Spaniel or Labrador? For the majority of us, the choice of breeds when selecting our most important shooting companion is a simple one. If you’re shooting in the game-rich environment of the UK and you want a dog that will hoover up behind your peg, or systematically flush game in front of the beating line, then there’s really only these two: the overwhelming dominance in this country of driven gameshooting, coupled with the sheer quality of the dogs of these breeds available to us, virtually guarantee the supremacy of our Labradors and spaniels. But what about the lone roughshooter whose dog must work all day to hunt out the few gamebirds or animals on his ground, flush them at close quarters to ensure a killing shot and then retrieve on command? Of course, Labradors and spaniels will both make perfect roughshooting dogs, but the variety of tasks involved opens the field to a much wider range of gundog breeds.
Growing in popularity
I was properly introduced to the Continental hunt-point-retrieve (HPR) breeds 13 years ago when, at the invitation of my friend Nick Elder, I started shooting regularly at HPR field trials. The opportunity to see a variety of these dogs working at close quarters made me appreciate the different nuances in the way they went about their work.
Much has changed in the past couple of decades, with several new HPR breeds having arrived here to join the German shorthaired and wirehaired pointers (GSPs and GWPs) that once made up the bulk of our HPRs. Among the newcomers is the Slovakian rough-haired pointer, which was developed at the end of World War II from crosses between the GWP, Weimaraner and the Cesky Fousek, a native local breed. It has now gained considerable popularity in its homeland.
Slovakian bird hunters operate under very different conditions from those in Britain. Rarely do they hunt in woodland, according to Michal Urban, secretary of the Slovakian rough-haired pointer breed club. Most of the time they hunt in open fields of roots or long cereal stubble, where the amount of game present is a fraction of what we might expect to encounter here in a day’s shooting.
So when Nick offered to arrange a day’s walked-up shooting on the Mapledurham estate near Reading for Michal and some of his Slovakian friends, they jumped at the chance. It took them four days to make the journey. First, they stopped at the Jagd und Hund hunting fair in Dortmund, Germany and then took a second break in Holland to meet up with a contingent of Dutch HPR enthusiasts. Then they headed en masse to Calais and took the ferry across the English Channel.
Consequently, it was a decidedly international group that was shepherded to the first beat by Chris Letzer, formerly keeper at Mapledurham and an HPR owner. Alongside the seven dog handlers were four English Guns, each of us excited to see how the dogs would perform.
An abundance of game
At the outset, conditions were nothing if not challenging. A huge squall of rain lashed horizontally through the bare branches of a long covert through which we walked in line abreast. There was, though, plenty of ground cover, and the dogs hunted in turn through the dense brambles, each handler giving his charge 10 minutes of work before the next one joined the line. The first hen pheasant was flushed just in front of me by the Slovakian rough-haired pointer belonging to Ludomir Engler. It was a simple going-away shot and I dropped it on the edge of a ride from where the dog picked it and, after some encouragement, brought it back.
The first real point, however, came from Klemm vom Steinacker, a handsome black-and-white GWP belonging to Ad Bekkers from Holland. This dog really had the measure of those heavy brambles, and the fact that he held a solid point enabled me to position myself in the best place to take the shot when the cock was flushed on command. He then made a perfect retrieve to complete the job.
It was an impressive performance. Ad explained that he never gets the chance at home to hunt ground with this much game upon it. Indeed, he has to drive for two hours from Eindhoven to Belgium to get any sport at all, and many days are spent with a group of Guns bagging just two or three birds.
A cloud of birds
At least the rain had stopped by the time we got to the second drive, a battered maize strip with a hedge running down the middle of it. With little cover at ground level, it was clear that the birds would soon be running ahead of us rather than holding to allow a point, so we worked four dogs and tackled the maize as a conventional walk-up. I could detect Dutch jaws dropping as a cloud of birds flushed from the far end of the covercrop. But a sufficient number got up within range for us to provide the dogs with three retrieves.
More difficult for the dogs was a large wood in which the groundcover had been stripped bare by fallow deer. Any birds that were present simply ran ahead of us, while a steady supply of muntjac presented a new and unusual challenge to the dogs. Though one muntjac was rather neatly pointed, most presented far too tempting a chase when they took off through the trees. I think the presence of such an unfamiliar animal unsettled the dogs, with the result that only one more bird was added to the bag before lunch.
Our afternoon was spent hunting a series of hilltop coverts situated around the rim of a magnificent bowl in the chalk escarpment overlooking the Thames valley. With the sun now bright in the sky and the Berkshire countryside spread at our feet, it was a wonderful day to be out for an end-of-season walk-up.
Once more, there was sufficient heavy bramble to ensure that the game stayed but rather than sprinting ahead of us, so the odds were tilted again in favour of the dogs. The Slovaks hunted well enough, but for me, top marks went again to Klemm. Fearlessly he worked through the brambles, whereupon he froze on point to my left. I could see the cock pheasant under the briars just inches from his muzzle, so I quickly manoeuvred into a place from which I could take a clear shot. The bird wasn’t having any of it, though, and when Klemm flushed, the cock immediately dived once more for the brambles and it was only a further quick lunge by the GWP which sent it on its way up through the trees to offer me a nice rising shot. The dog made a perfect retrieve back to its master. Meanwhile on the other flank, my fellow Gun Jeremy Perfitt was at last working his own GWP — and with great success, too.
Our final walk-up brought the bag to 18 birds, a modest enough total by English standards, but one which thrilled our Dutch and Slovakian visitors, who couldn’t stop remarking upon how much game there was on the estate. But this was a day for the dogs, not the Guns. It was not a test or a trial, but simply a chance for the handlers to work their dogs in the freedom offered by an English sporting estate. Above all, it was a great opportunity to see all those dogs in action.
My verdict? I thought all four Slovakian rough-haired pointers hunted and flushed well, and though I did not see a really good point from them, the nature of the cover was, to be fair, very different from what they were used to. There was also rather too much voice than I would have liked from a couple of them on rabbits — and, of course, muntjac. That was also a problem for José Huisman’s otherwise promising young Munsterlander.
Yet the stars of the show for me were the GWPs , in particular Klemm, a bold, intelligent dog and a tireless hunter.