Field trials have been with us for a century and a half and never without controversy. However, David Tomlinson is glad to note it is more popular than ever
Field trials are unique sporting competitions. What other sport is open to both sexes of any age, professional or amateur, is growing in popularity, requires little personal fitness and receives no newspaper coverage whatsoever? What other sport has mainly oversubscribed competitions, yet prize-money is often little more than the entry fee? Field trials are sporting competitions like no other.
Though the pheasant-shooting season doesn’t really get underway until mid November, the trialling season for retrievers is already approaching its peak with qualifying events for the Retriever Championship taking place the length and breadth of the country. The reason is simple. The 93rd International Gundog League Retriever Championship takes place at Queensberry estate, Dumfries and Galloway on the last day of November and the first two days of December.
The first recorded field trials, for pointers and setters, was held on 18 April, 1865 at Samuel Whitbread’s Bedfordshire estate. The Editor of The Field, Dr John Henry Walsh, played an important part in setting up that competition. It wasn’t until 1900 that similar events for retrievers started. The first field trials organised in connection with The Kennel Club were held at Horstead Hall, Norwich over three days in November 1906. The first prize in the All-Aged stake was £50, about £550 in today’s money.
That would seem to be an extraordinary amount (the winner of the forthcoming Retriever Championship will receive only £100), but the world of trialling was very different then. Field trials were an excuse for a house party, while the dogs were usually handled by the owner’s keeper or dogman. The first Retriever Championship was held in January 1909 and was won by the Duchess of Hamilton’s labrador Dungavel Phoebe. Her dog was handled for her by a Mr J Alexander. Spectators could attend by invitation only, and it was not until 1920 that the general public was allowed to watch.
FIELD TRIALS: CONTROVERSY
Trialling has always been controversial. In its early days the columns of journals such as this were filled with letters bemoaning the way field trials were run, and suggesting ways they could be improved. “Why – oh! why – do we not conduct Retriever Trials the same way that we would an ordinary day’s shooting at home?” wrote one correspondent. “For instance, if I have a bird down I do not stop all my friends from shooting until I gather it. Oh dear no! I send my dog for it if it is a runner, and he goes on and gets it, paying no attention to the shooting.”
Luck in deciding the winner was another cause for concern. In October 1910 The Field published a letter from a field trials judge in which he suggested that “at a certain stage of the Trial pinioned cock pheasants might be introduced on to the scene” in order to give the remaining dogs still running a similar test. It was tried by the Scottish Field Trial Association but never caught on.
Many of the subjects of concern to triallers then are just as pertinent today. Qualification for the championship has always been a hot topic. Since 1909 there have been numerous changes to the qualification rules for the Retriever Championship in a bid to keep the numbers of qualified runners down to manageable proportions. Springer spaniels have a similar problem. So many dogs now qualify for the Spaniel Championship that it has to be held over three days.
One concern in field trials has always been that of impartial judging. A century ago flatcoat enthusiasts were convinced that most judges favoured labradors, while a letter published in 1911 was from a writer worried about the “extraordinary number of dogs this year which have won Field Trials on their home ground”. He thought that this was because the judges, guests of the shoot owner, “are all jolly good fellows, good sportsmen, and there may be an unconscious leaning towards the dog of a most entertaining host. Who can tell?”
FIELD TRIALS: THE COSTS OF HOSTING
Today many trialling societies struggle to find suitable ground for their field trials. There are still generous shoot owners happy to host competitions but the majority of field trials have to be paid for, and with pheasants costing at least £30 a bird, plus VAT, the cost of staging the competition can be considerable. The best way round this dilemma is charging the guns for privilege of shooting over the dogs, an unsatisfactory compromise.
Controversial or not, trialling has never been more popular although whether field trials really do improve the breed is debatable. As long ago as 1913 Captain G Phipps Hornby noted that he had frequently heard the following remark: “The Field Trial dog is all very well, but he is not always what one would take for a day’s shooting.” Have you heard that before somewhere?