Wednesday, 5 February 2014

End of the Season

Pheasant shooting finished on 1 February. The dogs are tired, and the keepers are tired. But mostly, the dogs.
Podge power napping on the underkeeper's coat between drives

The end of the season means a round of chores: washing and mending dog coats, cleaning and oiling guns, taking inventory of our ammunition stores. The keepers' suits - known as "tweeds" - have gone to the dry cleaners, but our move to a new estate may mean a change of tweeds. It's sort of like Scottish tartans or state flags - estates can have their own preferred tweed pattern. Ties are often embroidered with the estate owner's family crest as well. Some shoots even produce their own brand of sloe gin for a shoot day.

But I digress.

The weather has put a stop to all but essential outdoor work: checking livestock or walking dogs. Our part of England has suffered devastating floods and gales. As if to make my point, the roof just blew off the chicken house that I can see from the window over my writing desk cum kitchen table.

We are winding down our wood and coal stores with the impending move, and perpetually feeding both woodstoves to stave off the damp and cold. As fast as we stoke the fires, the wind acts like a blacksmith's bellows devouring the fuel. The little cottage would be toasty warm but the metal-framed windows, none of which close completely, let the hot air out and the gusts of cold wind in. I won't miss this decaying, cold cottage.

I'm chain-drinking hot cocoa to stave off the weather and my dismal mood. The sheep paddock is more mud than grass and the ewes are making do with hay every morning, and ewe nuts - what I call  "sheep chow" - in the evenings. They need fresh grass to do well, and this regime only keeps them in a holding pattern. They have sheds for protection, but as soon as I fork dry straw into their sheds, the wind blows the rain in sideways. The flock is a shameful sight - heads down, wet fleece parted along the backbone, and dirty knees. When I feed them, they rub against my legs vying for the best feeding spot and the water wicks from their fleece to soak my jeans. I miss my white, dry summer sheep.

The dogs have had their end of season 'thank you' bones, saved from the deer carcase I butchered for our end of year staff dinner. By now they would also be bathed and brushed, and their beds freshly strawed. It's a pointless task until the weather turns drier. I'm glad to report no major dog injuries this year. Pip has a few raised scars on her muzzle from taking on a barbed wire fence with her face, and Spud has a minor puncture wound in her right armpit that's healing nicely. Dulcie's age is slowing her down but she's not ready to retire just yet.

Tinker came out on the last day, as an introduction to her future field work. I wanted her to hear the gun noises and meet other dogs, as well as see some fresh game in the field. My heart was in my throat as she's quite a manic, busy puppy at home. I wasn't sure what her reaction would be to all the excitement of a shoot day.

Just arrived

On peg with Dulcie, watching the drive

Well, she was all business in the field. It was like she walked in wearing a hardhat and carrying a metal lunch pail, and punched a timeclock. The end of drive whistle blew, and I worked her alongside Dulcie for guidance. Tinker dove into the thickest cover, completely focused, working by scent. She even retrieved her first pheasant to hand. It was one she found in a pile ready to be strung, but she picked it and ran straight back to me.

With Dulcie, and their birds

Can you believe that only ten months ago she looked like this?

I have put less training into her than I would like, but her natural abilities will out. She will be 18 months old at the start of our next shoot season, and ready to join the team. She's already learned like her mother Podge, how to power down between drives - with the help of our young neighbour, Chloe.

Work hard, cuddle hard - that's the spaniel philosophy.