By Janet Menzies of The Field
Monday, 29 October 2007
Rough-shooting over dogs can be hairy, but with careful planning and precautions it can be one of the great sporting experiences.
Rough-shooting can sometimes get very rough indeed, not to say hairy.
I was rabbit-shooting with a group of inexperienced guns up in the Highlands a few autumns ago. As we approached a promising patch of gorse whins, all was in order. Shiny faced, with only a light dew behind the ears, four guns and their dogs fanned out in a line on either side of me and my cocker spaniels. "Get on," I said to my spaniel, and within moments a rabbit had been bolted and shot. The line halted while my dog went off on the retrieve. So far, so textbook.
But this particular Highland estate was experimenting with a pheasant-shoot that season.
It was as he set off on his retrieve that my dog happened to bump another rabbit. He dropped. The new rabbit was then shot (bad enough) but unfortunately not before it, in turn, had flushed a pheasant, which was also shot (worse). Perhaps it was the sight of a pheasant when we were on a rabbit-shoot, or maybe it was all the gunfire, but something seemed to inflame the guns. They surged into the furze patch like a Newquay wave engulfing a surfer. Chaos escalated, with guns encircling whins and firing randomly in all directions. Bunnies bolted, pheasants flushed, dogs ran, guns blazed even Bryn Parry would have been pressed to do the scene justice. I gathered up my remaining spaniel (the other had long since lost the plot), and took refuge in a dip. I have no experience of sheltering in a foxhole during the Somme, but I'm guessing it was similar.
Of course, rough-shooting over your dogs doesn't have to be like this, and yet it so often is. I cherish a naïve notion that things weren't always so. It is said that the use of the word "hup" instead of "sit" to command spaniels dates back to the early days of shooting with muzzle-loaders over spaniel/setter-type dogs. When game had been shot, guns would be lifted hup to be reloaded, and everything would pause, dogs included.
If only. Looking through The Oxford Dictionary of Quotations, the sole usage of the "hup" I can find is John Jorrocks MFH to his horse: "Come Hup! I say, you hugly beast"... oh, the times I have longed to address a fellow gun along similar lines.
I was shooting grouse over pointers a while back, but the wind wasn't suiting the pointers, so I started to work my spaniel. He hunted tight and flushed a bird so close even I couldn't miss it. Having dropped perfectly to flush, he waited patiently for the command and then went like an arrow for the retrieve. Job done, perfectly, in moments. What made it even sweeter was that the dog was mad, bad Dutch, who was having a good day. That night I cooked the bird for my husband, and we may even have had sex, I don't recall. There is nothing like rough-shooting for providing you with all-time memorable days.
Successful rough-shooting over your own dog usually revolves around finding a compromise between the two extremes of idyll and idiocy. While the days of striding over the heather to suit yourself and your dog are rare, with a little planning it should also be possible to avoid the wilder excesses of hedge-bashing. The first thing to do is go and watch a working spaniel field trial or a walked-up retriever trial. Don't let people tell you a field trial is artificial and has nothing to do with "real" shooting. It's rough-shooting as it should be conducted something you may never get a chance to see elsewhere.
The Kennel Club has a list of field trial societies. Joining one costs only a few pounds and gives you access to a fantastic knowledge source. At the trial you will see what you should be aiming at. If you volunteer to a dogsbody job, such as carrying game to the vehicles, you will be even more welcome and get to know what is going on. It is also an opportunity to discover where rough-shooting is available, as it is not always easy to find.
The best form of rough-shooting for training (and for fun) is rabbiting but, since myxomatosis, opportunities for shooting rabbits over dogs have become rare in the UK. The best places, mainly in Scotland and the north of England, are known only by the handful of professional trainers, who keep their secret to a Masonic degree. However, many lowland bird shoots are now much more receptive to the idea of letting out small-bag and boundary days to be shot as walked-up rather than driven. There are even some sporting agents beginning to specialise in this area, such as Outside Days. Farmers can also be very obliging in letting you walk their hedges and root crops. They may even have some pigeon-shooting that has not been bought by a professional, and might welcome some help with fox control in return.
But try hard not to be tempted into going out with a few friends on their rough-shoot. One of the worst things about becoming an older and wiser dog-handler is discovering that your best shooting pals turn into "hugly beasts" under the guise of so-called rough-shooting. Surprisingly few people know how to do it safely, efficiently and enjoyably. There is little that makes such a large dent in a friendship as a tiny pellet from a 12-bore in your cheek. And they will dash about irritatingly, getting in the way of the dog (for whose benefit you're taking part).
The first time I worked my dogs for a shooting friend I highly respected, he asked me how long he should wait for the dog to get out of the way before firing, remarking that it was one of the things he found tedious about rough-shooting. It came as news to him that the dog drops to flush to allow safe shooting. He was also surprised to discover that dogs quarter close in front of the gun so that game will be flushed within shooting range. "It's so much easier than chasing after the dogs when they run up the hedge," he yelled.
Rather than take on the job of training your friends to rough-shoot, find a few like-minded dog trainers and set up a day together. You can shoot over each other's dogs, which makes training a lot easier, and you all have a pretty good idea of what you are trying to do.
Inevitably though, the day will come when you are working your dog for other people who are not dog-wise, possibly on a rough-shoot you don't know. Things prob-ably won't go as you plan. Stay calm. Work your dog extra close to you so that you have a greater chance of damage limitation (and of preventing either of you being shot). Don't get bossy with the guns when they start charging around, but don't be bullied by them either. If your dog needs a rest, give it one, no matter how much the excited guns want to go on. And if a piece of ground looks too thick or dangerous, don't work it.
In times of last resort, the best way to defuse situations is to fall back on the safety argument. Even the most bull-headed of guns realises the greater safety requirements of rough-shooting. If you have a shooting battle-scar you can show, so much the better depending where it is, of course. That really could defuse a situation
A day's shooting over your own dogs with friends is one of the great sporting experiences. The more considerately and safely you all shoot, the more fun you can have. To avoid mishaps, follow these rules and, if anyone disagrees, tell them it's what The Field does.
During my days as a tabloid hackette, I used to wr...
Holland & Holland Royal gun review technical data and shooting imp... Read more
Paradise found on hill and stream: the best sporting holidays... Read more
The British Shooting Sports Council calls for support from Field reade... Read more
Subscribe today, have every issue delivered to your door and save money on the cover price.