Worth posting this photograph of Oscar the pointer which my girlfriend took this afternoon in the miserable rain and high winds on the Chayne. The shepherd has been seeing a bird which I think can only be a greyhen on a totally different area of the hill, far away from the usual red grouse haunts and adjoining the woodcock strip. I’ve had my suspicions about this area for some time, and it was well worth a look with the dogs. Unfortunately, there was nothing to be seen aside from a merlin which sat and watched us from the top stones of one of the old grouse butts as we splashed through the moss. I will keep an eye on this patch over the next few weeks, because there is some good brood rearing habitat in this area, and it would be a good thing if there was a black grouse or two in there.
Walking back to the car again, the rain stopped, the wind paused and something like brightness passed through the clouds. Within a couple of minutes, the sky was filled with larks, each taking the opportunity to stake a claim to their own little patch of moor. It was easy to imagine, even for a moment, that Spring might be on its way again.
Having been dancing around the issue of getting a pointer for the past six months, the issue was carried forward on Friday when I was lent Oscar, the Heather Trust mascot. Oscar represents more or less everything I want from a pointer, and I was itching to get him up onto the Chayne on Saturday morning, despite a roaring south westerly loaded with stinging rain droplets. Running the two dogs together (labrador and pointer), the difference was immediately apparent. In the time it takes a labrador to run a hundred yards, the pointer had covered three hundred. While the labrador did a relatively thorough job of working the ground in a fifty yard radius, the pointer scoured everything withing two hundred and fifty yards.
Up onto the hill, Oscar reached the high plateau where most of the red grouse are now settling. They were far too wild to hold for a point, and they stiff little shapes catapulted themselves into the gale as soon as they saw us struggling through the wind. As we turned and began to descend from the far end of the ridge, I spotted Oscar crouching down and working his shoulders into a point position, then saw something rise chaotically up from the moss. It was immediately hidden by a low bump in the ground, but I ran forward and saw that dear, heart-swelling shape curl out and barrel off into the roaring wind. At two hundred yards, it was impossible to tell its age, but there was no doubting the sex or species. For the first time in several months, I was looking at a blackcock on the Chayne. Whooping, laughing and throwing my hat after the retreating figure, I watched it swirl and tumble through the wind until it was out of sight, almost a mile away.
This bird is extremely significant and will be covered in more detail in due course, but suffice it to say that I would never have found it without Oscar. Once it had gone, the pointer showed me where the blackcock had been lying up in the rushes, and I found five stubby pieces of shit in a shallow form. He had been lying into the wind, tucking his breast behind a tussock of brown cottongrass. Conspicuously larger than red grouse shit, the blackcock had left these white capped cylinders for my dissection, and I found that they were mainly made up of rush seeds, grass stems and shiny brown seed cases. The forage is not great on the Chayne at this time of year, and it will only get worse as the winter comes in and the lack of heather starts to take its toll.
But nothing is quite so motivational as finding fresh hope after months of gloom. The rest of country has had a great year for black grouse production, and yet it had seemed that my birds had gone quietly into non-existence at last. Even this single bird puts fire back in the belly.
After an extremely long and difficult weekend fraught with stress, I find myself looking down at the daft-headed labrador at my feet with a sense a real relief. About ten days ago, she started to behave a little strangely. She would run ahead on our walks, but sit suddenly down with a bump as if her bottom was giving her grief. Assuming that she was getting wormy, I made a mental note to drop a pill into her next meal. This sitting became more and more frequent over the next day or two, until it reached the point at which she could hardly walk twenty yards without sitting. Her facial expression seemed to convey a pretty serious level of discomfort, and on the few occasions when she was able to lay an egg, it was covered in blood.
Feeling very fretful, I took her in to see a vet friend who suspected that she had eaten something that had become stuck in the pipes. I was given some medicated food and told to keep a close eye on her as we waited for whatever had become lodged to emerge. By Saturday, it was clear that nothing was going to come out. A short walk in Dumfries revealed that she was so weak that she could hardly stand, let alone travel. Something was seriously wrong, and I rang my friend again for advice. Mercifully, he dropped what he was doing and saw her then and there.
Immediately, he spotted that she was seriously dehydrated – infact, so dehydrated that her body had started to shut down. Unless something was done quickly, the dog was done. She was knocked out and X-rayed, but the fascinating black and white image revealed nothing obvious. As he prodded and massaged her guts, he became quite grave and told me that she would need to be operated on without delay. A nurse was called, and I left them to it, feeling extremely weak at the knees.
