Spaniel owners and handlers, and specifically those who hunt or do field work with their dogs, may find this blog post of interest. What follows are my observations and photos of an English Springer Spaniel Field Trial in Wales, and the specific distinctions and comparisons to what a most of us in North America may be familiar with in sanctioned field trials and hunt tests. For those of you who are not aficionados of chasing birds with your dogs, just follow along and see how I spent my vacation.
Recently, our friend Martyn Ford of Langstone, Wales, made it possible for us to spend Wednesday October 17th following and photographing a fall field trial hosted by The English Springer Spaniel Club of Wales (Y Clwb Ci Dwr Saesneg o Gymru). Martyn, who is a very successful field trialer of Irish Water and Cocker Spaniels in Europe, made the arrangements and also guided us as to the distinctions of a Kennel Club sanctioned field trial.
To start, one needs to have a proper hot English breakfast with the judges and club secretary. We joined the club at a small free public house, The George Inn, in the village of Aylburton. After a plate of eggs, toast, bacon, ham, beans, tomatoes, plus coffee, juice, and fruit, we were ready to spend the day walking several miles through farms and fields and woodlands in pursuit of pheasants.
Due to lack of public hunting lands in the United Kingdom, a club needs to host a field trial on private property, preferably on an estate with a professional game keeper providing the grounds and birds. The official name of this trial was The Riverside Shoot, and our host was Colin Markey. Colin manages several large farm properties and raises thousands of birds through out the year. The Riverside Shoot was held over several hundred acres on a hilly woodland surrounded by fields of corn. Due to the long wet summer, the crops were still unharvested and filled with hundreds of Colin’s pheasants. Before the shoot, an effort was made to drive the birds back up into the cover of the thick woodlands where the field trial was to be held.
If you have ever attended a field event in North America, you may notice one thing of significant difference in these photos right away. No blaze orange and no camo apparel. It may be tradition or it may be a case of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. The uniform of the day is green and brown tweeds. A mix of waxed canvas and polar fleece is also acceptable, as long as it is green, brown, or something in between. This includes judges, stewards, handlers, and gunners. So how do the Welsh avoid shooting each other in the field without orange? The same we used to do it — don’t point your gun in an unsafe direction. Seems simple and it appears to work quite well. And two other pieces of shooting apparel are also useful: Wellington boots (Wellies) and neck ties. The mud is deep and it always nice to dress your best.
This field trial was a “16 Dog Novice Stake.” Through a lottery, only 16 dogs (plus two reserves) were entered, and only 16 dogs run. (In this case, one of the entered dogs was absent, so a reserve dog was run in its place.) All were beginning dogs that had not won a previous stake or trial. They are held to the same standard as a championship level trial, but since this is a winner-take-all competition, it levels the playing field to have similarly skilled dogs compete against each other. Another distinction of a Kennel Club field trial is that it replicates an actual shoot. Colin’s birds were released into the forest in August, and they are free to roam, disperse, or stay as they choose.
The field trial starts with everyone trekking from the estate’s farmyard to the woods where the handlers and their dogs look for birds. (There were hundreds!) So once the 16 handlers and their dogs were gathered, they joined up with 2 judges, 2 stewards, 4 gunners, game handlers, the secretary, and 2 American observers, and off they trekked (through the mud) to wooded hills to hunt for birds.
Once everyone reached the woods, the judges each took half the handlers (8 each), plus two gunners and a steward. The first dog-handler team for each judge began to hunt side by side up, around, and over the hill through the forest, working very close in heavy cover to find and flush birds. Unlike an AKC field trial or hunt test, the birds are not planted — they are the semi-wild ones already living at this location. There were so many birds that we often saw them walking across the path ahead of us.
Several things can disqualify a team from the competition. One is when the dog misses finding a live bird, especially if the judge finds it after the dog moves past its location. The dog must also be quiet (no whining or barking allowed) and be steady to flush and shot, including to birds flushed by the other dog working the course. And if a bird is shot, then the dog must mark the fall and retrieve the bird to hand. If a dog fails to find a downed bird, the other judge, handler, and dog are moved over to essentially do what we call a “hunt dead” or blind retrieve. If a dog and handler fail any of these factors, they are out.
