No margin for error
With a place at the IGL Retriever Championship up for grabs, the stakes were high at Dukeries Gundog Club's two-day open at Osberton Estate. By Marcus Janssen.
The harsh reality of competitive gundog trialling is that there is no room for error. Just one mistake is all it takes, and your competition is over by way of elimination. "There's no question about it, this is character building stuff," says Steve Crookes, one of the four judges at this year's two-day open retriever stake at Osberton Estate. "You're only as good as your last retrieve".
Indeed with a field of 24 quickly whittled down to 13 by the end of the first day, the pressure to perform quick, clean and efficient retrieves at this level is all too apparent. "A dog must show both purpose and control, or the judges won't give it a second chance," says Graham Jones, the competition's chief steward.
The first day saw the dogs and their handlers faced with tough conditions. Heavy rain meant that the birds weren't particularly willing to fly, and scenting wasn't easy either. "Thank goodness for the hares on the estate", said Jennifer Hay, another of the judges. "The guns shot 26 yesterday, and without them we would probably have struggled."
Day two however, saw a complete change in conditions. Competitors arrived at the keeper's cottage for coffee under a crisp blue sky, and as the sun cleared the tops of the trees, Osberton Estate's mist-veiled fields were bathed in soft autumnal sunshine.
And within minutes of forming a line of Guns, judges, officials and competitors, across the width of a turnip field, the first flush of birds took to the air. One of the team of Guns - comprised of Paul Raper, Paul Rawlings, Rick Turner, John Lynch, John Troop and Simon McKay - dispatched a long crosser, and day two was officially under way.
The first few retrieves set an impressive standard, with several labs, including Nigel Barton's Boretree Jess and Chris Winfield's Jobeshill Valfrid carrying out theirs in textbook fashion. However, the fifth bird of the day, despite appearing to be hard-hit, got the better of several competitors with two dogs being eliminated in quick succession after failing to make their retrieves.
A similar scenario immediately followed suit when the Guns dropped two birds in separate locations, some 100m apart. Very few competitors saw both birds fall, so when the next two handlers in turn couldn't direct their dogs to the downed birds, they were instructed to call their dogs off. Again, the judges called on Laura Hill and Jobeshill Lotta to have a go. Seconds later, as Laura's yellow lab came tearing past with a hen pheasant in its mouth, Graham, the head steward, leant towards me and whispered: "And that my son, is what we call an eye-wipe." It was also the fifth successful retrieve for Laura's dog, which meant it went through to the next round in the competition.
Indeed, as the day progressed, more and more dogs were eliminated as a handful continued to demonstrate the class and consistency that is required to stay in a competition of this standard. With only a handful of dogs remaining, nerves were beginning to show as handlers realised that they were within touching distance of the trophy and automatic qualification into the 2011 IGL Retriever Championships.
Next, one of the Guns dropped a bird on the far left of the beating line, which was probably out of sight to several of the dogs and handlers on the right flank. In these circumstances, the judges will try to indicate as accurately as possible to the handlers, the precise location of the fallen bird. Despite her outstanding prior performances, Laura's Jobeshill Lotta failed to make her retrieve and was duly eliminated. Character building indeed. "It was my fault", said a frustrated Laura. "I sent her to the wrong spot. Even though the judges pointed me in the right direction, I was so sure the bird had fallen in a different place."
The final round of the competition saw all four of the remaining dogs make impressive retrieves, but, according to chief steward Graham, the battle for the silverware was between two yellow labs, Chris Winfield's Jobeshill Valfrid and Nigel Barton's Boretree Jess who had both been outstanding throughout.
After a lengthy deliberation, the judges had made up their minds, and the trial was called to a close. The results however, would have to wait as handlers, guns, beaters, officials and judges made their way back to the keeper's cottage for the prize giving.
Jobeshill Valfrid of Avonford.
Handler: Chris Winfield
Handler: Nigel Barton (Boretree Jess also won the John Hesp Memorial Cup for the youngest dog in the awards).
Certificates of Merit
Redbox Gordon of Tanderswell.
Handler: Margaret Allen.
Handler: Colin Walker.
Jobeshill Lotta of Stauntonvale.
Handler: Laura Hill.
Were you nervous going into the final round?
Well a little bit because he's got through to the second day (of a two-day stake) twice this year and he had difficult retrieves which he didn't manage. So, yes, by the end I was getting nervous. I almost had kittens when he jumped a barbed wire fence on his last retrieve.
The standard is always high - you have to have won a novice class to enter - so you don't actually know who the judges are going to pick.
Have you qualified for the IGL Retriever Championships before?
No, this is my first time, although I have been to watch on several occasions, so I know what to expect. It's highly competitive, with 55-60 dogs entered, and the competition runs over three days. If your dog goes wrong you're out - it's as simple as that. And there are several hundred people watching.
How long have you been trialling for?
I started in about 2003, and I've been doing it fairly seriously since then, but I am by no means a professional. I started off just going picking up at shoots and then started doing working tests in about 92. I got my first lab in 91, and I always said that I wouldn't enter a trial until I knew I had a good enough dog.
Did you train Pepper yourself?
Yes, I got him as a puppy at eight weeks old. He's three years old now, so he has plenty of time to become a field trial champion - there's no time limit within which to win your second stake.
Where did he come from?
He came from a litter in Derbyshire, and was bred by a lady called Jane Fairclough. Another gundog trialler, Laura Hill has Pepper's sister. Laura also has a FTCH bitch from the same mother, but a different sire.
What in your opinion, does it take to win a two-day stake?
In my opinion it takes a good stylish dog, a fairly good handler - I don't want to blow my own trumpet. And a lot of luck - no one would deny that. Little things can go in your favour, like a pheasant moving at just the right moment to catch your dog's eye.
And what qualities do you look for in a dog?
Well, the judges like them fairly fast, and they need to look good when they're hunting - so fast stylish dogs are far more likely to catch the judges' eye than a reluctant one.
Is Pepper the best dog you've ever had?
Yes, definitely, he was easy to train from an early age, so it didn't take long for me to realise that there was something special about him. He's intelligent, enthusiastic and willing to please. He just wants to please me all the time. Having said that, there are always bits and pieces that can be improved - no dog is ever perfect.
Are looking forward to the IGL Championships?
Very much so - it's special for me because I'm a regular picker-up at Nevill Holt Estate in Leicestershire where the IGL's are being held this year. Pepper is the second dog to qualify who is a regular picker up at the estate. The other dog (a field trial champion) belongs to Linda Partridge.
Will you breed from Pepper, and if so when?
Yes, we have done so already, and in actual fact I'm expecting a call from someone now with regards to breeding from him.
What is it about labs that you like?
Well my husband has spaniels, and there's a saying - a lab is born half trained and a spaniel dies half trained! I love the temperament of labs, they're always willing to please.