The recent story of wildfowler Matthew Will losing his Labrador Fly to a grey seal (News, 17 October) was a tragic reminder of the dangers of working a dog in an area with a high seal population. The grey seal is by far the largest of our native predators, with an old bull weighing as much as 310kg. A swimming dog, even one the size of a Labrador, stands no chance when confronted by a seal. It is surprising that there aren?t more records of similar incidents taking place, though I would be extremely wary of working my dog anywhere that seals are present. Common seals aren?t as formidable, with a bull weighing less than a third as much as a grey seal, but I still wouldn?t want to take any chances with one.
Of our land predators, it?s the badger that is the most powerful, with mature boars weighing up to 16kg, or about the same as a cocker spaniel. Badgers have extremely powerful jaws that they know how to put to good use when cornered or wounded, but generally speaking they aren?t much of a threat.
However, some years ago I was walking my spaniels at dusk on the Brendon Hills in Somerset, an area with a dense badger population. One of the dogs, Rosie, went to investigate a movement in the hedge, and had her flank slashed by a badger.
The incident was over in a flash, and I barely glimpsed the attacker. Rosie?s wound was bloody but superficial, so she didn?t need to go to the vet for stitches. She did go swimming in the sea the next day, and I?m sure that the saltwater did the wound good. Rosie was a friendly spaniel, and I suspect that the badger?s reaction came as quite a shock to her.
There seems little doubt that in this incident the badger was taken by surprise, hence its reaction, but it?s the only case I have come across of a badger biting a dog in such circumstances. In a lifetime of dog ownership I?ve experienced a number of incidents in which my dog?s life was more directly threatened.
Despite the fact that I like horses and have always ridden, I?m wary of walking through a field with loose horses in it, especially if dogs accompany me. Most horses take little notice of dogs, but there are exceptions. I used to walk regularly on a public footpath through a field where a notorious dog-killing pony was grazed. Though the pony?s reputation was well known locally, its aggressive behaviour came as a shock to those who were unprepared. After one narrow escape, I always ensured that my dogs were on a lead when I crossed the field.
I had another close shave with a friend?s pony. This particular animal was a known badger killer, and though it tolerated my friend?s German wirehaired pointer, it took exception to my spaniels, and it was more by luck than judgement that the dogs survived. The moral is always to assume horses are dangerous. A local nature reserve is conservation-grazed by a herd of Exmoor ponies. The girl who looks after them assures me that they are all safe with dogs unless the dog decides to try and chase them. If that happens, she told me, they are well able to look after themselves.
I suspect that the biggest threat to working gundogs comes from cattle, and every year there are reports of walkers, usually accompanied by dogs, being trampled, sometimes fatally. Cattle, especially youngsters, are notoriously curious, and a herd of charging bullocks is a serious threat to man or dog, as often the stampeding cattle can?t stop, even if they want to. I?ve had relatively few nasty encounters with cattle, but that?s because most of my picking-up has been done on arable farmland.
Here in East Anglia, outdoor pigs are more numerous than cattle. Working dogs around pigs is always tricky, not least because the latter are invariably contained by electric fences that are far from dog-friendly. The general rule is that should a bird fall into a pig enclosure, you pick it yourself, as quickly as possible, as pigs are more than happy to eat it, feathers and all.
Adder bites are a seasonal danger to dogs, and it?s a good thing that these snakes hibernate during much of the shooting season. However, they are still very active in August and September, and widespread on grouse moors as far north as Sutherland. Dogs do die annually from snake bites in the UK, but if your dog has the misfortune to be bitten, then keep it calm and take it to the vet as quickly as possible. I?ve only once had a bitch of mine bitten: I was abroad at the time, but my friend who was looking after her took her straight to the vet. She made a speedy recovery.
I?ve left to last the creature that is most likely to damage your gundog: the cock pheasant. Dogs injured by the spurs of cock pheasants are surprisingly common, and this explains why some experienced picking-up dogs kill cocks. I?d be interested to hear any stories you may have of close encounters your dogs have experienced with other animals, both wild and domestic.