The Field Gundog Awards 2018
Outstanding workers, family gundogs, the best and the naughtiest, The Field’s judges have now picked the winners
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