To put it mildly, there is a precedent for female pickers-up, in the form of HM The Queen. Bill Meldrum has always considered Her Majesty to be one of the best dog handlers he has ever seen. Bill should know; he began training and trialling her labradors in the Sixties. Looking back over his favourite time working dogs with Her Majesty, Bill, now retired, told me: “One of my favourites was Sandringham Sherry. I remember once, on the last day’s grouse-shooting of the season, The Queen saw a grouse go down about 800yd back, and I asked Her Majesty to send Sherry. Her Majesty got Sherry up on to a peat hag and sent her on back, and Sherry picked the grouse. We were so engrossed we didn’t notice that all the beaters were watching. The Queen said, “If I had known they were all watching I would never have tried it.”
So girls who go picking-up today have the ultimate role model. But if even Her Majesty can suffer from nerves occasionally, what of the rest of us? Ladies who pick-up must learn to cope with no fewer than three types of wild or partially domesticated animals. The first, and in many ways least problematic, are the birds – prone to get up and run about madly when supposed stone dead. Then there are the dogs – prone to run about madly and disobey all commands. And, finally, there are the men, that is gamekeepers, guns and fellow pickers-up – prone to disobey all commands and swear a lot.
Annette Johnson, now in her third season picking-up on Wiltshire’s Gurston Down shoot, is taking all three challenges in her stride. “If you go in and be yourself; if you don’t try to be masculine and over-competitive, then you will get a good reception,” she advises. “Generally speaking, I don’t encounter too much chauvinism and I think a lot of the time the chaps are quite pleased that you are there. You don’t have to try to beat the men at their own game. Sometimes the keeper is swearing a lot but that is just the way they are and you have to get over it. They shout and holler, but it affects the beating line more than us.”
She is equally pragmatic about the dogs, accepting that, “All dogs do something wrong at some time.” But Annette has good reason to be relaxed about her spaniels, as it was their brilliance that got her the invitation to pick-up at Gurston Down. “We had a cocker bitch that wouldn’t go all the way trialling, so we were selling her on, and the keeper at Gurston came along and he was so impressed with her and the springer I was working her with that he invited me to come and pick-up because he couldn’t believe how in control my dogs were.”
With two of the major hurdles – dogs and humans – overcome, it is surprising that Annette nearly fell at the third: the birds. She confesses, “In the early days I was really squeamish. To see me carrying a bird must have been quite comical – and as for finishing off a wounded one, I used to find someone who would do it for me.”
If the tender sex has problems with injured birds, you might imagine this would be doubly so for Tamsin Fielding, since her job is rearing them. “Chilcote Field Pheasants is my full-time business,” she says. “Picking-up fits in with it because the business runs during the summer and I can pick-up during the winter. I send the birds out at seven weeks old and then I’m there again at the end of the cycle, which gives you a chance to appreciate it a bit more. I enjoy seeing them fly.” But she confesses, “Finishing off the first bird of the season is quite hard, but from then on you are doing a job. As picker-up I am ensuring my birds are quickly and humanely killed.”
That isn’t always as easy as Tamsin makes it sound. She picks-up at Pen Hill, a high-bird shoot in the Mendips. “The views overlooking Glastonbury Tor are amazing,” says Tamsin. “But it is a gruelling shoot for the dogs because of the hills and the banks. I work sprockers and springer spaniels, usually three or four, depending how big a day it is. Because of the height, we get birds that fall a long way back.”
As a commercial shoot with a good reputation, Pen Hill attracts all sorts of clients. Tamsin comments tactfully, “There are a lot of different types of guns. Often we get a team of expert shots, and it is wonderful to watch these guys picking the specific birds for height. But also a lot of the guests just don’t have any idea about what is going on behind the scenes – they are swinging the gun around all over the place – so I always stand a bit far back.”
Alexandra Lofts from Hampshire also points to the very different behaviour of guns on corporate days, explaining, “I pick-up on five or six shoots, both family and large commercial. I even get paid on one of them! And the good point of a big commercial day is that there is plenty of work for the dogs, but on some of the very corporate days the guns can actually be quite rude. One day it was the end of the drive and I was absolutely laden with partridges, not just the game carrier, but armfuls. This chap stopped me to hand me yet more birds and got quite stroppy when I couldn’t take them. You get a very dismissive attitude – you are just staff on a corporate day.”
