The first day of the 2013 International Gundog League (IGL) Retriever Championship ? held near Lauder in the Scottish Borders from 25 to 27 November ? began on a beautiful, bright crisp morning with scarcely a breath of wind. The views across the valley were spectacular as the 54 entrants ? 30 dogs and 24 bitches, all Labradors apart from two golden retrievers ? made their way across a couple of frosty fields into a covercrop of around 20 acres of stubble turnips. We were on the Lylestane estate and our hosts were Wilson Young Senior and Wilson Young Junior of Eskdale Shooting Services.
There were stops deployed around the field to prevent the pheasants running out of the crop and they did their job well, despite having to stand for hours in the cold. This was the first time the covercrop had been disturbed and the pheasants held well even with the noise of shots and whistles, and with dogs running through the turnips for retrieves and competitors coming and going from the line.
An ample supply of game belied the small acreage, and the judges ? Guy Bennett, Mark Bettinson, John Castle and Nigel Carville ? were able to make a first assessment of most of the 54 runners before reaching the hedge that marked the end of the cover. Aside from a couple of big flushes as birds were gathered in the final few acres, the pheasants kept from rising right to the end of the beat and were efficiently dealt with by the Guns.
It cannot be easy for a dog to pick a shot bird when there are live pheasants providing distractions by crouching or running through the immediate area. For
the handler too, there are problems when the dog takes a line that might mean the shot bird is a runner, but could equally be that of a fresh bird fleeing from the disturbance. One cock pheasant that fell 20 yards in front of my position in the line defied the efforts of three dogs to find it, but was then easily picked by the judges at the marked fall and all three dogs were therefore eliminated. Others seemed to cope easily whatever the distraction, picking the shot bird despite other pheasants clattering up right under their noses. Part of the problem for the handlers was that the cover was high enough to prevent them seeing if a shot bird had run or was lying dead, so often it was a matter of getting the dog on to the fall and then trusting it to do the rest.
Scent seemed to be unpredictable: Sandra Halstead?s FTCh Drakeshead Vodka took a long line to retrieve a strong runner, while other dogs struggled to find game that was lying dead pretty much where it was marked to fall. The judges were at pains to give each dog every possible chance, indicating the line and the area of the fall even as the dogs were working. In spite of this, the conditions were too much for some competitors and the field was gradually thinned down as the day progressed. After the stubble turnips, the trial moved higher up the hill into a belt of young trees and canary grass for the last hour of the day. Much of the dog work here was hidden from the gallery by the height of the cover, but spectacular views across the valley were some compensation. Eventually, we headed down towards the setting sun with 29 dogs still in contention.
Change in weather
On day two there was a marked change in the weather ? it was dull and damp, though a keen breeze made it feel anything but warm. After a stiff climb from the meet on the Tollishill estate we started in a field of kale and turnips. Initially, scent seemed to be poor, with a whole string of dogs failing to retrieve despite birds being well marked down. There was plenty of work for picker-up Niall Morrison, mopping up behind the trial with his Labradors Cassie and Freya, but as the round progressed conditions appeared to ease and some good work was on show for those who could see it. Unfortunately, the depth of the cover and the lie of the ground meant that for the first half of the morning most of the work was out of sight of the gallery. However, by late morning we moved on to a steep, bracken-covered hillside where the dogs, Guns and handlers were all in view.
Luck must play a part in any field trial. A pheasant falling in thick cover early in the day defied the efforts of four Field Trial Champions to pick it. Fortunately for the dogs, the judges weren?t able to locate it either when they hunted around the marked fall. Shortly afterwards two pheasants fell just in front of the gallery, one lying in full view on an open headland, providing the simplest possible retrieves for the competitors in line at that moment. Looking at the cock on the headland one of the spectators remarked: ?When it?s my turn that?s the one I want ? preferably with a man with a red flag standing over it.?
Testing the Guns
There was some spectacular shooting here for the Guns, with pheasants curling back over them from high up the hill and testing even the best Shots in the line. Wilson Young Snr was quick to point out that when they were shooting the nearby Cattlegrid Drive, famed and feared throughout the Borders, the birds would be almost as high again above the Guns. These pheasants looked challenging enough, but the Guns stood up well to the task. They provided the gallery with some close-up views of the dog-work as pheasants were dropped in front of, and sometimes behind, the spectators. John Halstead?s FTCh arailstar Rocky Road of Blackhatch was almost hit by a falling cock pheasant as he was hunting through the bracken, and understandably picked it instead of the hen he was originally sent to collect. There was an occasional woodcock, a rabbit or two and the odd snipe to give a bit of variety for dogs and Guns, and several cartridges were deployed at pigeon crossing high over the line. As the afternoon progressed, the drizzle became rain, but some sharp shooting meant that the judges could complete the round before conditions became too wet and gloomy.
The final few
On the final day there were just 14 survivors out of the original 54 and we were back at Lylestane for a second visit to the stubble turnips. It was a bright day with a steady breeze that promised good scenting conditions. We were treated to some excellent retriever work as the judges began to ask more of the dogs. Laura Hill?s Stauntonvale Fastnet did well to pick two birds from across the full width of the field, eyewiping Billy Steel?s FTCh Copperbirch Paddy of Leadburn in the process and booking a place in the final round.
This was to be a drive with the beaters working through a little copse towards the line of Guns, with the remaining nine dogs waiting in line high up the hill behind them. The pheasants flew well and after a flurry of shots there were enough birds on the ground for the judges to give each of the competitors a straightforward, but long, retrieve across the open field. This whittled the runners down to a final six, each of which was given one more bird to collect from the far end of the line before the judges announced ?trial over?.
Richard Parker gave an assured and amusing speech during which he thanked all the people who had worked so hard to make the trial a success, then handed the microphone to Wilson Young Snr to announce the awards. The winner was Leigh Jackson?s FTCh Ellijas Danny, while Nathan Laffy?s FTCh Abbotsleigh Emu was runner-up. Third and fourth places went to Sandra Halstead?s FTCh Drakeshead Vodka and Richard King?s FTCh Saxaphone Brown Ale of Lincswolds respectively and there were Diplomas of Merit for last year?s winner, David Latham?s FTCh Delfleet Neon of Fendawood, and Billy Steel?s FTCh Leadburn Mist.
The sponsor?s, Skinner?s, and hosts Wilson Young Snr and Jnr of Eskdale Shooting Services, supported by keepers Bob Clark and Gavin Hannam and their staff, had provided the IGL with the basis for an excellent field trial: good holding cover, an ample supply of game and easy access for all those involved as well as the small army of spectators. The Guns ? Colin Adamson, Jim Brodie, Struan Brodie, Philip Cootes, Craig Dickman, Andrew Ainslie, Thomas Adamson, David Scott and Colin Pride ? shot with distinction throughout, whether the birds were walked up or driven over their heads. There were visitors from many different countries including Italy, Germany, Denmark, Sweden and Ireland and all were treated to three days of top-quality shooting and dog-work.