Fieldsports Guide to Gundogs

Problems with pickers-up

gundogsGeorge Padley acknowledges the vital role that pickers-up play on shoot days, but argues that they should be conscious of Guns who have a dog of their own.

It’s finally here, the first day of your season. Weeks of eager anticipation have culminated in standing at your peg or in the butt on the first drive. In what seems like a heartbeat, the whistle or horn sounds to signal the end of what has hopefully been a busy first stint, and you unload and sleeve your gun before turning to your dog(s), still sat patiently waiting for your command. But as you turn your attention to the task of picking-up those birds which have fallen near your peg, their anticipation levels – which easily match your own – are soon quashed as you realise there’s nothing left to pick. A friendly face approaches from behind. “All picked, Sir! See you on the next drive,” they say, enthusiatically, before turning and heading back to the beaters’ wagon with half a dozen birds in their game carrier.

Gritted teeth

Although I do not have a gundog, per se, my Jack Russell Louis and I are an enthusiastic team who enjoy the challenge of retrieving something during the course of a day’s shooting. We don’t take ourselves too seriously but I do know that for many more orthodox gundog owners, working their dogs provides them with as much enjoyment and sport as pulling the trigger.

And with this in mind, I think it is really important that the pickers-up recognise when someone in the line would like to put their own dog to work and therefore hold back until invited to help. It is my personal view that it’s not right when the area immediately behind the Guns is groomed with a fine-tooth comb during the drive. Not everyone is fortunate to shoot several days in a season and, when nothing is left on the field for the Guns and their own dogs to work on, this is both frustrating and disheartening.

When shooting, we have a responsibility to try and account for our efforts during the drive – we should, as a minimum, have some idea of how many birds we have accounted for and where to start looking for them. Marking birds that will be difficult to find and which may require the assistance of others is also essential. 

A picker-up is an invaluable and necessary asset on a shoot day, but what is the point of ‘hoovering up’ dead birds that can be easily picked up by the Guns, whether they have a dog or not?

A vital role

The role of the picker-up is a vital one on any day, in terms of trying to ensure that as many birds as possible are accounted for and, most importantly, that all injured birds are gathered up and despatched as swiftly as possible. We do need a balance though: if you don’t have sufficient help, there will be an inevitable loss of shot and wounded birds, but too many deny Guns and their own dogs the opportunity to make the most of the day.

The majority of pickers-up are acutely aware of the unspoken etiquette surrounding their role; many never venture anywhere near the pegs during a drive. Occasionally, though, one or two, unintentionally perhaps, become overzealous in their efforts to ensure they are seen to be fulfilling their role. Guns and pickers-up should, and on the whole do, work together to ensure best practices are adhered to. A relationship that sees the Guns and pickers-up discuss exactly what they’ve seen and feel requires their attention, is paramount.

Best practices

Pricked or wounded birds pose the greatest challenge, especially if shot early on in a drive – even well-marked birds can move or run before the drive is over and these should remain any picker-up’s number one priority. Of course, not all birds are easily or successfully marked, particularly if they are falling into knee-high heather, woodland undergrowth, sugar beet or well-established rape. Any accomplished picker-up will know which birds they’re needed for and prioritise these before making their way towards the pegs.

Those picking-up regularly on a particular shoot will know the drives well and are likely to have their preferred spot where they usually stand. Ideally, this should be in a position where the nearby Guns can easily spot them prior to the drive starting, and preferably one that is out of range of all Guns – not that this should ever be tested.

Standing well back has the added benefit of making it easier to observe as much of the drive as possible by looking forward, rather than having to turn and follow birds, which might mean other retrieves are missed. This way, the need to move during the drive – which can be hazardous on shoots (grouse moors, for example) where shooting behind the line is customary – is also alleviated.

Pegging of birds is an emotive issue and sure to raise tempers; no one enjoys the idea of paying for a bird they haven’t shot or, worse still, not even shot at. I very much doubt there is ever a day when at least one bird isn’t pegged – sometimes it’s a genuinely unavoidable mishap. At certain times of the season, though, birds can be more susceptible due to exhaustion, particularly on lengthy drives on hot early-season days, or if birds are moving from one drive to another in the same day. Dense undergrowth will inevitably inhibit even a healthy bird’s ability to escape the jaws of an enthusiastic dog, so extra caution is advisable if areas are being swept through that haven’t been flanked or tapped into the drive.

A team sport

I have a huge amount of respect and time for those who stand behind the line and watch the same birds missed day-in, day-out, often getting very wet and cold in the process. I am always very appreciative of a helping hand but, even if only for Louis’ sake, I really do appreciate time to have a go before inviting the professionals to take over.

Part of what makes shooting such a great sport is that it’s both an individual and team effort; that team extending from Guns and keepers to beaters and pickers-up alike. Any host would be very disappointed to think that a guest had returned home moaning that they needn’t have bothered taking their dog. If ever in the situation where you feel your dog is being rendered redundant, a polite request will go a long way – if you do not ask, they won’t know. 

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