In good company
A day out under the pheasants wouldn’t be the same without our canine companions and Rupert Butler remembers each of his dogs with many fond memories
Shooting would not exist without our canine companions, which are an integral part of any outing. I tend to lean towards flushing dogs because I like the excitement they bring and, indeed, the lack of warning at times. All have their own characteristics, no two being the same: some have to be coaxed into doing what you want, while others need to be reined in a wee bit. The following are some of my lovable old rogues, both past and present.
For my 10th birthday, I received a large golden Labrador that I called Teal. To say he was slightly mad would be an understatement. He was a lunatic. For the same birthday, I also received a book on how to train dog, but I knew better – how hard could it be? I gave the publication a courtesy flick through before consigning it to the bookshelf. And from the moment I got him to his unfortunate passing, Teal did what Teal wanted to do, no questions. Yes, he found pheasants and woodcock on a regular basis for he was blessed with an exceptional nose, but rarely were they in range, and sometimes not even in the same parish.
He was also a great retriever, but refused to come back unless he had something to bring me. This latter trait often got yours truly into a spot of bother, for when we were in company on such outings he invariably pinched other people’s birds – it didn’t matter if they were on the water in front or in the game bag beside. I once had 17 mallard picked for the expenditure of but three cartridges, a great ratio in any company. Sadly, he passed away just before his 14th birthday and for all his faults he was a lovable old rogue.
Next up was a springer bitch named Fibi, quite the opposite to the big bruiser above; where he
was big and brash, she was small and quiet. That said, she was probably the most fearless dog I have ever owned. On several occasions over the years, she dived into thunderous waves or swollen rivers without the slightest hesitation. But it was on the high hills that she really came into her own, which is unusual for a springer. I shot more grouse over her than some of my dad’s best pointers at the time. Yes, you didn’t have as much time to ready yourself, but that made the chase more exciting, if anything.
Willow was next, another liver and white springer bitch, quite similar in many respects to Fibi above, but with a slightly more dominant personality. She was, if the truth were to be known, probably the best all-round dog I have ever had. It was deep in the pine forests where she thrived; woodcock were her nemesis and boy could she find them. I lost track of the number of invitations I got to go shooting these wonderful little birds, but I knew it wasn’t me they were wanting – if Willow could drive, I wouldn’t have had a look in.
She also developed a habit of catching them, particularly in heavy cover, whether or not that was a reflection on my shooting prowess is another matter. She once caught two in an afternoon, both of which didn’t have a mark on them when brought to hand, and I can still remember throwing them into the air and watching as they weaved their way silently through the willows. She passed away only a few months since, two weeks shy of her 20th year, which for a springer is quite remarkable.
Next in line is Fibi, yes another Fibi, a black Labrador who is now ancient but still enthusiastic. She is tone deaf, stiff in her hind quarters, sleeps for most of the day but still has that enthusiasm. I know this because I can see it in her eyes every time I leave the house to go shooting.
She cannot understand why she can’t come, but on the odd occasion I do bring her, when flighting a shallow pond or similar, and on these outings she will jump into the car with an agility that belies her creaking bones. She was a terrific retriever in her prime, often finding birds that other dogs failed to locate.
Presently, I have two companions for the high hills: Cookie, a two-year-old springer who finds rabbits mesmerising, and Bramble, my eightmonth-old sprocker who has eaten every pair of trousers I own bar the ones I have on. Cookie is a good game finder, but has little interest in retrieving; Bramble is showing an all-round ability when she decides to stop munching her way through hosepipes and similar.
I have been fortunate over the years to have had reasonably good dogs, and, although there is always a certain amount of luck involved, it’s about putting in the time as well. I am no expert, far from it, and I do like a dog to be a wee bit on the mad side – I always rely on the principal that you can definitely rein them in but never out. None of my dogs were ever perfect, but if the truth were to be known, I never wanted them to be. I like a dog to have a mind of its own, and if that means buggering off after a fast departing hare, then so be it.
There have been occasions where I have run across mountains at a rate of knots only to watch breathless as a rock pipit takes to the air. There have been times I’ve watched a duck circling some water meadow only for the incumbent at the time to break cover and give chase. While these actions might infuriate many of you, as long as it doesn’t happen on a regular basis then I’m fine with it. Everybody has to have their own mind at times, even our canine companions.
‘I tend to lean towards flushing dogs because I like the excitement they bring and, indeed, the lack of warning at times’
Rupert has owned more than one mad springer over the years and, despite the odd unintentional flush, wouldn’t have them any other way.
Fibi the Lab followed Fibi the springer... well, it does make it easier to remember her name!