The Field Gun­dog Awards 2018

Out­stand­ing work­ers, fam­ily gun­dogs, the best and the naugh­ti­est, The Field’s judges have now picked the win­ners

The Field - - Contents - writ­ten BY david tom­lin­son ♦ pho­tog­ra­phy BY andy hook

David Tom­lin­son re­ports

You would ex­pect a dog with a name like Newt to be good in the wa­ter, but An­thony Shep­pard’s three-year-old flat­coat demon­strated ex­tra­or­di­nary un­der­wa­ter swim­ming skills while out shoot­ing in Northamp­ton­shire last De­cem­ber. His amaz­ing re­trieve fol­lowed an ex­cit­ing drive, with birds fall­ing in the flooded lakes be­hind Shep­pard’s peg. Newt swam out to re­trieve a cock, while his master walked out

on the cause­way be­tween the two lakes. Sud­denly, the dog dis­ap­peared un­der the wa­ter, as if sucked un­der by a gi­ant pike.

Then, Shep­pard re­ports, “there was splash­ing from be­hind me on the other side of the cause­way and to my to­tal amaze­ment he bounced up to the sur­face like a cork out of a cham­pagne bot­tle still with the cock pheas­ant in his mouth but look­ing very be­wil­dered”. His be­wil­der­ment was un­der­stand­able, as he had been sucked through a 3ft by 50ft pipe that ran un­der the cause­way. Now rechris­tened The Sub­ma­rine, Newt’s feat won him the prize for the out­stand­ing re­trieve by any breed in The Field’s Gun­dog Awards, gen­er­ously spon­sored once again by Skin­ner’s Pet Foods.

This was the sec­ond year of the awards, which are now an an­nual fix­ture. Though they are for ex­cep­tional work by both dogs and han­dlers, they are aimed at nor­mal

dogs, not the su­per-trained tri­alling dogs that sel­dom get the chance to en­joy a proper day’s shoot­ing. I’m one of the judges, so can con­firm that se­lect­ing win­ners is of­ten dif­fi­cult, but Newt’s re­trieve stood out in a hotly con­tested class, eclips­ing many bril­liant but con­ven­tional re­trieves.

I was de­lighted to meet Newt at Burgh­ley Horse Tri­als in Au­gust, when the win­ners are in­vited to a prize-giv­ing lunch. He seemed a mod­est sort of chap, un­sure of what all the fuss was about. He was one of a fine but mot­ley as­sort­ment of dogs that gath­ered out­side the lunch mar­quee, rang­ing from Pepsi the cock­apoo (the best dog not to be­long to a gun­dog breed) to Dixie the blind springer (best work by a spaniel dur­ing the past sea­son). Hav­ing spent hours pon­der­ing over the awards, I al­ready felt I knew all the dogs in­di­vid­u­ally.

Field read­ers like their spaniels, es­pe­cially cock­ers, so the best work by a spaniel cat­e­gory was an­other sec­tion with a strong en­try. But rather like Newt with his un­der­wa­ter re­trieve, Dixie stood out as a wor­thy win­ner by over­com­ing ad­ver­sity, hav­ing gone blind vir­tu­ally overnight. In Novem­ber 2016 she was pick­ing up on a Sat­ur­day with her mis­tress, Vanessa Tate, when it was ap­par­ent she was hav­ing trou­ble with her eyes. Di­ag­nosed with acute glau­coma, she had both eyes re­moved the next day but within a week was back in the beat­ing line. She worked all of last sea­son, too, prompt­ing Tate to re­mark, “never give up on your dog as they will never give up on you”. What was de­light­ful was to find that Dixie was clearly a happy dog in won­der­ful con­di­tion.

While some win­ners sim­ply jump out at you (if you will ex­cuse the pun), oth­ers are not so ob­vi­ous, in­vari­ably be­cause the stan­dard of com­pe­ti­tion is so high. Though many of us claim to have work­ing gun­dogs, the truth is that most are part-timers, for though they may work hard dur­ing the shoot­ing sea­son they spend much of the year be­ing a fam­ily pet. Thus it’s hardly sur­pris­ing that the Best Fam­ily Gun­dog award at­tracts nu­mer­ous en­tries, and this year it was the cat­e­gory I found hard­est to judge, such was the strength in depth of the con­tes­tants. Here sev­eral labradors and spaniels and even a spinone reached the short list, but the de­serv­ing win­ner was Remi the cocker spaniel, owned by Laura Croft.

