A few years ago, I was deep in conversation with an elderly Norfolk gentleman, who shared my passion for rabbiting, whether it was with a gun, trap, ferret, dog or net. I was transfixed by his accounts and opinions on what he had experienced over the past 60 years. He had witnessed the rise, fall and rise again of the rabbit in East Anglia, but one subject that stuck in my memory was his experiences of long-netting with a dog. He used a Labrador, not because he regarded it as the best breed for the job but because he already had one for his shooting. He saw the advantages of using such a creature when netting at night. Coming from a different generation, he only had kennel space for animals that brought food home for the table. It is a rarity for a dog to aid the long-netter, but I had been contemplating introducing one for some of our night-time netting forays. In a few fields of rape and grass I had been experiencing rabbits sitting as tight as any wild pheasant. This is clever, as it is easy for a rabbit to vanish in rape and long grass. This aromatic brassica crop is hard to beat through once it reaches a certain height and it offers protection for the rabbits, so it is easy to walk past a tightly gathered coney. I required something to get on to the rabbits? level in order to flush them towards our net.
This is why Pip (Ghostwood Tawny) was introduced. She is a cocker spaniel bitch belonging to my rabbiting friend and photographer Steve Taylor. She was bred locally by a quiet and unassuming gundog trainer called John Chenery. John is a man whose know-how and dogs are in great demand, not only locally but worldwide. A cocker may appear a bizarre choice for someone who is around a lot of rabbits as well as other game, whether they are shooting with a gun or a camera. However, Steve admired the versatility and character of the breed and was impressed with John?s dogs, so, rather than seeking out the best breed for his sport and lifestyle, he aquired Pip.
The cocker?s history is deeply entwined with that of the rabbit. Before the onslaught of myxomatosis in 1953, cockers were common rabbiting dogs. However, the disease had a detrimental effect on the rabbit catchers of the day and their ferrets and dogs. With the removal of vast tracts of rabbit-infested land, the cocker appeared to have difficulties turning to feathered game for training and trials, unlike the English springer spaniel. However, as the decades passed, the rabbit population improved, as did the thirst for catching them.
The hard-hunting spaniel
Opinions and fashions change like the seasons, but one fact remains the same from time immemorial, man has hunted for food. Gameshooting is a comparatively new pastime compared with falconry, coursing and netting game for the table. Falconry, netting and, to some degree, coursing required the services of a dog for flushing, so using a cocker for netting is nothing new. Since the invention of the gun, a dog has been essential to find game and retrieve anything shot and, more importantly, anything that has been pricked and injured.
While demonstrating at country shows and in the field, I have noticed more cocker spaniels are being used. After watching several at work across the country, I find it easy to understand why. Careful breeding and sensible training have reintroduced an animal that has many talents and one that I find adaptable and eager to please. Pip was trained by Steve under the experienced eye of John Chenery. As months turned into years, I started to see Pip at the feet of Steve as he took pictures of my rabbiting exploits. With rabbits, lurchers and ferrets whizzing about, the sight of a spaniel sitting tightly at he heels of a photographer was quite impressive. In rabbiting circles, we have always been led to believe that the ultimate bushing buddy for a lurcher was a terrier; I now beg to differ. I have witnessed these small spaniels going anywhere a terrier can, yet they have the essential advantages of being silent, obedient and biddable.
Pip?s training is primarily for beating on the shoot, working within 10 yards of the handler and only venturing farther afield upon command. Accustomed to game, especially rabbits, Pip offers an invaluable advantage when it comes to0 our netting forays. The last thing I want to see is a dog taking off after the first rabbit it encounters and careering head first into my net. Whether beating on my shoot or netting, I run a tight ship, insisting on a steady beat, only forcing the flush when necessary. Beating in a field of rabbits has many similarities with beating in a hedge of pheasants. The hard-hunting spaniel treads a fine line between methodical hunting and running-in, stopping and starting and then perhaps a flush when required.
Bringing home the goods
As the land opens up to rabbiting, I have many methods at my disposal to help me to get the right result. Not every rabbit problem can be dealt with by shooting from the comfort of a 4×4, nor can they all be ferreted during the day or trapped safely. Consequently, on those occasions when the weather is right, I take the nets out and go long-netting. I go out at night and set the net up between the rabbits that are feeding out in the field and their warren. It is the netter?s job then to drive the rabbits into the net as they head for home. Of course, you have to take into account the wind direction, as it can alert the rabbits to your presence. Like many country practices, it sounds easy in theory, but application proves to be a little taxing. When Pip was introduced to long-netting, it was during the daytime, beating through rough ground then slowly progressing on to night-time outings. Initially, she was fitted with a red, flashing collar, so that we could easily see her and observe if she did what she was meant to do. Steve?s view was that he would want his dog to do at night what it would do in the day. Once she did, the flashing collar was discarded. Now, a couple of years later, with Pip more experienced, we are out again to highlight the versatility of this breed while harvesting a few rabbits.
A recent venue was an equestrian cross-country course, where the grass was recovering from being cut, so it was neither too tall to obliterate the camera?s view of the action, nor so short that it gave the rabbits no cover to squat in for Pip to flush. As we were taking some pictures for this feature, we had to use a lamp in places where we normally wouldn?t.
Because I was hidden from Steve and Pip, I had a head start to lay the net before he made his way into the field. With the wind just right, I slowly and cautiously laid the net, aware that with each step I had to be careful not to trample on any twigs or fallen branches to alarm the rabbits of my intentions. Once the net was down I made my way around the field and signalled to meet up with Steve and Pip. Working a dog and taking pictures isn?t easy in the daytime, never mind in darkness. As Pip set off, we crossed our fingers that we could photograph the right representation of the dog working. Quartering in an energetic yet disciplined fashion, she glided across the 10-yard radius, sweeping from side to side like a windscreen wiper. Though I set the net in silence, we needed to make some noise to startle the rabbits into heading for home. The beauty of one person handling the dog and the other the net is that it can be treated as a training session, if required.
From 10 yards, Steve could be seen by his dog, even on the darkest night. Pip quartered until she gained the scent she had been hunting for, then her body language changed, the gears went up, the tail went into overdrive and in she went like a rocket. Another squatter was forced from a tussock towards my net. Pip stayed motionless, steady to flush until the command to continue was given. This is where the basic foundations of any dog training come into play. Once we met the wall of netting, Pip sat at the net?s end as I went up and down, despatching the enmeshed rabbits until the whole net was dealt with. I then removed the entangled bodies and laid them out, belly up, in front of the net, confident that we hadn?t missed any rabbits in the field. The evening?s bounty was picked up with the net and I could see how intently Pip watched Steve?s movement as he clicked away. This little spaniel certainly loves her job. Picking-up an injured bird, flushing rabbits for the waiting lurcher and beating in the field during a night?s netting ? Pip opened my eyes to how versatile the modern-day cocker spaniel can be in the right hands.