Those who pick-up play a vital role in the effectiveness and enjoyment of a day?s shoot. But what qualities and tools do you need to do the job well, and what are shoots looking for? I asked three people with considerable experience in the business for their views.
Barney Allen, a head picker-up in the Chilterns, says that each picker-up needs two, or preferably three, dogs and must be conscientious. ?Reliability is the key,? he says. ?I need to know who is coming next week and who is not, so that I can make the necessary arrangements. There?s nothing worse than thinking you?ve got a team and then on the day you end up with just three pickers-up.?
This view is echoed by David Whitby, head keeper at Petworth Park in West Sussex, and Roy Green, a shooting consultant and, until recently, sporting manager for Buccleuch Estates.
Pickers-up who clear off suddenly because a shoot down the road is paying a few quid more are not popular.
Field triallers can also be a contentious issue for some shoots. Barney says he finds them reliable and that they usually know well in advance when they?ve got a nomination. He considers the trial dog to be completely different to what is required for picking-up and the handlers have a different mindset. He adds that triallers who are prepared to work their dogs are welcome and enjoyable to watch. Roy agrees, but says triallers need to remember the aim is to pick-up birds, not to use the day as a training session.
Which dog is best?
I wondered if any particular breed was preferred, because I?ve seen Labradors, springers, cockers, Chesapeakes, flatcoats, golden retrievers and Clumbers used on different shoots. All three members of my panel agreed that what matters is the way the dog is worked and whether the handler knows what he is doing. ?Spaniels seem to be best in heavy cover, but the other breeds can do a fantastic job,? says David.
If the breed doesn?t matter, what about the number of pickers-up and dogs needed on a day? Barney goes by the number of people. As most of his team have two, three or even four dogs, he knows six or seven pickers-up will be enough except on big days when one or two extra may be needed.
Roy, whose experience covers grouse as well as lowground game, says: ?I think four or five dogs each is ample. I worry that sometimes large teams of dogs are more likely to peg birds, particularly if the pheasants have flown. It?s not necessarily the biggest team that does the best job. If your pickers-up are working as a team and in a line they?ll pick almost everything. The whole team should be well back behind the line or butts, at least 200 yards if the ground permits.?
What makes a good picker-up? I asked what makes a good picker-up. There was a fair degree of unanimity. Barney thinks it?s not the birds you see that matter, but the ones you haven?t seen. It?s the sweeping-up operation which counts, and that must be done well. ?You get a few who only want to go to the easy places and it can be difficult to get good pickers-up,? explains Barney.
David thinks pickers-up need to have steady dogs with good noses, but not hard mouths. He believes a good picker-up enjoys what they?re doing and really knows their dogs. Quite often the best picker-up is the one who arrives five minutes after everyone else with the difficult birds rather than collecting a big pile from around the pegs. He says it helps if a picker-up is a shooting person, because they need to be able to recognise a pricked bird. They need to be regular, because they get to know the lie of the land and where birds are likely to fall.
?The most important thing is safety ? the second is animal welfare,? says David. ?We have an absolute duty to ensure everything we shoot is collected and that particularly applies to runners. You can?t let an animal you?ve shot suffer unnecessarily. It?s vital that runners are picked during the drive, except where it would be a safety risk. We?re a heavily wooded shoot and if a bird hits the ground running, it?s in the next county when the whistle goes. A runner can beat a dog in cover if given a head start.?
Roy?s view is tempered slightly by the Gun?s needs. ?If the terrain allows it, I don?t have a problem with runners being collected discreetly during the drive, that?s to say birds running towards the pickers-up. However, birds should not be picked-up around the Guns during a drive. The Gun is concentrating and if a dog comes barging in to the back of his legs while chasing a runner, it can be dangerous,? he explains. ?One thing that is unforgivable is anyone punishing a dog in front of the rest of the shoot. It?s wrong and unprofessional.?
How to get on with Guns
The relationship between pickers-up and Guns with a dog can be fraught with difficulty. David says: ?I?m sorry if a Gun gets offended because a dog inadvertently picks-up a bird at their feet, but I will not run a shoot where the pickers-up are not allowed to fetch runners during the drive. I?ve had words with Guns who don?t want birds picked before the whistle goes and I have no hesitation in telling them they?re on the wrong shoot.?
In Roy?s view, the experienced pickers-up soon build a rapport with the Guns, many of whom come year after year. ?A good picker-up will be discreet, will watch and maybe ask the Gun before he starts picking-up,? he says. ?It?s a discourtesy to the Gun not to allow him to work his dog, even if it?s the worst dog in the world! Guns can help by carrying retrieved game back to the gamecart.? But Barney likes pickers-up to wait after the drive, to give the Guns? dogs a chance.
Should shoots provide vehicles?
Roy thinks shoots should provide vehicles, though some pickers-up prefer to use their own because there?s the risk that strange dogs won?t get on. Barney agrees. ?I think the shoot should provide vehicles. Pickers-up don?t do it for the money, they do it for the enjoyment. They get a small remuneration, but it takes the shine off if you have to use your own vehicle. Some travel a long way and are out of pocket on the fuel alone,? he says.
All three agree it?s wise to have a dedicated gamecart, especially as shoots are becoming more aware of game as food. Also, the keeper needs to know how many birds have been brought in from each drive. There should be a separate gamecart driver, who is also a key part of the team. Pickers-up should be working their dogs and not be sidetracked by having to manage birds on the cart.