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.
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.
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.
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.
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”
Fran Ardley used her experience of working the hillside to make a good retrieve
Fran’s red cocker Cash mounted the wall like a mountain goat and soon came back with a good-size rabbit
Harry made a really tidy job of his first retrieve