The Scottish Highlands in January can show a harsh and unforgiving face but for the three days of the 2014 English Springer Spaniel Championship the weather smiled on us. The Kingarth beat of Dunira estate near Comrie, Perthshire was the venue and the first day began with bright sunshine to welcome the 54 runners at Easter Ballindalloch.
The road was still icy as we walked out to the trial ground. This was ideal country for roughshooting: a mixture of boggy hollows and little rocky hillocks with a dozen or so flightponds scattered about among the ruins of old crofts. The cover was a mixture of white grass, bracken and rush with a few young trees coming through on the drier ground: not challenging in the way that brambles and thorn can be, but dense enough for the game to sit tightly and, most importantly, was the same for every competitor. Headkeeper Doug Stewart had kept the ground undisturbed throughout the season and the birds ? mainly pheasants with a nice sprinkling of woodcock, duck from the flightponds and the odd partridge ? held well despite the presence of a large gallery in addition to the judges, Guns, stewards, keepers, game carriers, press photographers, film cameramen, sponsors, owners and, of course, dogs and handlers in the line.
Right from the start there was a plentiful supply of game, and the judges ? Jim Clark, Bill Leonard, Simon Tyers and Garry Veasey ? were soon making good progress through the card. The Guns ? John Bailey, Richard Claydon, Martin O?Riordan, Matt Armstrong and James Grainger ? were in fine form and shooting so well that the final bag was 69 pheasants, three woodcock and two duck, while one pheasant had to be left for collection by the picking-up dogs.
Good spectator sport
The cover was dense enough to hold pheasants, but also relatively low, so practically all the dog work was done in full view of the gallery. The spectators were treated to some excellent ground work, with dogs hunting hard and fast through the grasses and bracken. At times, when the gallery was gathered on one of the many hillocks, they would have seen more than the judges could see, particularly on one or two longer retrieves when birds were running out of sight of the line.
The attrition rate on this first day was high, with a number of dogs going out for moving a step or two on the flush. As one experienced trialler told me: ?At a novice stake they would be fine; in an open stake it would depend on the judges? individual opinion, but at a Championship any movement will lead to elimination.? By the time we had finished for the day at around 3.30pm, 51 of the 54 first-round dogs had been under the judges.
Next morning there were 28 dogs through to the second round plus there were three first-round dogs still to run. Only one of the three made it through for a second run, so almost half the field was gone after round one.
The weather was not so kind ? it was somewhat gloomy with low cloud on the hills and drizzle in the air for most of the morning, turning quite wet in the afternoon. Again, with a plentiful supply of game and some good shooting, the judges made swift progress through their cards and by midday, with just 16
dogs still to complete their second round, proceedings were halted.
If the weather on the first two days had been kind, on the final day it was simply superb. A sharp overnight frost and a sprinkling of snow had brought the hills into sharp relief and the sun rose just as we were setting out to start. Game was a little scarcer on this third morning and some of the dogs had to cover quite a bit of ground before producing a pheasant for the Guns. Whether this was a benefit or a handicap obviously depended on how well the dog was going, but again, there was game on the beat for every runner. The sun, low in the sky and directly in front, must have made things difficult for the Guns but the standard of shooting was such that few birds were missed despite the glare. I only saw picker-up David Logan called into action once for a pricked bird that glided a long way off the beat. Even so, it must have been a relief for the Guns and handlers when the line swung round about mid-morning and we had the sun on our backs instead of in our eyes. We were now on a steeply sloping hillside with rather thicker cover and the pheasants obviously found it more amenable, resulting in the last half-dozen or so dogs completing their runs quickly.
A close finish
The judges spent a few minutes deliberating and then called two handlers forward for a run off: Andy Bennett with his dog FTCh Helmsway Heath and Eddie Scott with his bitch FTCh Broomfield Annie. They cast off into an area of rushes planted with small trees and Broomfield Annie quickly flushed a cock pheasant, which fell into a patch of thick rushes. From our viewpoint on the hill above the line, it was clear that the pheasant was a runner, but at the level of the competitors and judges the running bird was hidden from sight by the rushes. Broomfield Annie was sent for the retrieve and was quickly on the line of the running bird. She had gone perhaps 30 yards when a fresh pheasant jumped from in front of her and the distraction may have caused her to lose the line momentarily.
She was then called back and Helmsway Heath was sent forward to hunt among the rushes where the judges had seen the bird fall. When he, too, was inevitably unsuccessful all four judges went forward to check the area but the pheasant was not there to be picked and both dogs survived. After a few more casts the judges signalled the end of the trial and everyone made their way back to the farm to hear the results.
Chairman of the Spaniel Club, the hardworking Anne Greeves, thanked everyone involved, particularly the Enggaard family ? who own this beautiful estate and have done so much with the headkeeper and his staff to provide the Club with the ideal ground ? and the sponsors, Skinner?s and Calor Gas, whose support is vital to the event. Mementos were presented to the judges, Guns and keepers and to Shar Stuart who had welcomed us to the estate on behalf of the owners, then we got down to the serious business of announcing the winners.
First place went to handler Andy Bennett with FTCh Helmsway Heath, while Eddie Scott with his FTCh Broomfield Annie was runner-up. Third and fourth places went to Richard Wells?s FTCh Dawnsonlee Domino and Ian English?s FTCh Helmsway Hope respectively. There were Diplomas of Merit for seven runners: David Lisett handling the Duke of Buccleuch?s FTCh Buccleuch Jazz, Eddie Scott?s FTCh Broomfield Rosetta, Ian Openshaw?s FTCh Hollydrive Kurt, Willie Edgar?s Int FTCh McGwyn Deallus, Jim O?Neill?s FTCh Wyndhill Lena, Peter Avery?s Moonreed Bandit and Tom Phillips?s FTCh Cowarnecourt Gaffer of Edgegrove.
This was a truly spectacular venue to hold a field trial, surrounded by snowcapped hills and magnificent views. Over the three days we were treated to a great deal of high-quality dog work which ? allied to some good shooting and the superb nature of the ground over which we were working ? made for a trial that will long stay in the memory for all the right reasons.