The birds have been to wood for a few months now, and the October frosts have helped them feather up. The cocks have grown long tails and assumed their autumn colour, matching the chestnuts and changing leaves in the park. They are never content to stay where they're put. They come off roost on daylight, eat a quick pelleted breakfast, and begin their daily rambles. Like their chicken bretheren, they love crossing the road. We put up signs to warn motorists -
"Slow" describes a pheasant in more ways than one.
Every morning, the dogs and I pile into the truck to chase birds back where they belong, which is the centre of the park. We sweep the margins and edges of the woods. I say "we" but the dogs do all the work. Podge goes with Mike -
I take Pip and Dakota. Even though we have seven dogs, there's a lot of dog work to do. We're short of dogging in dogs so Dakota, like the old cop in an action film, has had to come out of retirement for "one more job". Her hips are holding up, though she deigns to let me assist her into the back of the truck. She's as proud as any self-reliant old woman, and twice as cantankerous especially if I try and leave her behind to give her a morning off.
Lazy dogging in: I drive the truck and drink my coffee while the dogs do all the work!
Ian borrows Dulcie, as his Labrador Stella is too young to work yet. Instead, Stella gets dropped off for play dates with Tinker, also too early in her training to go dogging in. The pups work on their social skills instead. Dulcie is a hard worker, She was as fat as a pork sausage in June, but is back on double rations having run the extra weight off before the shooting season even starts.
After dogging in is done, I have to go round the kennels and check each dog for injuries. Scratched faces, bleeding tongues and noses are usual for dogs that work hard in brambles and tall grass. The spaniels always need their eyes wiping over with cold tea bags at least, and everyone needs the burrs and sticky buds combed out of their fur.
Happy but a bit scratched up - Pip after a morning's work.
Quincy and Spud take the night shift, usually less busy than the morning shift as birds are wont to go home to bed on their own. I try reserve these two girls as my picking up dogs. Giving a dog carte blanche to chase birds one day then, on a shoot day, expecting it to sit steady while birds drop all around can be confusing for the dog. As a dog matures, most seem to understand the different jobs required of them. Pip is at that perfect age. Quincy will be there soon.
Recently, a Big Time cocker spaniel trainer came to the estate to give a demonstration. His dogs were impressive, very responsive to his commands to go left, right, back, and stop and hunt an area. He trains them to win field trials and he's the 2102 and 2013 champion so he must be good at it, but he doesn't work his dogs on shoots. Different training you see.
The big difference between us (besides his skill and my amateurishness!) is our expectations. My dogs often need to find game that I haven't seen fall, or has run off. I expect them to work independently without handling from me. Mr. Trainer can take all the time needed to fully train his dogs. Our dogs have to earn their keep as soon as possible, or we don't get paid. Food and vet bills are only covered for working dogs, not puppies or retirees. Finally, if one of Mr. Trainer's dogs doesn't make the grade, he can sell it on as a part-trained dog to a shooting person. I'm not sure I could regularly part with even the most useless dog, as they quickly become part of the family for me.
His highly trained trialling dogs are tools of his trade. I suppose mine are too (tools of my trade, not highly trained!), but they're also my companions. I take a dog or dogs everywhere I go. In late summer, we hiked the local woods together and picked fruit from the hedgerows to make into jams and chutneys -
The dogs pick for their own consumption alongside me, and come home with purple tongues. Quincy shares her windfall apple finds with me, but these are tart cooking apples -
She doesn't share the sweet pears that she picks for herself from the low hanging branches -
Dakota and Pip check for wandering birds while I glean the potatoes left behind by the big harvesting machines and bag them to store over winter. The smallest potatoes get cooked up for the dogs' dinners. Pip snacks on raw ones.
I don't think any of my dogs would starve in the wild.
Sometimes I do things just for the dogs' enjoyment. This summer Dakota and I spent the day canoeing up the Wye river in Wales -
Dakota loves canoeing and I worried that this might be the last summer she was fit enough to enjoy a day messing about in boats. Swimming is good for her joints and her float vest means she can swim without too much effort. I even tied a bandanna around her neck, so she could feel like a real outdoorsy dog -
So I said I was going to fill you in on all the work we've been doing to get ready for our first shoot day, but I'm not making it sound like work. I suppose that's the secret. Alongside the fruit picking and bird chasing, the dogs have got fit. When I'm not being lazy and drinking coffee in the truck, I've just about got fit too. I'll let you know how our first day on the new shoot goes. Soon I'll have to turn my attention to the sheep, as the ram goes in, in under a fortnight. But that's a story for next time.