The past few days been almost totally consumed with woodcock – reconnoitering the various rides and woodlands that I have access to has been extremely revealing. Of all the locations I have been scoping out, I’ve only found one or two which would be really good for shooting, but at the same time, I haven’t yet sat out anywhere during the magical “flighting time” and not seen at least three birds. I’m sure the numbers will go up and down over the winter, making even the lesser spots into viable locations, but with so much superb woodcock shooting on the horizon, I need to make sure that my assistant is as ready as I am to make a start.
Scoop certainly isn’t shy of picking or carrying woodcock – I had a concern that she might be reluctant to deal with them since I’ve known some dogs to be decidedly tepid about mouthing both snipe and woodcock. The problem is not that she will be unwilling to physically pick the fallen birds, but that her overwhelming puppy-like enthusiasm means that she’s still not as steady as I’d like her to be. If she sees the bird fall and knows what she’s looking for, I’d back her to pick her bird almost every time. But if she doesn’t see what happens (as seems to be the case with shooting woodcock in poor light and in thick cover), she is inclined to blaze around in excitement and miss the purpose of the exercise. I can sometimes get her to move according to hand signals, but that “sometimes” is the problem. She needs to work with me on difficult retrieves, and I suppose it’s just a matter of practice and letting her grow up and calm down a little.
Filling a sock with straw and tying it up in woodcock wings, I have started hiding this improvised dummy in bracken or rushes when she’s not looking. I then send her to find it, forcing her to follow my directions until she eventually catches the scent. I’ve been amazed at the difference it makes sending her downwind of the dummy rather than upwind. When she’s upwind of the dummy which has fallen vertically down into the undergrowth, there is no scent whatsoever for her to work with and she moves frantically back and forth for no gain. She either stumbles on it by accident, or she works until she is downwind, at which point her nose starts to twitch and she zeros straight in like a magnet. I need to take this into account and try always to send her downwind of a fallen bird, where the scent will drift over to her and give her a clue.
We had a great time up on the Chayne at seven o’clock this morning, spending a quarter of an hour practicing the stuff she already knows and making it gradually more complicated. I don’t want to be a gundog trainer, and the way I’ve heard some people talking about gundog training is so picky and unrelated to actual game shooting that it makes me yawn. However, what I am quickly finding out is that it’s great fun to work with your own dog, seeing it progress with tiny steps every day. Scoop will never win a field trial, but if she can crack picking woodcock, she’ll be alright by me.