For wild greys and redlegs, you need a worker that’s keen, thorough and won’t mind the brambles. So which is the best gundog for partridges? Alec Marsh finds out
To find out how to choose the best gundog for partridges, Alec Marsh asks the experts which breeds they rate, from spaniels to labradors.
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HOW TO FIND THE BEST GUNDOG FOR PARTRIDGES
As every self-respecting reader of The Field knows, a dog is not for Christmas. Rather, it is for retrieving, pointing or flushing out game. At the very minimum, it should be able to keep us company while out on a stroll or sheltering from the heavens in the elderly, short-wheelbase Land Rover.
As the first of this season’s partridges appear on the sportsman’s horizon, there is a pressing question that needs to be answered: which dog? Which is the gundog of choice, the one that leaves all others panting in shade when Perdix perdix – or, indeed, Alectoris rufa – hove into view?
To find out, I turn my address book to its final page and pick up the phone to Nick Zoll, founder and manager of a syndicate operating a 2,500-acre shoot on the Holkham Estate at Burnham Thorpe, Norfolk, celebrated for its pre-eminence in wild English partridges. If Zoll doesn’t know the right dog for the partridge, no one will.
He begins by noting that if one were walking-up partridges over green stubbles in September, as they did in the days before driven game, then a pointer would be the dog of choice. But given that north of 99% of all partridges today are shot in drives, the pointer is superfluous.
“For me, shooting partridges coming over a hedge, actually the ideal dog for that is a spaniel, either a springer or a cocker, with a cocker having a slight edge only in as much as they tend to be incredibly thorough workers of the ground,” says Zoll. “They’ve got a nose that’s glued to it, more so than a springer, so they don’t miss much. And if you have to send one into a hedge to pick up a bird, it’ll do it with ease. It’ll go under any bramble or thorn that most dogs, including springers, are less inclined to want to do. And they’re just built for it.”
Zoll, who is on his fourth-generation cocker spaniel, also extols the breed’s versatility, nature and pace. “If you have a running bird, you can send your dog back mid-drive before the bird makes the furthest hedge and your dog will bring it to you. They’re incredibly keen to please in a way that I don’t think a labrador or a springer is. So my vote, hands down, goes to a cocker.”
Next in his partridge pecking order comes the springer spaniel, with the labrador – for many of us, surely, the aged waxed Barbour of gundogs – trailing. “I wouldn’t trust a lab to work heavy cover,” sighs Zoll. “I’ve seen so few of them do it. They’re just the wrong shape to be able to work a thorny hedge.”
And a hedge is the least of it; at Burnham Thorpe, the shoot includes several woods, including one stretching 20 acres, thick with brambles, creating a highly challenging retrieve for any dog. “There is no way on earth that you’re getting a labrador to go through that stuff, but a cocker will go through every single block of bramble that you point at and it will still come out the other end looking for more. That’s the charm of the dog. Until you get very late on in a cocker’s life, it will want to please and to hunt more than any other dog I know.”
Zoll’s neighbour in north Norfolk, Jake Fiennes, conservation director on the Earl of Leicester’s Holkham Estate, is another who favours the cocker spaniel for English and redleg partridges alike. “It’s cocker every time,” states Fiennes, who previously managed the Raveningham Estate, in Norfolk, before arriving at Wells-next-the-Sea in 2018. “Sometimes partridges will go 200 or 300 yards and drop down. A good, well-trained cocker will mark every bird. They’re quick, they’re biddable, they’re an all-round dog.”
Fiennes, who says he’s seen an escalation in the number of cockers working on partridge manors at the expense of labradors, puts this down to their character and sheer determination. “A cocker just gets stuck in, once they’ve got the scent and they’re fixated on where to find it. You can see a bird and watch the dog working and the cockers go around and around. Sometimes for a millisecond they point – and then they pounce.”
NOSE FOR THE JOB
Do they have better noses than labs? “It’s more about their character,” says Fiennes, who migrated from black labs to cockers about 10 years ago and is now on his second, Logan (named after the Marvel character, not Brian Cox’s character in Succession). “The cockers that I have had all had very good noses. From my experience, cockers will retrieve anything. You used to be able to say that’ve got a bit of spunk about them, but you can’t say that anymore.”
A cocker can also make you look good, says Fiennes, even if your shooting lets you down. “A black lab is just a black lab,” he says, “but a cocker… they can be your companion, your workhorse; they can make you look like the number one person in the field because if your dog is exceptional and your shooting is less so, actually everyone is looking at your dog rather than your shooting.”
