There are lots of ways in which you can have fun on a shoot without wielding a gun, and picking-up is one of them. If you?re attracted to this branch of the sport, how do you get started, especially if you have little or no contact with shooting?
Pick a breed
At the risk of stating the obvious, you?ll need a decent dog. Shoots tend to be rather conservative as far as breeds are concerned. A Labrador, English springer or cocker will readily gain acceptance. Labradors are regarded as being the easiest to train and they seem to do better in cold and wet weather than many breeds. You can?t keep them out of the water, so they do particularly well if duck shooting is involved. On the downside, they care little for brambles and spaniels are generally better in the very rough stuff.
Lest the Editor be flooded with letters, let me say that other breeds also do well in the picking-up line. One shoot I know has teams of Chesapeakes and flatcoats, while a stylish golden retriever can be a joy to watch. The Continental breeds of dogs that hunt, point and retrieve (HPR) have their aficionados, too, but small game shooting on the Continent is more often walked-up than driven and that?s what HPRs excel at. My experience of driven shoots in France is that all use teams of spaniels and Labradors for picking-up.
Ideally, all dogs would be trained to field trial standard. Sadly, this is never going to happen, and for picking-up it?s not really necessary. You need a steady dog that will sit beside you during a drive, preferably off the lead, until it?s sent for a runner. Labs are happy to do this, but spaniels get restless and need firm handling if they are not to run-in.
If you?re a newcomer to dog ownership, buy a couple of books on gundog training before you venture far. The only book I am aware of dealing exclusively with picking-up is Veronica Heath?s A Gundog Handler?s Guide to Picking Up.
Join a club
There?ll be a gundog club not far from you and it?s worth joining, because they often run training classes for novices. In the summer there will be working tests and scurries that help keep the dog?s brain in gear. Even though there may not be much water on your shoot, it?s sensible to train all dogs to retrieve from and over water.
Opinions vary as to the earliest age at which it?s sensible to work a young dog. I like mine to be at least 18 months old, but others are happy to start much younger. If you?ve already got a dog this won?t present much problem, but if you?re starting from scratch, it means a long lead time.
An alternative is to buy a part or fully trained dog. This is likely to cost about three times what you?d pay for a puppy, but the extra money can be worth it because you can get the dog into action sooner. However, even a well-trained dog will take time to settle into new surroundings and get used to the difference between your voice and mannerisms and those of the trainer.
Allow a couple of months at least, and use the time to revise work the dog has already covered with its trainer.
Apart from the dog you need to think about kit. A gamebag is optional except on a grouse moor, where it?s virtually obligatory. Game carriers are popular, especially on partridge days. Buy one with a broad strap that won?t dig into your shoulder when it?s got a dozen birds on it. Despatching dead birds is a dilemma for some. You can buy purpose-made gadgets or else develop the art of wringing the bird?s neck in a discreet manner. Many pickers-up carry a priest or use their stick.
Finding a shoot
Now comes the difficult part ? finding a shoot on which to exercise your new dog and skills. When first faced with this problem, I scanned the classified section at the back of Shooting Times looking for a shoot locally that was seeking Guns. I found a newly established one and phoned to offer my services as a picker-up. They were gladly accepted and off I went on a steep learning curve. Concurrently I joined the local wildfowling club and that led to other opportunities.
If you only have one dog, you stand a better chance looking for a small shoot. The big commercial operations often have a waiting list of pickers-up and the solo dog won?t be much in demand. Small shoots are sometimes woefully short of pickers-up and will be happy to take you on. Word of mouth is the best way of getting involved and the regional officers of the main shooting organisation might be able to help. The National Organisation of Beaters and Pickers-up (www.nobs.org.uk) is dedicated to matching would-be beaters and pickers-up with shoots that need them.
You?ll get invited back so long as you?re seen to be doing a good job. Persistence and a dogged determination to see every last bird on to the gamecart count for a lot. The new edition of the Code of Good Shooting Practice rightly lays great emphasis on the moral and financial importance of good dog work.