When should a picker-up send in their dog? When should a gun demur? Mutual respect between guns and pickers-up should be the default state of play. That’s not always the case, laments Adrian Dangar. What is the etiquette of picking-up on a shoot?
The etiquette of picking-up on a shoot can be beset with problems. When should a gun send in their gundog? When should a picker-up keep still? The Field has tips on what you should know before you start working a gundog. And for guns keen to perform their best, read our 11 pheasant shooting tips for the best day possible on the peg. For those who want to know the ins and out of the etiquette of picking-up, and where the writer stands, read on.
ETIQUETTE OF PICKING-UP ON A SHOOT
Last season a quiet word with the headkeeper at the start of a family shoot confirmed I was welcome to pick-up my own birds, much to the delight of my 11-year-old step- daughter, Bobbie, and her cocker spaniel, Sid. “Just let the pickers-up know, and they’ll leave you to it,” the keeper had said, and so it was for the first three drives of the day. The etiquette of picking-up on a shoot seemed to be working well.
On the last drive of the morning all except one bird gave my peg a wide berth. I watched the unlucky cock crash into a tangle of briars beyond a beck brimful in spate and suggested that the bridge 100yd upstream might be the safest way across. As soon as the whistle’s blast signalled the end of the drive Bobbie and Sid were off like sprinters from the block. I watched them race over the rickety bridge and bash their way towards the fallen bird through waist-high brambles – at which point a trilby hat appeared and waved his team of smart gundogs into the undergrowth as if the child and her spaniel were not there. It was a dejected duo that plodded back over the bridge leaving the trilby and his dogs to their work.
From what I hear in the shooting field and beyond, my experience that day was hardly unique. The etiquette of picking up has become something of a minefield. That is regrettable, for in this era of big bags and corporate days the opportunity for a gun to indulge in a little fieldcraft should be actively encouraged. This is certainly the view of respected Kennel Club panel judge Graham Stephenson, whose skills are much in demand both here and abroad. “Picking-up is fieldcraft with its own etiquette,” he explains. “It’s not just about working dogs, it’s also about understanding game – how it’s going to react, where it’s going to hide. With regard to gun dog etiquette, I’m delighted when guests bring their own dogs and participate in such an important aspect of shooting – I want them to enjoy their day and return next year.”
Stephenson points out that the pickers-up must conduct themselves differently when looking after guns who wish to gather their own game. “I don’t want to be anywhere near a gun with his own dog,” he says, “and I never get involved with birds close to the peg until the guest has picked-up what he wants as there is nothing worse than dogs charging about the line during a drive. My place is hundreds of yards back looking out for anything pricked or wounded – no one wants any suffering, or birds unaccounted for.”
Award-winning keeper George Thompson, who has looked after Spaunton grouse moor in North Yorkshire for more than 20 years, is of the same persuasion when it comes to the etiquette of picking-up. “If a gun wants to collect his own birds there is nothing more insulting than someone else’s dog running in and snaffling them before he has the chance,” he says. “I position our pickers-up a long way behind the line, and when I blow the whistle to-wards the end of a drive that is also cue for our beaters to put their dogs on leads. Guns are then asked politely if they would like their birds picked, or if they prefer to do so themselves. It may be the guest’s only day of the season but our beaters are going to have plenty of chances.” With that attitude to the etiquette of picking-up it is easy to appreciate why Thompson won the CLA’s gamekeeper of the year award, although he does point out the frustrations caused by poorly trained gundogs, particularly those that find and drop game, as dogs sweeping up after the gun has moved on often decline to re-trieve birds that have been mouthed previously.
MUTUAL RESPECT: THE ETIQUETTE OF PICKING-UP
Mutual respect between guns and pickers-up should be the default state of play; however, that is not always the case. A friend invited to shoot on the Yorkshire Wolds last year became increasingly frustrated by the behaviour of a picker-up who was gathering his birds as fast as they fell, seemingly oblivious to the labrador waiting patiently beside his master for the opportunity to work. After the drive was over my friend wandered over to ask if the picker-up would mind leaving him a few birds. The response was not what he expected. “Listen, mate,” said the picker-up behind an aggressively pointed finger, “you do your job, and I’ll do mine.” A word with the headkeeper resulted in the offender being moved to exasperate another guest but my friend has no wish to return to that shoot as, in his own words, “Working my dog is more than half the fun.”
