fits very much with Keith Erlandsons' definition of the sound-breeding animal "the favourite shooting companion" of its owner. She may, of course, be a FTch and all the better but this is not a prerequisite for producing the goods - provided there is good lineage. Now while this may sound all very obvious one can only wonder whether this principle has been followed to the letter. It is a concept also very much dependent on the use of the "potent" sire.
What point am I making? Well, very simply the spaniel is the roughshooters dog. Whether it be woodcock in Ireland, rabbits in Scotland, ruffed grouse or chukars etc... in your own country, like Bella they need to be tough, go to cover and really search for game which by its nature is relatively scarce, hence the term "questing for scent in its absence" makes perfect sense. Those who call "shooting dogs" "cover bashers" only do themselves and the breed a great disfavour. This is not to undermine the importance of trials in setting a standard for the breed but one can only wonder how this standard has been handled in recent years. Bill Kelleher also said to me that field trials should be the "shop window" for the shooting man very much echoing Keith Erlandsons sentiment that
trial dogs "should be judged as shooting dogs with a bit more style and polish".
I just would like to make a few comments about the late Keith Erlandson. I didnít know the man personally but I wish I did. I would dearly have loved to run a dog under him. His wisdom is a great loss - whether he was writing about spaniels or Welsh grouse, he really could write with depth and wisdom. I sincerely hope that those who have so much influence over modern spaniels took note of the warning bells he was sounding. I will give you just one instance of his depth of character. Several years ago on a driven shoot in the UK a very large number of woodcock were shot. To those who know these birds it was quite obvious that these were newly arrived and tired from their migration. Apart from the fact it is abhorrent to shoot wild migratory birds in such large numbers, much was made of it in the shooting press.
Keith Erlandson was one of the few public figures who spoke openly against it when those supposed advocates of this magnificent bird sat on the fence. It speaks volumes of the man, Iíll leave it at that.
Tara is staying put because I know that whether she is running in a trial or questing for game in the west of Ireland she will give her all, all of the time... which these days seems to be a rare and precious commodity. All I have to do now is channel her talent and bide my time. When it comes to choosing a dog for her, he may have a cabinet full of silverware or just be sitting quietly in someones yard. More importantly, he will have good lineage and drive - or what we call in this part of the world, "bottle".
So now it's autumn. The days are cooling and it's time to get some real training done. Well into my third decade Iíve decided, against all good advice, to try and make some sort of a living from dogs and if that gives me a chance to work from home and have three meals a day with my family then I have no difficulty with it.