Bollihope’s keepers, led by Peter Fawcett, had done a magnificent job of preparing for the Pointer and Setter Champion Stake on 29 and 30 July, 2013. Thanks to the generosity of Sheikh Mohammed Al Maktoum, the moor in County Durham was, once again, in excellent shape as the setting for the Stake. It wasn’t just the keepers that put in the hard work — the Guns, Michael Gibbs and Racster Dingwall, were invariably well-positioned when birds were flushed, and they took a keen interest in the dog work in order to decide the Guns’ award at the end of the two days of competition.

The entry of 35 dogs was down on recent years. This does not reflect a lack of interest in pointer and setter trials, but was a direct result of the cold spell in late spring — with snow lying on the moors during March and early April, most of the spring trials were cancelled. Those conditions also meant that the grouse were a week or two late nesting, with the result that the early summer trials were also lost. Had the trials taken place as normal there would undoubtedly have been a number of other qualifiers to boost the entry. Even so, 35 runners is a decent field, and there was no lack of quality work.

Originally, Richard MacNicol was to have judged the stake with Julie Organ, but a car accident on his way to the event meant that he was unable to take part. Colin Organ stepped in at the last minute to make up what was probably the first husband-and-wife team to judge the Champion Stake. Richard was, naturally, hugely disappointed, but there could be no better replacement than Colin, with his many years of experience of trialling, judging and shooting over pointing dogs.

Bright and breezy

Despite worrying forecasts of rain and thunder, the conditions on both days were close to perfect: sunny but not too hot, the heather freshened by overnight rain and a good breeze for the dogs to work on.

As it is on the eastern side of the country, Bollihope had been hit hard by the snow, and there were a number of late broods with rather small chicks, which complicated matters, as young grouse tend to give off little scent and sit tightly — so tightly, in fact, that several dogs pointed birds so close under their noses that one of the judges would have to lift them by hand before they would fly. This may be a good defensive strategy against flying predators, but it is of limited effect when a dog’s nose and teeth are inches away. It says much for the quality of the dogs in the stake that birds were not pegged on several occasions when they sat incredibly tightly and refused to fly.

Peter had selected a stretch of the moor for the first day where birds were expected to be relatively scarce, in order to give the dogs a chance to demonstrate their ability to quarter. I say “relatively scarce” because nowhere on this magnificent stretch of high moorland is there a dearth of grouse, but his choice of ground was perfect, and we saw some excellent ground work, while every brace had a chance of finding birds. And most did — generally the ground work and bird-handling were of a high standard, but a number of good dogs, having done the hard work of quartering, pointing and producing game were then eliminated due to relatively petty misdemeanours, such as moving to shot or flush, going off the beat when asked by the judges to turn, or by being reluctant to stop when their run was over.

One particularly interesting entrant was Gerry Devine’s English setter bitch FTCh Gortinreagh Eppie, which had won the Kennel Club Derby two days previously. The Kennel Club (KC) recently changed the definition of “puppy” to include pointers and setters up to two years old at the time of the stake, which meant that the Derby — a puppy stake — was won by a dog that was already a Field Trial Champion and, in fact, still four months short of becoming an adult as defined by the KC. Indeed, she looked impressive at the start of her run, finding and producing a covey in great style, but she went on to move away from her next point when under pressure from her brace mate and so lost any chance of adding the Champion Stake to her Kennel Club Derby triumph.

Common scent

The judges brought back 15 dogs for the second round on the final day, and again we were treated to some high-quality work. Grouse were present in ample numbers and mostly sat well for the dogs. Scent was an interesting factor — on several occasions dogs were pointing right in among the coveys, suggesting that it might be poor, but every so often a dog would lift its head and rode in a long way before producing its birds, which meant that scent was carrying 100 yards or more with sufficient intensity to bring a dog on to point.

But scent — or rather the lack of it — can be cruel. Alan Neill’s pointer Papermill Major Don was performing brilliantly and was my favourite for top honours. He pointed and produced a covey on the right of the beat, then, when set off again, quartered well and found more birds well out on the left and again showed great bird-handling skills allied to first-rate ground treatment. Unfortunately, the grouse from the first covey had pitched into some rushes in the middle of the beat. It is generally held that dropped-in birds give off little scent and so it proved, for Alan’s dog had missed them and his brace mate crashed straight through them, eliminating both dogs.

The final round

After some discussion, Colin and Julie called eight dogs forward for a third round, which was to see several owners’ hopes dashed in fairly short order — at the start of the round there were eight dogs with at least a theoretical chance of winning; by the end there were only three left standing. A couple of flushes and two dogs that moved as their birds lifted meant that the judges ere left to decide between two outstanding performers: Steve Robinson with Mrs M. Herbert’s Irish setter Coldcoats Corbally Boy, and Maurice Getty with his pointer Gentle Jim.

The previous brace had lifted a grouse from the heather a little way in front of where we were standing, and the judges gave the handlers the choice of starting from where they were or moving forward a few yards to clear the ground. They decided to go forward and this decision may have been the one that settled the destination of the stake.

As the dogs were cast off, the setter went left and the pointer to the right. A covey of grouse was sitting within 10ft and Gentle Jim was right in the middle of them. A bird rose and he dropped immediately and stayed down as grouse jumped all around him. Throughout the trial his bird-handling and his manner around birds had been immaculate, and he stayed calm as the birds jumped and then cleared the ground calmly and efficiently while Steve’s setter looked on. It was a dramatic end to a first-class trial and served to establish Gentle Jim as the judges’ choice as winner, with Coldcoats Corbally Boy a close second.

There was a Diploma of Merit for Steve Robinson’s Irish setter Coldcoats Star and the Guns’ choice to receive a a crook carved by Sep Fawcett was Alan Neill with the excellent but ultimately unlucky Papermill Major Don.