The 16 dogs in this trial were all English Springer Spaniels. From my limited participation in hunt tests, my feeling is that these dogs where about 10 pounds lighter and shorter than Springers I have seen in AKC field events. And I would also say that these pups were a bit more on the lean and mean side when compared to average field Springer in the USA. They are nimble and uninhibited in busting into tight cover, which consists of ivy, plus bracken and brambles, or what we call ferns and blackberries.
As you can see, the cover is heavy and the forest dense. I wasn’t able to make any successful images of shooting birds as I was standing behind the judge and steward while the dog and gunners where just a few yards ahead.
The photo below is the scenario where a bird went down into a nearby pasture and the dog, handler, and judge made their way out of the woods to go for a blind retrieve. The game keeper, Colin, is advising the handler and judge as to its approximate location.
The area of the hunt is never covered twice. The gallery of handlers is obliged to follow the club secretary for several hours through the woods waiting their turn with the judges and gunners. The secretary carries the Welsh flag while the gallery treks behind awaiting the call up from the stewards.
If a handler and their dog pass muster with one judge, then they return to the gallery and await their turn to work under the other judge. While I did not keep track of the successes, my guess is that about 30-40% of the dogs failed and were disqualified. And from my own handling and hunting experience, this was a tough course and difficult at best. Even the dogs that failed were amazing!
If a dog and handler disqualify at the beginning of the trial, they are obliged to stay in the gallery and follow for the duration of the shoot which could last for several more hours and cover a few more miles.
About half way through the shoot, the game handlers dropped off the birds that they had been carrying. By this time, Patrice had already mentioned to her steward, Iain, that in America (at least in the Pacific NW), we have a different term for game handler: “bird shagger.” Iain found this very funny, and word spread quickly that the American visitors had a rather obscene term to describe the task of carrying dead birds. I am glad we could contribute something amusing for the day.
I do not know the natural history of pheasants in Europe. The Chinese Ringneck Pheasant we have in the USA was introduced in the 1870’s south of Portland, Oregon for the amusement of a lumber baron. But I did see a painting in Paris last week of dogs flushing pheasants that was painted in 1702. The reason I mention this, is that in the morning’s bounty of birds, there was a beautiful collection of birds that I couldn’t identify.
This shoot and field trial was not only different than what we have seen here, but it was also distinctly Welsh. A number of the handlers were not speaking English, but Welsh. And as you can see in the photo below, they weren’t wearing proper British tweeds, but waxed canvas. This might be the equivalent of an HRC southern hunt test where wearing Mossy Oak camo is a a badge of honor. These guys are the quintessential Welshmen and their dogs. The only thing English about these gentlemen were their English Springer Spaniels.
Martyn was one the stewards, even though he is English, but the other steward, Iain, is a Welsh farmer when not participating in field trials.
Two other distinguishing aspects between this field trial and ours is the attire of the gunners, which are called “guns.” In addition to no blaze orange, they also were not wearing any hearing protection, but did sport neck ties. I like the tie idea, but would be inclined to protect my hearing. These gentleman probably fired 100 rounds and brought down 50 birds, so there had to be a toll on their hearing. That said, they were very good shots in such heavy cover. The leaves had not fallen and so seeing birds outlined against the sky was limited.
After all the qualifying dogs had run under both judges, there was a tie that had to be broken. The top two dogs and handlers were invited back to hunt up more birds. The judges were now comparing both dogs side by side and looking for style and precision. They made their decision, called a stop in the action, and then everyone headed back to the farm for the announcement of the results.
Of this field of handlers, judges, gunners, and gallery, there were only 2 women amongst these Welshmen. Patrice was one, and the other was a handler who prevailed to earn the top spot. She and her dog can now compete in the Open class of field trials. And the other 15 can try again at the Novice level.
After the shoot, handlers packed up their dogs into their rigs, a smart collection of Land Rovers and other British SUVs (just like home). And all the birds taken were headed to the table. In fact, if you go to market in Wales, the dressed pheasants for sale are harvested at shoots similar to this.
In addition to a delightful day spent with Martyn and seeing the dogs work in heavy cover, the ESSC of Wales acknowledged their two American guests and presented us with an official club necktie. Life is good.