Fieldsports Guide to Gundogs

Field trials and trubulations

group shot trials

Competitive field trialling is not for the faint hearted. Dealing with the ups and downs requires great determination and commitment as Laura Stimpson discovered.

Any country sport requires a certain element of luck and Field Trials are no exception. As the sport's popularity increases, opportunities to compete at events are scarce. "We had 127 entries to this event," says Deborah Green, field trial secretary for the Midland Counties Labrador Retriever Club (MCLRC) Open qualifying stake, for any variety retrievers. To compete in Open events, which carry qualification for the International Gundog League Retriever Championship, dogs must have been successful in a Novice or All Aged stake - only when they have done this will they be eligible for Open events.

The event was hosted at the Belvoir estate, nr. Grantham in Lincolnshire and sponsored by Judge's Choice Dog Foods. This two-day Open stake and others like it accommodate 24 handlers while one-day stakes can take 12. This huge over subscription means that competitors must become affiliated to many groups and be willing to travel to get a run. Sara Gadd of Birdsgreen Gundogs in Norfolk was one of those lucky enough to get a run at the Midlands event, "I belong to 72 clubs across England and Scotland and last year had 12 runs, that's pretty good. My partner is a member of the same 72 clubs and got just six runs last season."

As a club the MCLRC is fortunate when it comes to finding venues to host their Novice and Open trials, which run annually. "We are lucky," says Debbie, "We are long time established and so have some good contacts and venues where we can hold our trials without being charged for the game that is shot."

Not all clubs across Britain have the same good fortune. Julie Hughes who competed at the trial with her bitch Vineham Spice, adds: "We are very lucky and appreciate all the estate owners that kindly host our events, if it were not for them and the Guns our sport would be lost." The Duke of Rutland is Patron of the club and The Duchess of Rutland kindly attended the event to present the prizes to the winners.

"It's a great honour to be able to host the event and we would love to invite the club here again next year," she said.

After the first day just eight handlers remained as the beaters, competitors, stewards and judges all set out with the Guns' team of Chris Green, Archie Saul, James Walgate, Ken Grimsdall, John Pawlyn and Michael Ray. They head for a field of sugarbeet with a cover crop running up the hedge line on the left. Belvoir estate's headkeeper Malcolm Partridge, Steward of the Beat for the second day (Ron Wells the estate's retired head gamekeeper ran the first day) lined out the beating line and Guns, where they were joined by the judges, stewards and the first four competitors. The line had barely walked ten metres before birds took flight and two were dispatched by Chris and his team. All four competitors in the line attempted the retrieve unsuccessfully with the dogs unable to catch the scent. Hearts sank as the judges set out and found the bird, failure to retrieve the bird by all four of the dogs results in their immediate disqualification. The tribulations of trialling - your competition can start and finish with just one bird depending on the difficulty of the game that falls, a matter of chance as none of the retrieves in this situation are set up. "It's a shame," said judge Sue Hutton after the event. "There was so little scent due to the cold that the first retrieve was hard and it was sad to see four dogs go out so quickly, but it was there to be picked, it's just the luck of the draw."

The judges' requirements demand an all-round performance of the dog and handler, and require the combination to work together. "We are looking at the dog's hunting and finding ability and its obedience to work in an area set out by the owner," says Sue. "Temperament is important too, as is the quality of the retrieve."

In situations where more then one bird has been shot, handling to the mark may be required in order to assist the dog to the specific bird requested by the judge, who will assess whether or not the amount of handling is suitable for the situation; unnecessary handling will count against the combination as seeing the dogs hunt is important.

As the competition continues, the four remaining becomes three as the Guns dispatch another bird that betters a combination. Over the course of a two-day stake competitors will pick at least seven birds and those that remain at the end of the stake will be considered for the places. If the quality of the field is not considered high enough, the top spots may not be awarded resulting in 'no winners' ensuring that those successful at open classes and gaining an entry to the International Gundog League Retriever Championship are worthy of their place.

The trial is over; competitors have done all they can as they wait for their results. So, has the day satisfied a competitive instinct? Competitor Alex MacGregor certainly thinks so: "You're competing against the game. Your retrieve is your opposition; you are not so much competing against the other dogs but the game itself. It's up to you and your dog to do well so that when the trial is over you can be happy with your performance." There's a real competitive edge to the sport but you have to take your chances when they arise - limited runs combined with the luck of the birds that fall mean chances of success are rare.

These dogs are certainly impressing in the competition environment, but, how do they function on a normal shooting day? Judge Roddie Forbes trials his own dogs and has judged at the IGL Retriever Championship on three occasions. He is a commercial shoot manager at Cawdor, Scotland and a key member of the Scottish Gamekeepers Association, becoming their first chairman. "A good dog can enhance your day's sport no end and a trialling dog is simply a polished version of a shooting dog; all my trial dogs work on normal days too." Sara also enjoys picking up with her team. "All my trial dogs work in the field picking up. The competitive dogs doing more of the marked retrieves, while the ones that no longer compete tending to do more of the hard work sweeping."

For the owners of field trial champion (F.T.Ch) dogs (that have won two two-day stakes, a two-day stake and a one-day stake or three one-day stakes at Open level) and the lucky few that take top spot in the IGL Retriever Championship, the obvious reward in glory is clear, but is there a monetary incentive too? Litters from proven championship dogs must certainly command a higher price? "I don't think people trial simply to get a higher price for their pups," says Sara "You can compete all year, your dog can work well and you still might not get a place. You need a good dog to win, but a lot of luck too with pickable birds to retrieve." The proven quality of British stock as both working and trial dogs means there is also an increasing market overseas. Roddy Forbes elaborates: "There's a big interest from the USA and Europe for British bred dogs, they are the best in the world."

The MCLRC Open stake champion is Tim Brain, with Griogaraich Linnet, with Sara Gadd and F.T.Ch. Brindlebay Gertie of Birdsgreen second and Alex MacGregor and Griogaraich Gowan third. Tim seals his ticket to the IGL Retriever Championship running this year at the Sandringham estate, Norfolk, on December 7-9 by kind invitation of Her Majesty The Queen. His assessment of success really sums up the sport as a whole: "I'm over the moon, so chuffed this dog was worthy of the chance to win and we took it." Success in trialling comes only when fortune, training and dedication combine.

The experts

Kennel Club rules state that four judges are required for stakes such as this one; two of which should be 'A' panel and two 'B' panel. Other types of trials require different combinations. Judges start as non-panel members before moving onto the 'B' and eventually 'A' panel, to achieve the higher status existing A panel judges report on the performance of other judges at a minimum number of events and a minimum time scale. These evaluations are discussed by the panel members of the Kennel Club Field Trial Sub Committee who determine the candidates' success. Sue Hutton took to trialling and in turn judging when her husband began shooting; "I soon realised that I wanted a dog of my own and started working tests (done out of the shooting season using cold game and dummies) and field trialling, then ten years ago I was invited to judge and it has gone from there."

The MCLRC have a lot to thank Joan Hayes for - her family have been heavily involved with the club for many years. The president of the club, she has been very successful in competition and last year aged 77 was the oldest competitor at the Retriever Championship with Brookchater Flyn of Staindrop. The pair were on hand during the MCLRC Open to pick up any birds not collected or used in the trial.

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