Which brings us to the eternal battle between gun and picker-up – a war made all the more intractable when the gun is a He and the picker-up a She. Amateur keeper of Widcombe shoot in north Somerset, where she picks-up, Kerry Pullen ought to be immune from picking-up politics, but she has been in some em-barrassing situations. “I had one last season,” she confesses. “I upset one of our guns. There were a lot of runners, so I let Ruby go to get them before they got to the road. She did a brilliant job and brought them all back, including one that was just sat there. The gun had let his dog off by then, but mine outran his. I went up and apologised.” Kerry hopes her dogs will be speedy enough to outrun the pheasants before they reach the next drive. They usually are.
However, Kerry does admit that, “You do become maternal about your dogs. You want them to pick these birds so badly and that is why you are there. Some guns are delightful, and more and more people have refined peg dogs that only go about 5yd away – which is lovely because it leaves all the juicy retrieves for my dogs.”
All the girl pickers-up admit to a fierce, protective pride in their dogs’ work. It’s a feeling that is hard to explain but Bea Harford from Kingscote near Tetbury tries. “It is the sense of achievement when you see your dog come back with a huge grin on its face and it has found the bird it is looking for. My dogs are on a mission and want to find that bird as fast as they can, and you feel so proud: it is my dog that can do that,” she says. Now in her fourth season picking-up, Bea found it surprisingly difficult to work her way into the line, given that her father had his own shoot. “It took a bit of persuasion to get Dad to allow me to shoot in the first place. Then when I decided I wanted a dog, Mum was, ‘Please don’t have a dog, you are going to turn into a dog lady.'” But Bea persisted, and her little black labrador pup, Izzy, turned out to be so good that picking-up be-came more interesting than shooting. “It was difficult at first to get into the type of shoot I wanted, because I prefer the smaller ones,” she says. “People have to trust you and your dog. They need to know you can do the job.”
Dawn Hall from Leicestershire also found it hard to get started – a problem she solved by moving in with Brian Twigger, the gamekeeper at Whatton estate, where she now picks-up. She explains how it all began: “I show flat-coated retrievers and to make them a full champion they have to prove themselves in the field as well, so I was trying to get on various shoots, and that was how I met Brian. I’ve discovered I enjoy picking-up and I have been doing it for about four years, during which time we’ve been really successful in the Crufts gamekeeping classes.” Working show dogs, and flatcoats at that, made life hard for Dawn at first: “People knock the flatcoats and I get annoyed. My dogs are the only flatcoats on the shoot; the other pickers-up have labradors. Flatcoats can be a bit headstrong, they think they know better – but sometimes they do. That’s one of the things that is nice about working them, their initiative. The guns like to look at the flatcoats because they are so handsome, but the other pickers-up tease you a bit. Labrador people are not brave enough to take on a flatcoat. Now there are more of us working flatcoats, I say the flatcoat girls are going to take over – you have to give as good as you get!”
The first season or so may be a bit hairy, but none of the girls has let it put her off, and Anne Heading from Edinburgh has found that once you get through the first 25 years, it’s all plain sailing. We talked while she was still elated from picking-up grouse on the Edinglassie estate in Aberdeenshire. “Oddly enough, Saturday was not the nicest day for weather, and the dogs hadn’t actually been working that well – yet I came home feeling great. I have only recently started picking-up at Edinglassie and it is a particularly nice estate. The keeper, Derek Calder, is very friendly and this sets the tone with the young underkeepers who will all chat to you – you know, some of the young lads can be a bit lacking in conversation. And the pickers-up are a delightful group. So it is a very friendly atmosphere, and the moor is so beautiful. For me the enjoyment of picking-up is the joy and feeling of freedom of being on a moor, miles from anywhere, and the pleasure of seeing the dogs work in such wide, open space and in beautiful scenery.”
Lucky Louise Stimson gets the opportunity to pick-up on both grouse moors and on lowland pheasant-shoots as she travels the country working for the National Gamekeepers’ Organisation. She says, “The two types of shoot are so different you can’t have a favourite. With grouse it is so wild and you can watch all your dogs working because it is so open and I like the solitude of sitting far back and watching it all. But on pheasant days you get more chance to get a mark if a bird has a leg down, and you can hunt the hedgerow. When you can do both with the same dogs working on the hill and down in the stubble, you know you have a good dog,” and this is what satisfies Louise most of all: “My dogs know what they are doing. They watch when something comes with a leg down and know that is the one to go for first. So you know you have done a good job and done the sport a good turn by swift retrieval of injured birds. As a picker-up with good dogs you can make a difference.”