I recounted this tale to Stephenson, who was unequivocal in his response. “That’s just plain wrong, and it puts the headkeeper in a bad position,” he said. “I wouldn’t tolerate such behaviour from a member of any team I was in charge of.” Crack northern shot and owner of three super-fit labradors, George Winn-Darley, recalls a similar experience with a picker-up obsessed with standing in his shadow and collecting each bird as it fell. “It became a bit of a competition as whose dog got there first,” he remembers. “When a cock bird came down a long way back the man refused to go for it so I went and picked the bird myself, which became a bit of a talking point.” The un-happy situation was resolved when the of-fender stormed off to his vehicle, climbed in and slammed the door. “Best result all round,” says Winn-Darley. “Anyone behaving like that on my shoot would never set foot on it again.”
PICKERS-UP ARE VITAL TO THE SHOOTING DAY
Such incidents surrounding the etiquette of picking-up should not be allowed to colour our respect and gratitude for a group of men and women whose skills are crucial to our sport, for it is more important than ever to make sure every bird that comes down is accounted for as humanely as possible. That is achieved time and again by remarkable dogs brilliantly handled by men such as Brian Thompson, a Northumbrian who works up to a dozen dogs at a time much farther back from the line than is normal. He is described as “quiet, persistent and systematic, moving his gundogs like a pack of hounds and never giving up until the last bird has been found”.
The etiquette of picking up also extends to the guns adn their dogs. Pickers-up may also have reason to question the conduct of guests and their dogs, the most frequent grievance being that guns often forget to say how many birds are missing – and their whereabouts – before they move on, having had their fun. Rupert Wailes-Fairbairn, who picks-up throughout Northumberland and beyond, says, “I like to see guests working their own dogs, although it can be frustrating when they don’t tell you what’s left to pick – a quick word is common courtesy and doesn’t take a minute. But if pickers-up encourage their dogs among guns while they are still shooting what do they expect? It then becomes an impossible task.”
Some pickers-up may occasionally let themselves down but few could rival the outrageous behaviour of a regular gun at a shoot where game was costed by the head. This man’s dog retrieved all his birds but on the last drive of the day he was spotted surreptitiously chucking several brace over a drystone wall in order to reduce the bill. Many years ago, when Duncombe Park shoot in North Yorkshire was leased by a succession of wealthy tenants, a regular foreign guest was accompanied by an aggressive bull terrier that was loosed at the end of each drive. “That dog only picked fights – never birds,” remembers John Masterman, headkeeper at Duncombe Park since 1977. “It attacked everyone else’s dog and caused no end of trouble. One lunch-time the lads sought revenge by feeding it sausages and mustard, and that evening it made a terrible mess all over its owner’s hotel room – we know that because the chambermaid complained.”
This season Masterman will run more than 90 driven days, each attended by up to eight regular pickers-up under the supervision of his wife, Sue. “We don’t mind guests bringing dogs,” Masterman says, “but as a gun might shoot 20 or 30 birds in a drive it can take some time if he picks them all himself and we may need to step in and help – but we never have dogs running up and down the line during a drive; a dead bird is going nowhere.” As a rule of thumb the bigger the day the less likely guns are to bring dogs, as the most expensive days are often taken by those whose lives are too busy – and mobile – for a canine companion. But Sue Masterman makes sure that anyone who does arrive with a dog is given the chance to work it by instructing her team to give the gun plenty of space. “Guests have not brought their dogs along to sit and watch,” she says, “and we mustn’t forget that if they were not shooting we would not be picking-up.” A valuable assertion and one to remember when thinking about the etiquette of picking-up.
Not all shoots are as canine friendly as Duncombe Park and Ravenswick, where shoot organiser Julian Boddy’s policy of four drives per day allows time for guns to work their dogs. Some shoots don’t just discourage guests’ dogs – they ban them altogether. This ensures no time is wasted between drives, but if the gain is a large bag quickly achieved, the loss is the sport’s, whose close links with purpose-bred dogs date back to the 17th century.
Some guests feel obliged to check whether they may bring their dogs when accepting an invitation to shoot but there’s no need to ask George Winn-Darley that question if you get the call up from him. “I’m astonished when I’m asked if its OK to bring a dog shooting,” he says. “That’s like checking if its all right to wear wellie boots. Stopping someone from bringing their dog to a shoot is like inviting a friend to Wimbledon and telling them they cannot watch the final set of a match.” Has the etiquette of picking-up found central ground again?