Remi not only helped her owner cope with the stress of a fam­ily break­down but was re­spon­si­ble for bring­ing to­gether a new fam­ily – it was through Remi that Croft met her part­ner, Mar­tyn Long, at the Thoresby Game Fair. In her first sea­son she proved to be an ex­cel­lent pick­ing-up dog, and she has also in­tro­duced Croft’s four-year-old daugh­ter, Ge­or­gia, to the de­lights of coun­try sports. As she is also a keen sofa dog, al­ways ready for a cud­dle, she cer­tainly qual­i­fies as a top fam­ily dog.

Laura Wolfenden has been mar­ried to a grouse-moor keeper for three years but when she an­nounced to her hus­band that she wanted to get a gun­dog of her own to work on shoot days, he rec­om­mended some­thing easy like a re­triever. I’m not sure what he said when a Hun­gar­ian wire­haired vizsla puppy ap­peared, but any doubts must have long since evap­o­rated as Dora (nick­name Dora the Moor­land Ex­plorer) has proved an out­stand­ing suc­cess and, in her mis­tress’s words, “an ab­so­lute joy to work and learn with”. The duo won the award for out­stand­ing work by any point­ing breed dur­ing the 2017-18 sea­son, not only pick­ing grouse and track­ing wounded foxes but re­turn­ing the day af­ter a shoot to look for a snipe and find­ing it straight away.

Dora has proved to have beauty as well as brains, com­ing sec­ond in the Hun­gar­ian Wire-haired Vizsla Club of Great Bri­tain’s breed show, win­ning her en­try into the Ken­nel Club’s stud book and qual­i­fy­ing for Crufts for life. How­ever, per­haps most im­por­tant of all, Wolfenden re­ports, “that my hus­band has ac­tu­ally started lis­ten­ing to me a lit­tle bit when it comes to dogs, which I’m sure any game­keeper’s wife will agree is noth­ing short of a mir­a­cle”.

Have you ever heard of an épag­neul de Pont-au­de­mer? I had, but only be­cause I have a book of French gun­dogs, but un­til Burgh­ley I’d never met one. It was Laura, Larry Wilks’s épag­neul bitch, who won the award for out­stand­ing work by a rare breed. There was cer­tainly no dis­put­ing Laura’s rar­ity (the épag­neul de Pont-au­de­mer is lit­tle known even in France), but there was no ques­tion that she could per­form, too, de­spite be­ing a Christ­mas present who wasn’t des­tined orig­i­nally to be a gun­dog. Her train­ing went well and “it be­came ap­par­ent she had an ex­cep­tional nose and a will­ing­ness to work”, but the ul­ti­mate test of her abil­ity was a trip to Brit­tany, to Château Val, where she im­pressed ev­ery­one by point­ing and re­triev­ing Reeves’s pheas­ants. The lo­cal Chef de Chasse was so taken with her that he of­fered to buy her on the spot.

Ac­cord­ing to Paul Cum­ming of the Com­mon Leys Shoot­ing School, who has shot over Laura, “she is only a small pack­age but huge spirit and a will­ing­ness only found in the hap­pi­est of dogs”. Larry Wilks and his wife, Brenda, have been so pleased with her that they have im­ported a brother to Laura, but from an­other lit­ter. Who knows, per­haps Laura is a trend­set­ter and the épag­neul de Pont-au­de­mer will be­come es­tab­lished as a work­ing breed in the UK.

Many of us, I sus­pect, could make a good case for our own dog win­ning the naugh­ti­est dog award, but this is the trick­i­est class of all to judge. There are hun­dreds of un­trained dogs that you might think could be wor­thy win­ners, but be­ing naughty is not the same as badly trained. The win­ner, Trig­ger the fox-red labrador owned by Polly Maz­zarella, is a dog who knows how to be­have and what to do. How­ever, his en­thu­si­asm to re­trieve the same manky rab­bit re­peat­edly showed a sin­gle-minded de­ter­mi­na­tion never to

She has a huge spirit and will­ing­ness only found in the hap­pi­est of dogs

leave game be­hind, even though he did have to ig­nore the in­struc­tions from his mis­tress be­cause he was con­vinced that he was right. Trig­ger is the first dog that Maz­zarella has owned, let alone trained: she ad­mits that they have learnt a lot to­gether.