Scoop will be well known to many readers of this blog, and she has featured in the background of almost everything I have written in the past two years. The thought of losing her without warning was enough to make my head swim. I hadn’t realised what the significance of her death would have really meant, and I still don’t think I have. The sound of this dog’s yawn wakes me up every morning, and she has been on hand to help me shoot everything from grouse and snipe to teal and pinkfoot geese.
I thought of that long retrieve on a fallen wigeon over an icy estuary in January and tried to come to terms with the possibility of losing her that same year. That was one of the proudest moments of my career as a dog owner, and other glowing retrieves on grouse, woodcock and hares began to swim into my memory as competing triumphs. Equally, my recollections of past misdeeds faded, so that I totally overlooked the day she noisily slayed a myxi bunny during a grouse drive and that awful moment at a woodcock shoot when she chased a hare through a free-range chicken farm. As the door of the operating theatre closed, I told myself that she was going to be alright because the alternative was so inconceivable. Scoop is shy with strangers and often seems aloof with many of my friends, by the rose tinted spectacles of her owner mark her out as quite the finest gundog that ever lived.
When the phone rang an hour later, I was surprised to hear that there had been no intestinal obstruction. I was prepared to hear that half a sheep’s fleece had been pulled out of her guts, but the truth was altogether more surprising. She had suffered a cecal intussusception, a rare condition in which the appendix turns inside out. Untreated, it would have become inflamed and, without a doubt, would have killed her. The exploratory operation had turned into a removal of the appendix.
Almost three days later, Scoop is nearly back to 100%. As soon as she walked in the front door, she began begging for food. With a labrador’s ability to manipulate kindness, she rolls her eyes and groans periodically, and my girlfriend showers her with love and attention. It was a very close thing, and it all could have turned out very differently. As she groans and farts luxuriously on my feet as I type this, I am smiling from ear to ear; appreciating every misdeed and theft with a new indulgence, because there is no dog in the world as valuable as your own.
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.
Given that it’s the dog’s first season of proper work, she’s doing alot of working. So far, she’s learnt a hell of a lot but I want to make sure that it’s all positive and enjoyable for her. The past few times that we’ve been flighting ducks, she has got soaking wet and then freezing cold. Even in the time it takes for us to drive home again, she starts to really freeze and her ears feel like icicles. I’ve actually noticed that she’s not keen on getting in the car after flighting duck because she knows that it gets really cold, so before her reluctance develops into an active dislike, I thought it’d be worth trying a preventative measure.
Lots of dogs have jackets and bags which they use to keep warm and get dry after wildfowling, and the “Hottadog” seemed like as good an option as any. It’s pretty much just a microfleece pullover with short sleeves and a rolled neck, and the literature which came with it explains that it will allow the moisture to pass away from her body as she wears it. It could be a total dead loss and serve no purpose whatsoever other than to make the dog look foolish, but equally, it could be just the ticket as the first frosts start to come in and she’s picking ducks from ice rather than water. Although it doesn’t look it, it’s actually pretty easy to put on her, which will be a plus next time I do it when it’s dark and she’s soaking wet.
The proof will be in the pudding. Stand by for more details.
Just thought it would be worth including this picture of the dog pretending not to notice a party of approaching hens. She’s never shown the slightest inclination to chase them or have any dealings with them, but until I realised that, I watched her very closely whenever she went near them. She must have picked up on this, because while she’s not interested, she feels embarrassed whenever she’s near them, and looks to me as if to say “I’m not doing whatever it is you don’t want me to do”. She got quite a good mauling from the black rock bantam when it had some young chicks, so if she ever was interested in bothering hens, I think that experience took the wind out of her sails.
Being a labrador, she eats anything, and her demand for food means that she is even fond of grower’s pellets. Now and again, I catch her eating growers and watch as the hens work their way closer and closer towards her. Inevitably, they push her away and she runs happily over to me as if she was full anyway and didn’t want any more. What a wimp.
According to the paperwork, Scoop is one year old today. To celebrate, I took her for a morning’s fox walk along the south march of the farm, but what with the showers last night, the rushes looked rather wet and uninviting. If I were a fox, I would have chosen somewhere drier to lie up for the day, so it’s not surprising that we didn’t put anything up. We found a roe doe, and I spotted an adder coiled up in a ball about the size of a grapefruit. It was one of the grey/black ones, rather than the light brown/dark brown ones, and it looked very smart on a bed of wine red sphagnum moss. I’ve got a copy of Rodger McPhail’s book on adders somewhere, and I really must find out what the difference between the colours is.
Scoop has certainly come on a long way since we got her in October last year, and I was bit miffed to find that she was still full of beans after our two hour, six mile slog through the grass on the low ground. Sadly, the more I make her work, the more she demands to be worked. She’s now a 22Kg slab of fit, relentless muscle, and it’s all my fault…