Despite foot-and-mouth putting the IGL Retriever Championship in jeopardy, superb organisation meant that Windsor again hosted the competition. Headkeeper John Stubbs and his team worked hard to make sure that this was the high point of his retirement year. Fifty dogs qualified for the Championship, and the game supply meant that the event was comfortably completed in the three days. We met on 3 December in Windsor Great Park, by gracious permission of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth and the Crown Commissioners. The 50 dogs comprised four golden retrievers, 10 yellow Labradors and 36 black Labradors, with 14 bitches and 36 dogs, including 19 runners from 2006.

The winning golden Labrador from 2006 and one Labrador in whelp were unable to compete, so there were 48 runners. Sarah Gadd and Vikki Stanley had two dogs each, while John Halsted junior was handling three. With two dogs from Ireland, four from Wales and seven from Scotland, it was a very British championship. Dogs from Europe are winning novice trials, but none has yet qualified for the Championship. David Garbutt from Yorkshire and Peter Hammond from Suffolk judged on the right, while Roddy Forbes from Scotland and Phil Parkins from Northamptonshire took the left flank.

Day one

The first day was sunny and dry, and the trial commenced in the deer park. The first retrieve was a hare for John Halstead’s Garronpoint Ross of Drakeshead. The first few dogs were sent for marked retrieves as pheasants were dropped on grass beyond a ditch. A runner disappeared into a copse and was picked by Ron Jeffery’s Luddesdowne Lou of Gablescroft. This three-dog eyewipe was to no avail though, as on his next retrieve he picked the wrong bird. By now, a flush of birds meant that there were a number down. The new dogs in line performed less well, some handling poorly and failing to find or picking wrong birds. By the end of the drive, nine of the 19 dogs tried had been eliminated.

The Guns included the Windsor deputy ranger Rupert Everett, his son Simon, and several keepers. The line progressed across rushy grassland and into swathes of bracken. Immediately the standard lifted, with some good marked retrieves from the Labradors of Ricky Moloney, Alan Rees, Sarah Gadd and Roddy McBain. Leigh Jackson’s black dog FTCh Kenmillto Remus looked smart on a pheasant towards a wood, followed by a pigeon which fell close to the line. Failures were few, but one Irish dog was eyewiped by Annette Clarke with her two-year-old black bitch Garronpoint Liffy. John Halsted handling Cherry Finlan’s FTCh Scolopax Joe of Tagabea picked a bird near a wood, then Judith White’s Blackfoot Scout of Minstead couldn’t make anything of a pheasant that fell near an oak. Going second, six-year-old Joe took a nice line for 40m to find the runner tucked into bracken.

The line paused while birds were flushed from Leopard’s Hill Wood, and the gallery could watch retrieves at both ends of the line. The youngest handler, Sharon Coby, had a couple of good marks with her black dog Fordleymoor Whisky Mac of Longwalk. Heather Bradley’s Garrethall Morse of Heathergaye also impressed. Spaniel Championship winner David Lisett was also in line with the Duke of Buccleuch’s Labrador, next to Peter Bates handling his golden retriever. After lunch, the walk-up continued to complete the first round and start the second. Perhaps scent had deteriorated, because dogs were soon lost.

Steve Hore’s dog did a double eyewipe, but was then one of four to go out on a woodcock picked by the judges. John Halstead’s Ross failed on a hen in bracken near a holly bush, and was eyewiped by Tess Lawrence’s seven-year-old FTCh Willowyck Ruff. At 3pm we closed for the day. Twenty-five dogs had been eliminated or discarded, leaving 23 to return for the second day.

Day two

Tuesday was cloudy with light drizzle at first. Rape had been sown on undulating land at Flemish Farm. This was ideal for a walk-up, with good visibility to test the dogs’ marking ability at distance and on cross retrieves. Game came steadily with no great flushes, enabling clear-cut shooting opportunities followed by single retrieves. The gallery had a good view, especially of some retrieves towards boundary hedges. Dean Bridges’ Scottish Labrador shone on a pigeon shot in an adjacent wood, and Sharon Coby’s Mac continued to impress. As the second round finished, six more dogs were discarded, leaving 17 to go into the third round of two retrieves.

Tess Lawrence was soon in action, taking a hen runner by a hedge. When a rabbit was shot close to the hedge, the first dog failed to find and Ruff claimed his second eyewipe of the Championship. Pheasants and occasional partridges required accurate marking to be picked quickly in taller rape. The best work was done by two yellow Labradors: Dick Sorley’s FTCh Anson Anne of Denbank did two fast stylish retrieves; Ricky Moloney’s FTCh Tasco Monk of Mansengreen also marked smartly on a pheasant, then quickly completed an eyewipe on a partridge. Another eyewipe was achieved by Leigh Jackson’s five-year-old black dog, Remus. Even better was the work of the yellow dog FTCh Mediterian Blue, which excited the crowd by producing a strong partridge runner from the rape.

