Whether they have one dog or five, pickers-up play a vital role on shoot days and deserve every pound they get, says David Tomlinson

Pickers-up are essential on shoot days and deserve the payments they receive, says David Tomlinson. And a sleek pack of labradors is not a requirement to join the team.

For more advice on picking-up, read etiquette of picking up on a shoot day for The Field’s top tips.

Fretting over what to buy a fellow shoot fanatic this Christmas? Or perhaps you need to get your own sporting reading in order? SUBSCRIBE to The Field for just £19.99 and receive a £5 Marks & Spencer gift card by clicking on THIS link.

PICKERS-UP

When I first started picking up, I treated with deference the experienced old hands with their teams of labradors. I had just a single and rather wild springer spaniel that regarded the whole experience as wildly exciting. However, she was a determined and accomplished retriever, soft-mouthed and silent. She had a talent for marking wounded birds and once the drive was over and it was safe to let her go, she would be off like an Exocet missile, locking onto her quarry and not giving up until her mission was accomplished.

After each drive the labradors’ handlers would come back to the game cart festooned with birds. In contrast, my spaniel and I were often the last to return, usually carrying just one or two birds. Our contribution to the bag was tiny. However, our modest success was clearly noted with satisfaction by the headkeeper, for we were finding the birds that would have otherwise been lost.

Handling several dogs is far from easy. Dogs need individual guidance, something that a handler working five or six animals at once can’t give. Teams of retrievers make brilliant sweepers, mopping up the birds around the pegs with ease, but finding the individual bird that has dropped two fields back is far better tackled by the handler with the single dog. The targeted approach often pays off.

I have met people put off joining the picking-up team because they have only one dog, and feel that they would need at least three or four to be effective. Don’t worry – if your dog finds just one bird during the day that would have otherwise been missed, you have justified your place in the team, even your payment. The latter is a subject that is often debated and remains controversial. Because people enjoy working their dogs, there are those who argue they should contribute to the cost of the day, or at least offer their services for free.

The going rate for picking up varies widely, reflecting supply and demand. Most shoots offer anything from £30 to £60, depending on the number of dogs being worked and how many birds have been shot. On commercial shoots it’s usual for the pickers-up to be paid about the same as the guns pay to shoot a single pheasant, which, when you think about it, is remarkably little. Most pickers-up work for less than the minimum wage, while few if any make a genuine profit at the end of the season. Picking up is hard work and if your dog gets through the season without an injury you can think yourself lucky.

In my relatively modest picking-up career I’ve had to make three emergency visits to the nearest vet. Two were life-threatening accidents, resulting in overnight stays at the surgery and putting the dog out of action for some weeks. The resulting vet’s bills were not covered by the payments I had received. I believe that all pickers-up deserve to be paid, and they shouldn’t hesitate to accept their payment. If they don’t want the cash, then they should pass it on to the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust.

PICKERS-UP AND PEG DOGS

Another controversy that gets aired every season is that of picking-up dogs hoovering up all the birds before the guns’ dogs have a chance to retrieve. This is extremely irritating but is easily avoided. The guns should be introduced to the picking-up team at the morning briefing as, ideally, the two should work together during the day, with the former taking the trouble to mark their birds and tell the dog handlers where they have fallen. Guns with dogs should say what they want to retrieve – every bird they shoot, or just the easy ones around the peg?

Whenever I have picked up behind a gun with a dog I have always checked what the latter would like my dog to collect, as this avoids any misunderstanding. Few guns want to send their dogs for distant runners. On one occasion, I was impressed by an exceptionally steady labrador sitting at a peg. His owner told me that the dog refused to be left behind on shoot days but as he wasn’t interested in retrieving he would never stray from the peg.

Last season I went on a let day on a small family shoot. Worryingly, there wasn’t a picking-up team, nor even a single picker-up. The owner did have a couple of poorly trained dogs that he attempted to work, helped by a couple of the beaters’ dogs. Fortunately, one of the paying guns had an excellent spaniel that did much of the picking up. I felt that the latter’s owner deserved a substantial refund for the work his dog had done, but its retrieving was barely acknowledged, let alone rewarded. Several of the other guns had dogs they had left at home, something they regretted.

Fortunately, most shoots do have good pickers-up. A farmer friend who is now a dedicated picker-up sums up the satisfaction of working a retrieving dog. He had shot all his life until forced to give up due to a shoulder injury, and now wishes he had made the switch years ago as he finds handling his dog much more rewarding than shooting. He is far from alone.

Do you know a particularly dedicated picker-up? Do enter them for The Field’s Gundog Awards next year – there is a class for Picker-up of the Year.