Shoot­ing over spaniels

Nick has been for­tu­nate to meet many gun­dog train­ers, some giv­ing him the chance to en­joy the ul­ti­mate com­bi­na­tion of shoot­ing and dog work.


Iwas re­cently chew­ing the fat with a friend about a trip I had taken last au­tumn to the York­shire Dales to shoot rab­bits over my cock­ers. He was very en­vi­ous and made it quite clear how lucky I was.

He was cor­rect, I am lucky, and over the years I have been for­tu­nate enough to have met some very kind and gen­er­ous gun­dog train­ers and han­dlers that have, on oc­ca­sions, given me the chance to en­joy what in my hum­ble opin­ion is the ul­ti­mate com­bi­na­tion of shoot­ing and dog work.

Two func­tions

The very func­tion of rab­bit­ing can be split into two sec­tions – sport and pest con­trol. Although there is some com­mon ground, they are quite dis­tinct in the way that we go about them. It must be said that although shoot­ing rab­bits over spaniels is great fun and ex­cel­lent train­ing for the dogs, it can only be con­sid­ered a sport be­cause it isn’t a good way of pest con­trol and, un­like pest con­trol, if you have some dog train­ing ground that holds a few rab­bits you re­ally do not want to clear them all.

Last year I had been com­mis­sioned to pho­to­graph some cock­ers be­long­ing to game­keeper Fran Ard­ley, and she very kindly in­vited me back up to the North York­shire Dales with my own dogs for an af­ter­noon’s rab­bit shoot­ing. Fran has ac­cess to a cou­ple of bracken and white grass cov­ered hill­sides that hold a few rab­bits. There is a big dif­fer­ence be­tween the north­ern and south­ern rab­bit pop­u­la­tion. In my part of the world the rab­bits tend to lay up un­der­ground dur­ing the day and only re­ally come out at night. How­ever, up north the rab­bits tend to lay out dur­ing the day and tuck up in their “seats” hid­den in the rough grass or heather un­til a hard hunt­ing spaniel comes along and ex­tracts them.

Rab­bit dogs

There is also a dif­fer­ence in the way a spaniel needs to hunt rab­bits. My own are not very ex­pe­ri­enced “rab­bit dogs”, they prob­a­bly only get the chance once a year but when they do they cer­tainly en­joy it. For dogs and Gun alike there’s a big dif­fer­ence be­tween hunt­ing rab­bits and work­ing pheas­ants – it al­ways takes me a bit of time to slow ev­ery­thing down and pull the dogs in to a tighter hunt­ing pat­tern. Both my cock­ers are used to hunt­ing areas where there is plenty of game and they tend to work a wider pat­tern. If you or your

dog tend to push on, you ei­ther walk right over the rab­bits or flush them out of sight where you’re un­able to get a shot.

In some places the cover on the hill­side was still quite high, so it was even more im­por­tant to make sure we could see the dogs. Fran took the higher side of the hill and I worked the lower bank. On most shoots, the shoot­ing of ground game is not al­lowed and there is good rea­son for that. Cou­pled with the fact that the un­der­foot was quite test­ing, we needed to make sure safety was of paramount im­por­tance – no rab­bit is worth the life of a dog or in­deed a per­son.

First rab­bit

It wasn’t long be­fore Harry, my older cocker, flushed the first rab­bit of the day. It was sit­ting tight in some rough reedy grass and although it was very tempt­ing to take a quick snap shot I held off and waited un­til the rab­bit had got a bit of a dis­tance. Much to my own amaze­ment, I bowled it over with the first bar­rel of my trusty AYA No. 4 20-bore side-by-side. This sea­son I have been us­ing Eley Hawk VIP car­tridges and although I have never re­ally gone into the sci­ence of shot­gun shells, I am cer­tainly shoot­ing con­sis­tently.

Tak­ing a line

To me the big­gest thrill of work­ing a spaniel on rab­bits is that the dog is un­likely to see it go and will have to use a com­bi­na­tion of “gun sense” and “tak­ing a line”. Ba­si­cally this means it will have to use its nose to fol­low the scent pat­tern that the flee­ing rab­bit has left, it will then hit the shot scent and hope­fully pick up the rab­bit and bring it back. I don’t think there is any­thing more ex­cit­ing than watch­ing a gun­dog first work­ing out and then tak­ing a line. I sent Harry and right from the off his nose hit the ground and I could see him con­stantly test­ing the ground to make sure he was on the right track. The rab­bit was ly­ing next to one of the many stone walls that criss-cross this part of the world and Harry made a re­ally tidy job of the re­trieve.

Hill­side ex­pe­ri­ence

Fran was work­ing her ex­pe­ri­enced red cocker, Cash, and he had al­ready pro­duced a cou­ple of rab­bits fur­ther up the bank when he punched out a very tight sit­ting rab­bit right from un­der the lee of a stone wall. I could see Fran mount her gun, wait­ing un­til the rab­bit showed it­self be­tween the clumps of grass be­fore she took her shot. The rab­bit had stayed tight to the wall and as Cash hit the area he cast left and right but couldn’t find it, Fran stopped the dog on the whis­tle and gave him the com­mand to “get over” and the dog climbed the wall like a moun­tain goat and dis­ap­peared over the other side. Cash soon jumped back on the top of the wall with a good-sized rab­bit. The rab­bit must have just man­aged to get through a hole in the wall be­fore dy­ing and due to Fran’s ex­pe­ri­ence she had a pretty good idea of what had hap­pened, it cer­tainly made for a good re­trieve.

As the af­ter­noon drew on we headed back down the hill­side with some very tired dogs and half a dozen rab­bits in the bag. I had time to re­flect on what had been a fan­tas­tic day’s shoot­ing and one that with a bit of luck I will be able ex­pe­ri­ence again in the not too dis­tant fu­ture.

“i don’t think there’s any­thing more ex­cit­ing than watch­ing a dog take a line”

Hill­side ex­pe­ri­ence Fran Ard­ley used her ex­pe­ri­ence of work­ing the hill­side to make a good re­trieve

Rock clim­ber Fran’s red cocker Cash mounted the wall like a moun­tain goat and soon came back with a good-size rab­bit

rab­bit re­trieve Harry made a re­ally tidy job of his first re­trieve

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