Even at the ancestral home of the labrador retriever, on the sprawling Drumlanrig Estate of the Duke of Buccleuch, whose ancestor was among the first to import the dogs from Newfoundland in the 1830s, the lab is on the back foot when it comes to partridge. Headkeeper Rab Clark has two cockers, as well as three small springers and four labradors. But in his book the cocker is the ideal dog for partridge because they’ll ‘rake’ the landscape, finding birds autonomously thanks to their innate natural ability rather than training. “Cockers are their own wee animal – they’re no looking for help all the time,” Clark tells me. Labradors, meanwhile, are trained to be sent to an area. “You see a team of cockers working through a bracken face, there’s nothing getting missed. They’ll all be scooting about in their own wee direction – they’re working like a pack of hounds.”
And the cocker never lets you down. “The cocker just turns up with that last partridge that 20 dogs have been looking for,” laughs Clark. “You think it cannae be there and you walk away, and the cocker comes tootling back – you dinnae even know where it’s been – with a dead partridge. I like the natural hunting ability of them.”
And as well as tenacity and being the right size to get through tight spaces, that hunting ability is what sets them apart: “A picker-up dog is a wild dog,” declares Clark. “Natural ability, nothing trained out of them. My pickers-up… just a basic obedience and let them rake. Just let them wee fellers scoot about and just find them naturally. For mass picking you cannae beat the cockers.”
AND THE LAB?
But it’s not curtains for labs. Not yet. For as Zoll and Clark will concede, the labrador has got more energy and endurance than his distant, more diminutive spaniel cousin. He also has longer legs for catching the running bird. “That’s handy,” says Clark. “With a pack of cockers you end up with six cockers in hot pursuit.”
Daniel Bunting, a North Essex farmer who runs a pickers-up team and works on about 15 shoots, uses between two to six labradors on a variety of partridge days. He declines to have his head turned by the frenetic pocket rockets of the spaniel family.
“Most partridges are flighted towards a hedge and break over a hedge, which means you will be picking up in the field, rather than in a wood or stream or lake,” notes Bunting, making the point that across open ground labradors are therefore superior. “Also, the labradors have a fantastic capability to mark – and they can mark from a very long way away. They are also higher, so they scent the ground better. They cover the ground in a more natural way – they’re not running around the same bit of ground. If you are a picking-up crew, where you are walking through, your dogs are working in a nice, tight pattern and you’re picking up everything that comes through – it’s brilliant.”
But Bunting admits that for that late-season partridge, where the birds might well find that bramble bush, a spaniel has its place. “My brother has English spaniels and cockers and they are fantastic at going in a bush. Sometimes I say, ‘Please help me.’ But I think for a partridge dog you can’t beat a labrador.”
In part, that’s down to their physical stamina. “I reckon you need two cockers for one labrador – the reason being the cockers can’t handle the cold weather. When it’s cold, you’ll see the cockers start shaking – whereas with a labrador they’ll work all day long and they’re still in tip-top condition.” (Zoll acknowledges this, too.)
On flushing out birds, Bunting thinks the breeds are “fairly equal” because both will “work quite close to you. The beauty of a labrador is you can get a jacksnipe out of a load of reed, a teal out of a pond, out of a reservoir you can retrieve a pair of Canada geese, from stubbles you can get some partridges and from the densest wood you can retrieve a pheasant. And that is one dog, not half a dozen.”
Ask Zoll, however, and he’ll tell you he’s seen his sodden cocker haul a pink-footed goose out of the soup after a lengthy retrieve against a building ebb tide. But that is also beside the point. We’re talking partridges here. And with late-season partridges, he notes, you are reliant 100% on your dog to find game “because cover is thick and birds sit tight – they know what’s coming. You need a dog that’s going to be able to work thoroughly and close to you to do that. I’ve several times come back from a day like that, spending an hour picking thorns out of the face of a cocker who hasn’t made a murmur all day, but has got these half-inch spikes stuck in her head, chest and front legs. And you’re just amazed actually that they can take that.”
It is said that if you ask six economists the same question, you will receive seven answers. My survey is not comprehensive – notwithstanding Drumlanrig and Holkham’s reputation for partridges. But it stands to reason that the hardy little spaniels, bred over the centuries from the English land spaniel to get through rough cover at woodcock, should have the best soft mouth on partridges, too. As Helena says to the man she is besotted with in A Midsummer Night’s Dream:
I am your spaniel, and, Demetrius
The more you beat me, I will fawn on you.
Use me but as your spaniel – spurn me, strike me,
Neglect me, lose me. Only give me leave,
Unworthy as I am, to follow you.
And as every good schoolchild knows, Helena gets her bird – just as the cocker gets his partridge.