Sunday, 26 January 2014

Doggie (Can) Do

There's only one more week left of this season's pheasant shooting. For the dogs, it means one more week of doing what they love most: hunting birds, flighting birds, and bringing birds back to hand. They're gun dogs and it's in their nature. They have a shared working nature, but boy are their personalities different.

Dulcie is on one end of the spectrum. She wants to go to work every day. A morning walk before a shoot day looks like this -

Pip is the other end of that spectrum. On shoot days, Pip works and will happily retrieve everything -- but at her own pace. Pip has the speed and urgency of a pensioner counting out change in a long grocery store queue. Pip finds a bird, and she'll get there when she gets there-

I work the girls as a trio, usually in a "one spaniel and two retrievers" combo. I'm not skilled enough to run four effectively. I cover my deficiency with the excuse that it gives each dog a day off in turn.

The Pip-Dulcie-Quincy combo

Do you know the saying about young boys? One boy is a boy, two boys is half a boy, and three boys is no boy at all. This should apply to working dogs too. Individual personalities mean that some dogs work together, and others distract each other. Quincy and Spud play all day together, and see a shoot day as just a "pheasant finding" extension of their daily games. Ditto Pip and Podge. This is fine as long as birds are eventually brought to hand, and no one even thinks about a game of tug o' war - a venial sin in the shooting field (and one which has happened to all of us).

The Dulcie-Quincy-Spud combo

Podge is currently doing a solo gig in the beating line with Monty, our new apprentice underkeeper. Podge will work for any handler - a rare and appreciated trait in a dog. She knows her job, and will stay with whoever takes her out of the kennel in the morning. 

There is an even more special dog on the shoot. He belongs to one of our favourite clients. Merlin is a black lab with PRA. He lost his sight at a very early age. He's about four now.

Merlin and his companion Jasper

 And he retrieves his owner's shot birds -

I love this video for the genuine feelings that both owner and dog reveal in this one small act.

We're all looking forward to the 2014-15 shoot season, and a job for every dog.

Friday, 17 January 2014


After a particularly long, cold and wet shoot day I went out to check that the dogs were settled in for the evening. I found this:

Podge curled up asleep on top of Dulcie.

I'm calling it a "Spanwich".

Wednesday, 15 January 2014

Catching Up

I apologise to everyone reading this for the long silence. Our change in circumstance frightened me and I lost my voice for a while. Well, my own voice. I was saying a lot of things in my head that were dark and bitter, but that were not me. And those thoughts definitely didn't need sharing.

So was does an American - even the ex-pat, overseas variety - do when her mind turns against her? Exactly.


I believe you all know my therapist, Dr. Kitty?

It's impossible to explain the healing properties of a long, quiet plod around the villages on horseback. Even the smell of horse, the warmth on the inside of your calves where they rest on her sides, especially on a cold day, along with the rocking motion in the saddle is quite possibly the key to my overall mental health. Well, that and lots of dog cuddles. 

So, instead of telling Mike that I'm off to ride Kitty, it's now common parlance in our house to say "I'm going to see my therapist." Technically that means "I'm going to see my therapist - if I'm not back in 3 hours could you come and check that I don't need scraping off the road" and I give him a rough map of my intended route. Group therapy is of course riding, or "going for a hack", with others. What a friend's husband refers too as going for a yak. You can probably work that one out for yourself.

Anyhoo, I feel heaps better and ready to embrace change. It might take a few posts to find my voice again, but at least I've got the confidence to get back on this particular horse and start blogging again.

That said, how about a quick round up of life at M&T to bring you all up to date? I will put it in categories so you can read about your favourites, and skip what doesn't interest you. This post might ramble a bit from topic to topic, I hope you can plod along for the ride.

Filming on Far from the Madding Crowd is finished, and the estate is back to its normal anachronistic state. I did one day as an extra in the market scene. To arrive in makeup and wardrobe for 6am, I had to do all my chores by torchlight. A quick wash and change, and I arrived on set to be laced into a corset and layered in calico and wool. I was then sent to makeup where the artists rubbed makeup "dirt" all over my hands and face (Lady, I could have saved you that step...), and pinned a huge bonnet to my head. I had to drive my Land Rover and box of chickens to the market area where they were filming a mile or so away, which in a wide-brimmed bonnet and tight corset presents its own set of challenges. If you watch the film look out for a chicken seller in a blue bonnet - that's me. In film, as in life, I am typecast.

