In recent years, I?ve done virtually everything you can do with HPRs, from shooting over them to watching them work with hawks, but I hadn?t been to a field trial. The critical report on HPR trialling emailed to me by a professional trainer (Gundogs, 1 December) persuaded me that it was time I went to watch a trial, and to report on it for this column.
There are numerous HPR trials run during the season, so there were plenty to choose from. I opted to go to an Open, run by the Weimaraner Club of Great Britain. I decided on an Open as it meant that all the dogs competing should be of a reasonable standard (to qualify, dogs must have won a novice trial or have gained a first or second in an all-aged stake). Suzi Burton, the club?s hard-working field trial secretary, was happy to have me along at Narford, in Norfolk.
So far, so good, and even the awful December weather relented on the day of the trial, with no snow or frost, and the temperature a little above freezing. I was also pleased to discover that among the dozen dogs in the draw, there were several that had, in field trial speak, got a leg-up. This meant that they had already won an Open and a second win would make them up to field trial champion. Like most HPR trials, there was a pleasing variety of breeds running, including Hungarian vizslas, German shorthaired, longhaired and wirehaired pointers, Weimaraners and Brittanys. The prospects for an entertaining and interesting event were good.
As anyone who has competed with a dog will assure you, there?s a lot of luck in trialling and, though I was dogless, my luck wasn?t in, either. The day started in a pine wood with a thick and impenetrable understorey of brambles. A determined terrier might just have struggled through, but it was about as unsuitable a piece of ground you could find to run any sort of dog, let alone an HPR. Number one in the draw was Theo Gould with her German longhaired pointer Wamilanghaar Elixir (Ellie). I knew that this dog had already won an Open and I?ve shot over Theo and Rob Gould?s dogs, so am well aware of their ability.
Ellie regarded the brambles with disdain and showed no interest in hunting through them. After a relatively brief run, Allan Hender took over with his German wirehaired pointer, Wirewolf Boomslang. Wirehairs are tough dogs and are well able to cope with thick cover, but these brambles were so thick that they defeated him, too. What was more, the dogs had hardly a sniff of game.
Fortunately, the wood then opened a little, allowing Mick Young?s Brittany bitch to show a little of her pace, but it was still disappointing stuff and it was so dark under the trees that photography was all but impossible. Slowly but surely, the judges progressed through the card, but after two hours, little game had been seen and only three birds had been shot. I sympathised with the judges, Graham Nixon and Beate von Dwingelo-Lutten, for they hadn?t really observed any decent dog work. It had been equally frustrating for the dogs and handlers.
By lunchtime, things were so desperate that Graham Nixon addressed all the competitors, saying that there hadn?t been sufficient game for him to sign the game certificate, thus making any results invalid. There was a brief discussion as to whether it was worth continuing, but it was decided to do so. This proved to be a sensible decision, as we were able to move to an attractive deciduous wood with bracken rather than bramble and sufficient game to give those dogs that the judges still wanted to see a proper run.
A number of pheasants were shot and Lucie Hustler?s six-year-old German shorthaired pointer bitch, Aytee Hot Gossip, pulled off an impressive retrieve of a runner. It was sufficient to give her first place and make up the bitch to field trial champion. No second was awarded, but Mick Canham took third with another German shorthaired pointer, Stubblemere Black Magic, and four dogs were awarded certificates of merit. The fact that there were any results at all was something of a triumph, and no doubt a big relief to both judges and organisers.
Try, try again
During the course of the day, I watched some reasonable hunting, observed a few points and several respectable retrieves. I hadn?t seen anything exceptional, but that was hardly surprising in view of the lack of game and the challenging ground the dogs were asked to hunt. The dogs, handlers and judges had made the best of the day, but the fact that it fell short was not their fault. Nor was it that of the keeper. With more than 30 days? shooting already having taken place on the ground since the start of the season, he was aware that birds would be few and that they would be wary. The problem was compounded because the sugar beet harvest was all but over. If the trial could have been held earlier, while there were still roots to hunt, it might have been a different story. If I want to make a fair assessment of an HPR trial, I will have to try again.