In con­trast to Trig­ger, Pepsi the cock­er­poo hasn’t had any for­mal gun­dog tu­ition. Ac­cord­ing to her owner and han­dler, Jools Bolton, she has “learnt her trade from our old black lab without any train­ing at all”. She has clearly learnt well, as she is now a reg­u­lar picker-up on the Un­der­ley Es­tate, Kirby Lons­dale, where Bolton’s hus­band, Stephen Rogers, is a mem­ber of the shoot­ing syn­di­cate. There were, not sur­pris­ingly, raised eye­brows on the shoot when Pepsi first ap­peared but she’s now “ev­ery­one’s favourite gun­dog and is of­ten called on to find the elu­sive run­ner at the end of a drive”. Ap­par­ently she usu­ally comes up trumps, which helps ex­plain why she won the award for the best gun­dog that doesn’t be­long to a gun­dog breed.

There is only one cat­e­gory for a hu­man rather than a ca­nine win­ner, and that is for the picker-up of the year, won in 2018 by Peter Smith. He dis­pels the myth that to be a top picker-up you have to have half-adozen sleek black labradors walk­ing at heel: Smith is a spaniel man, work­ing with his springer, Bella, and a friend’s cocker, Hope, who he trained. It’s not just the pick­ing up he ex­cels at but, ac­cord­ing to James Mul­leneux, on whose Sus­sex shoot he works, “it’s a plea­sure to have a picker-up on our shoot who can iden­tify all the bird songs and calls, and can tell us that the elu­sive bird call­ing in the woods is a bullfinch, or the dis­tant sad song is a mis­tle thrush. It all adds up to the plea­sure of a shoot day at Hol­beam Wood. We can’t imag­ine a bet­ter picker-up.”

Last comes the cat­e­gory with the big­gest en­try (more than 300): the Gun­dog Pho­to­graph of the Year, though by the time it came to judg­ing the en­try had been whit­tled down to six mag­nif­i­cent fi­nal­ists. Five of the six were beau­ti­ful por­traits of proper work­ing gun­dogs and it was dif­fi­cult sim­ply to judge the qual­ity of the pho­to­graph, not to opt for the most hand­some dog. But it was Francesca Allen’s pho­to­graph of her springer, Paddy, bring­ing back a cock pheas­ant that was the win­ner. Crisp and tightly com­posed, it’s a crack­ing pho­to­graph but not a sim­ple one to take: great re­triev­ing pho­to­graphs re­quire skill, pa­tience and just a lit­tle luck. It’s a shot I would have loved to have taken.

Full de­tails of next year’s awards will be an­nounced shortly, but this sea­son do keep an eye out for the out­stand­ing re­trieve, the most im­pres­sive spaniel or even the naugh­ti­est dog, and don’t hes­i­tate to nom­i­nate them. The win­ner of each class re­ceives a bot­tle of Pol Roger cham­pagne and a year’s sup­ply of dog food, cour­tesy of Skin­ner’s, plus an in­vi­ta­tion to one of the most en­joy­able lunches of the year. Go on, have a go.

This year’s win­ners line up at Burgh­ley Horse Tri­als, where they were pre­sented with their prizes

Above: Polly Maz­zarella and Trig­ger, still smil­ing de­spite re­ceiv­ing the Naugh­ti­est Gun­dog award Above right: the Ed­i­tor with Best Am­a­teur Picker-up Peter Smith and Wil­liam De­lam­ore of Skin­ner’s

Above left: Adrian Slater host­ing The Field’s gun­dog demon­stra­tion in the main ring. Top: Pepsi the cock­er­poo, best gun­dog that isn’t a gun­dog breed Above: Vanessa Tate with spaniel Dixie

An­thony Shep­pard with Newt, win­ner of best re­trieve

Above left: Ed­ward the lab, a puis­sance spe­cial­ist, dur­ing the gun­dog demon­stra­tion. Top: rare breed win­ner Laura, an épag­neul de Pont-au­de­mer. Above: Adrian and Caro­line Slater in the demon­stra­tion ring

Laura Croft met her part­ner, Mar­tyn Long, through Best Fam­ily Gun­dog Remi

An­thony Shep­pard and Iona Sale at the awards lunch with writer and judge David Tom­lin­son

Judges Jonathan Young and Wil­liam De­lam­ore with Laura Wolfenden, owner of vizsla Dora

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