There can be few better places to hold a championship field trial than Drumlanrig Castle on the Duke of Buccleuch?s Queensberry estate, standing in its beautiful grounds above the river Nith county. Jon Kean, chairman of the Kennel Club Cocker Spaniel Championship working party, welcomed a record field of 40 runners to the trial and introduced the judges and Guns to the competitors, officials, press and spectators before we set off for the Laird?s Rigg beat.

The ground for the first day was fairly open woodland with a mixture of ground cover: some bramble, the odd pile of brashings, fallen trees and some rhododendrons on the margins of the wood. There was a more or less constant drizzle, turning to light showers from time to time and under the cover of the trees it stayed gloomy throughout the day ? conditions that would be referred to locally as ?dreich?. Perhaps because of the wet the pheasants sat well, particularly where there was a bit of shelter, and at times it required the ogs to work hard to get birds into the air.

Dazzling the crowds

Once on the wing, though, the Guns ? Ray Casey, John Palmer, headkeeper Rab Clark, Billy Steel Jnr and Bobby Renwick ? were in excellent form. After an initial rush of pheasants from the thick rhododendrons at the start of the beat, things settled down and the runners generally had ample chance to demonstrate their hunting ability before flushing birds. Rab did his best to ensure that all the best of the cover was hunted out, swinging the line across and back within the wood.

There was an odd occasion when a handler seemed to lack a bit of what one of the Guns described as ?game sense? in that sometimes obvious bits of gameholding cover were missed, or a dog was sent in to hunt out cover in such a way that any birds were likely to be flushed back towards the gallery. This, however, did provide a rare chance for picker-up Cammy Watts to get into the action with a retrieve that may have been premature.

Despite the wet and the cold there was no doubting the enthusiasm of the little cockers that tore into the bushes and brambles and put game on the wing. That the dogs, bashing through cover at a hundred miles an hour, are still listening to the handlers? whistles, taking hand signals and stopping instantly when a bird is flushed looks little short of miraculous to an amateur trainer such as me.

Inevitably, there were a few mistakes made: dogs squeaking with excitement or running-in to fallen game and one or two failing in their efforts to retrieve, but overall the standard of work and discipline were excellent. By the time the fi rst round was completed in the late afternoon gloom, there were 26 of the original 40 runners still in contention.

Sad developments

The weather forecast was more promising for Thursday as everyone assembled for the second round. Sadly, with the trial barely underway, one of the spectators was taken ill. Despite the best efforts of a doctor and two nurses who were attending the trial, quickly backed up by paramedics and a helicopter from the Scottish Air Ambulance Service, it was not possible to save his life. The decision was taken, quite rightly, that proceedings should end for the day and it was a subdued crowd that made their way back to the castle. Here, some urgent discussions between the trial organisers, the judges, our host the Duke of Buccleuch and headkeeper Rab, who was a personal friend of the deceased, resulted in an announcement that the trial was cancelled for the day and would continue the following morning.

Back on track

After some frantic reorganising by Kean and the working party and by the Drumlanrig staff who were running a driven shoot the next day, they were able to run the trial through to a conclusion on Friday. Three fresh faces: David Lisett, John Bailey and Russell Cano joined Clark and Billy Steel Jnr as our Guns for the day, but otherwise things were unchanged.

We began on a steep bank planted with young larch trees with thick brambles and the dead stalks of rosebay willowherb underneath. Walking was difficult for handlers but the cockers made light of it all, shoving through the briars and skipping over fallen branches and drainage ditches with gay abandon.

There was a good supply of game: not surprising given that the estate had not shot the drives on this beat at all this season, keeping them in reserve especially for the Championship. As well as the pheasants, there was the occasional woodcock, though over the course of the three days I saw only two rabbits.

Once the line had worked along the full length of the bank, we swung round to more level ground just above the original beat. If anything, the brambles were even thicker here and for much of the time the dogs were almost invisible, progress being marked by the rustling of the undergrowth and then the whirr of wings as a pheasant burst out and took to the air. Retrieving these big cock pheasants would be difficult enough for a little cocker, even if it did not have to force them through the briars on the way back to the handler, but they nearly all coped well.

Not all the retrieves were so difficult. With open fields on one side of the beat it was inevitable that the odd bird would fall on clear ground and at least one pheasant and a woodcock were picked there. Whether this was an advantage or not obviously depended on how clean the retrieve was: in the brambles there wasn?t much to see until the dog emerged with the pheasant, but out in the bare fields any mistakes would be plain to view.

Unusual ending

The second round ended in a slightly unusual manner when Wendy Openshaw?s Chyknell Dove went for a hen pheasant cleanly killed by Billy Steel Jnr and was unable to complete the retrieve because the bird was lodged in a tree just above cocker height. Judge Andrew Cunningham went forward and

completed the retrieve himself and the second round was over.

After a long discussion between the judges ? Andrew Cunningham, Steve Bolton, David Rayner and Steve Russell ? three dogs were called back to run off for the top honours. Ian English?s Broadmeafarm Beau, Ian Openshaw handling Nigel Partiss?s FTCh Brook Furlong of Tiptopjack and Will Clulee with FTCh Rowston Snooty were all given a good run through difficult cover and all performed with distinction. Finally, the judges announced the end of the trial and we headed back to Drumlanrig Castle for lunch and the presentation of the awards.

Much to the delight of the Drumlanrig keepers, Kennel Club chairman professor Steve Dean presented a special award to picker-up Cammy Watts for ?the best retrieve by a Labrador in the Cocker Spaniel Championship?.

Of the 17 awards, only two went to dogs: Chyknell Eagle and Rowston Spikey Aderyngi; all the rest were won by bitches. Despite the dominance of the distaff side among the runners there were only two lady handlers: Anita Jones and Wendy Openshaw.

The trial showed off cocker spaniel work at its best on ground ideally suited for these game little dogs to showcase their courage and determination, but sadly the event was marred by the tragic events of the second day and celebrations for the winners was somewhat muted.