It was an absolute hoot and I would certainly do animal film work again. Goat minder, toad wrangler (I keep forgetting to tell you the tale of Kevin the toad), and chicken seller are all going on my resume under 'special skills'.

Thanksgiving was quiet. It was just Mike, underkeeper Ian, and me. The turkey turned out delicious, very tender. Perhaps because of the special basting it received from Dakota.

Christmas was equally relaxed. I cut down a tree from our small plantation, and Pip helped me string popcorn decorations. Well, "helped" when I wasn't looking anyway -

One of them climbed on the armchair to reach the tree, and ate the lowest strand of popcorn string.

All the working dogs are well, too: heathy, well muscled, and better behaved than the house dogs.

The sheep are fine and the lambs are well-grown, if wet and muddy from winter rains. Pumpkin is still with us. I returned him to the flock when he started waking me up before daylight shouting for his bottle. He's been weaned now and though he's part of the flock, Pumpkin hangs out on his own a lot. He's a bit of a lone wolf - in sheep's clothing. He's runty and about the ugliest lamb I've ever seen -

He's tough though, and pushes his way into the feeder between his much bigger siblings -

No points for guessing who's got the tiny hiney.

He's so small he can push under a ewe and stand between their legs, and steal food from their feeder. He may be slow to make weight, but you can't beat him for entertainment value. Grumpy's spring ram lamb is headed for ice camp this Friday. The rest of the flock will come with us to our new job, including Pumpkin.

The long dark nights and bad weather have been great for pheasant shooting, but make other aspects of life difficult. Deer have been on the agenda this month. 

This one appears to have a dog growing out of its neck. (You would never think a dog with hips as bad as hers could be a "counter surfer".)

The stalkers are harvesting roe and fallow deer, and I've been doing my best to keep up with butchering these for our freezer and the estate (once I sent the dogs outside). I want to have a ready supply of venison when we move. It will take me some time to settle in, to get to know our new piece of ground and deer movements there. 

I just about finished the butchering backlog, and Mike and I had just sat down to dinner, when there was a knock at the door. Someone picked up a road casualty sika hind (female deer). These cases are reported to the police, then usually dealt with by the local gamekeeper. It wasn't quite dead, so I quickly despatched it. Head trauma but no body damage. I gralloched it in the dim light of the truck's highbeams, groping around semi-blind inside the animal with a knife -

We hung it in the chiller, and I tidied up my gralloching job.

As you can see, our chiller is pretty full. By the way, it's not best practice to mix fur and feather, but sometimes needs must.

We also had this unwanted visitor in our garden a few days ago -

I pulled into the drive after a trip to the feed store, and I heard a chicken in distress -the kind of cry that means something has its teeth in the chicken. The fox had been in my hen house in broad daylight, killed one of my layers and was dragging a hefty meat chicken into the hedge to store for later. That fox was so bold, it was trying to walk past me to get back in the hen house! 

I didn't have time to get a gun, and I needed to secure all four hen houses right now. Old Dakota came out of retirement for one more job. I threw open the back door and Dakota chased that fox out of the garden and down the entire length of the big house drive, which gave me time to shut the other chickens away. 

She's not as fast as she used to be, but she hasn't lost her bloodlust.

Not half an hour later I saw that old fox in the road, dragging my now-departed meat chicken away! He dropped his prize when he saw me and scuttled off. I collected the dead hen and used her to bait the fox cage we were setting in the garden. He was in there before I finished my evening chores. That fox had a very large last meal, but my chickens had their revenge.

If I've missed anything out, and anyone would like the update (and possibly a photo) let me know in the comment sections. I also have to say thanks for the kind comments and emails over the long silence. I wouldn't have a voice if there weren't good readers cheering me on to speak. So, hey, really....You know? (That's a New Englander being emotional.)

I'm truly grateful you're out there.