This month’s final of the Champion Stake is a wonderful opportunity to watch pointers and setters performing in stunning scenery – always a pleasure, says David Tomlinson
The Champion Stake is the glorious exception to the rule that field trials are a poor spectator sport. If you cannot see pointers and setters working on a grouse moor, then don’t miss the opportunity to see them in a trial. For David Tomlinson, The Champion Stake is a stirring sight.
For more on pointers and setters, read the retrieving instinct in pointers and setters. Retrieving comes naturally to pointers and setters but over the years we have supressed it. David Tomlinson says it is time to turn the clock back.
THE CHAMPION STAKE
Some years ago I went to the last day of the cocker spaniel championship at Sandringham. It was a stunning January day: blue sky and heavy frost, the temperature well below freezing, just the sort of weather, you would have thought, for enjoying some good spaniel work. Though I walked with the gallery all morning I never saw a dog in action, as the cover was too thick, the spaniels too small. It was a stark reminder that, generally speaking, field trials make a poor spectator sport.
That’s certainly true of all spaniel trials and, often, for retriever trials, too. Watching a line of guns, handlers, stewards and judges trooping in line through a field of sugar beet is not the sort of spectacle that is likely to excite anyone other than the most diehard enthusiast, no matter how interested they may be in dog work. There is, however, a glorious exception: pointer and setter trials.
Many argue that the purest of all our traditional field sports is shooting grouse over pointers and setters. The pleasure of the day comes not so much from the shooting but from the delight of watching the dogs performing in some of the grandest scenery in the British Isles. It’s an exclusive sport, not because it’s expensive – it’s a lot more affordable than shooting driven grouse – but because opportunities to take part are limited. There are not that many pointers and setters to shoot over, nor moors where this style of shooting takes place.
THE CHAMPION STAKE: A SPECTATOR SPORT
However, if you want to watch pointers and setters in action, there’s always the option of going to a field trial. Because birds are never shot in trials, most of the competitions take place outside the shooting season. The first trials of the year are held on grouse in March, before the circuit moves south to East Anglia for the spring pointing trials, held on partridges. The summer break follows, before the circuit starts up again in mid July, with grouse again the quarry. In early September there are half-a-dozen trials held on the stubbles of North Norfolk.
The climax of the season is the Champion Stake (never called the Championship), which is always held just a few days before the grouse season opens. This year the Duke of Roxburghe’s Byrecleugh estate at Lauder is hosting the event, on 10 and 11 August. The Champion Stake has a long history, the first held in April 1869 on Sir Vincent Corbet’s Shrewsbury estate. In those days there was an abundance of English partridges to test the dogs.
A pointer called Drake won that first stake. Drake greatly impressed the then Editor of The Field, JH Walsh: “This dog was in his day the fastest and most wonderful animal that ever quartered a field, and his race up to a pair of birds at Shrewsbury in the field trials of 1868, when the ground was so dry as to cause a cloud of dust to rise on his dropping to their scent, was a sight that will probably never be seen again. He was truly a phenomenon among pointers.”
THE CHAMPION STAKE: A STIRRING SIGHT
The Stake has been held almost every year since, though the Boer War prevented it from taking place between 1901 and 1903, and the First and Second World Wars also led to the event’s suspension. Because pointer and setter trials are open to five breeds of dogs – English pointer, and the four breeds of setter, English, Gordon, Irish and Irish red and white – it’s interesting to see the changing popularity of these breeds. Pointers have always dominated but last year’s stake was won by an Irish setter and, thanks to the introduction of fresh blood from the Continent, English setters are currently enjoying a resurgence.
Pointers and setters are the most athletic of all our gundog breeds. It’s a stirring sight to see a brace of these dogs quartering a moor. They are built for both speed and endurance, and their conformation reflects these twin requirements. They are generally as lean as a greyhound but have a body with more substance, as galloping over a heather moor requires a dog to be robust as well as fast. They may be galloping flat out but they are using their noses all the time. The scent of a grouse will bring them to a shuddering halt, before a carefully measured stalk towards their quarry. In trials, the flushed birds are saluted by a gun but never shot.
There’s little or no money at stake in pointer and setter trials, and this is reflected in the sportsmanship and camaraderie of those who take part. Go to a trial as a spectator and you will be made very welcome, and you won’t have any difficulty in finding someone who will explain to you what is happening and what the judges are looking for. The latter may not be obvious to the untrained eye, for however good a dog may be at quartering and even game finding, the judge is also looking for style and flair. The winner is sure to be a dog that pleases the eye, just one of the reasons that makes these trials so special.