Would his handler David Latham repeat his win of 2003? Approaching the wood of Bromley Hill, the line paused while birds were driven out. One or two of these could not be found, giving dry runs to the dogs in line. Sandra Halstead’s FTCh Drakeshead Logo picked one from the rape and Annette Clarke’s Liffy worked confidently on a partridge, which ran to the hedgerow. After a short lunch break we returned to the rape. Immediately a cock was dropped behind the line with a leg down. Blue and Logo failed to find, as did Wayne Mitchell’s dog when taken to that side of the line. The three-dog eyewipe was proudly collected by Liffy, which was putting in a strong challenge for Annette Clarke. Six dogs had been eyewiped in the third round, so the field was down to 11 dogs.

We continued across the damp rape with good cross retrieves for Sharon Coby’s Mac and Heather Bradley’s Morse. Four dogs were then tried on a bird and the judges walked out to look, but failed to find. Soon after, a partridge was shot and two of the dogs ran-in. Mac was then sent for the bird, not far out, but overshot the mark and needed handling. The next retrieve was for Morse, with both dog and handler badly misjudging the distance and were eventually helped by the flapping of the bird. Philip Down was in line with the last third-round dog, FTCh Darleigh Thunderbolt — Tess Lawrence and Alan Rountree being called in as back-up. Tess’s Ruff picked a partridge in the rape close to the gallery while Down’s Labrador went out. Thus there were only eight dogs left for the final day. Four ladies and four men were in contention: Dick Sorley from Scotland, Alan Rountree from Northern Ireland, Annette Clarke, Sharon Coby, Heather Bradley, Tess Lawrence, Ricky Moloney and Leigh Jackson from England. Of these, Alan was the only previous Championship winner, but Annette, Heather and Tess had all been placed second.

Day three

Heavy rain on Wednesday morning dampened the proceedings, but a 10am start meant the worst was over and the sun tried to show as Her Majesty arrived. We commenced with a drive in the Great Park, pheasants flushing from the trees surrounding Teal Pond. The eight dogs remained steady during the drive. As Tess had completed her sixth retrieve the previous day, the rest were sent one by one to pick birds on the grassy slopes beyond a ditch. Alan and Ricky’s dogs took more handling than those of Dick, Leigh and Annette. Heather and Sharon had a fruitless search, but the judges did not find. Heather was then given a new mark for another bird. Walking on in line, a wounded bird over the brow was soon spotted to give a retrieve for Sharon to complete that round. Leigh had been dropped, so seven dogs were left for the next round of two retrieves. The walk-up progressed across the tussock grass and bracken between Heronry and Oxpen Woods in the Old Deer Pen. Dick Sorley was sent for a retrieve near the crowd on the left, but his yellow bitch, Anne, marked less well than previously. Next, Ruff maintained his challenge picking one of two hen pheasants in bracken, without help from Tess. The second was picked

less quickly by Monk, with Ricky needing to handle. Alan Rountree also needed to handle his young black dog, Waterford Edward of Tasco, which mismarked and pulled into bracken. This ended his challenge. Anne’s next bird was a long shot forward, a potential runner, which was swiftly gathered to keep Dick Sorley in the hunt. A woodcock fell in the bracken on the right, but Ruff’s game-finding ability soon saw Tess Lawrence completing her eighth retrieve. Another woodcock was smartly marked by Liffy, and with several earlier eyewipes Annette Clarke was clearly still a leading contender. Two pheasants were shot on the left, one of which ran. Ricky Moloney was asked to send Monk for the runner, but failed to collect. Sharon Coby went second with Mac, which picked the dead bird and was sent back unsuccessfully for the runner.

The judges scrubbed this retrieve, and each dog was given a marked retrieve, Mac marking best on a cross retrieve into deep bracken. From the right flank, Heather Bradley’s Morse marked well on a cross retrieve for a hen pheasant in laid bracken. Next the Gun on the far right dropped a cock behind the line in bracken, with the dogs unsighted by an oak tree. This looked like a strong runner, and so it proved, for neither Liffy nor Morse could find, and neither could the judges. The same Gun killed a hen, also in deep bracken. Liffy hunted too far out, but Morse managed to find the bird. Annette shook hands with Heather as she left the line. Thus only five dogs had managed to complete eight retrieves. The judges deliberated, and then decided they would like one more bird for Garrethall Morse of Heathergaye. This proved to be a woodcock, which defeated the dog and was picked by hand.

A Championship with variable work from the 48 competitors had concluded with five dogs coming to the top. The judges seemed to be looking for dogs with the best marking and game-finding ability. The most consistent dog, which needed little handling, picked runners and could wipe the eye of other dogs was seven-year-old Ruff, handled by a delighted Tess Lawrence. Sharon Coby, in her first Championship at 23 years old, achieved a thrilling second place with two-year-old Mac, and Dick Sorley’s yellow bitch took third place and the trophy for the best Scottish dog. Diplomas of Merit were awarded to Ricky Moloney and Heather Bradley.

The IGL President Richard Parker gave his thanks to sponsor Skinners, the keepers at Windsor, the Guns, and to secretary Philip Wainwright and his helpers. The prizes were graciously presented by Her Majesty The Queen.