John Halstead of Drakeshead Gundogs, the decorated labrador breeder and handler on his early years, a love of grouse shooting and championship glories.

John Halstead of Drakeshead Gundogs originally spoke to Robert Cuthbert for the In the Hot Seat interview featured in our April 2016 issue.

Robert Cuthbert: Was it a busy season in general for you?

John Halstead: “I shot around a dozen days last season. It’s probably much more than that actually… mainly walked-up shooting over the dogs. A group of us will take a small day, say around 40 birds, walking-up partridge – five guns shooting and five dog handlers working, and we all share the costs. I suppose that’s going on nationally in September. We go to Hy-Fly game farm nearby and they kindly host field trials and training days for us. We also take days at Checkley in Cheshire. We’re primarily training the dogs, but it’s a wonderful sporting day, too.”

Robert Cuthbert: Is this for labradors only?

John Halstead: “In our case it is, but it’s mainly for retrievers of all kinds, it depends largely on the group. It’s all part of the process, their training. The shooting part is just like a finishing school for the dogs. It’s a good test to see if all our efforts in preparation have borne fruit.”

Robert Cuthbert: I suppose it’s a true life/work balance then?

John Halstead: “Field trials clash terribly with the shooting season. I love my shooting but really you’ve got to do one or the other or you’ll end up as either a reasonable shot or a dog trainer, not both. I’ve devoted all my life to training dogs, it was my profession, but in recent years [John is now 76 years old] I’ve taken a few more shooting days. Because of my age, I tend to take days on a shoot near Southport, with lovely driven partridge and pheasants towards the end of the season. I’m of an age where I appreciate the flatter ground to walk on.”

Robert Cuthbert: Do you miss the moors; would grouse be your favourite sport?

John Halstead: “I do. I spent most of my training career on the grouse moors, starting back in the early 1970s picking-up. We’d be out a minimum of three or four days a week – during August and September we were flat out. Walking them up was always great fun, but shooting them from the butts, well, that’s expensive, but I admit that driven grouse towards the end of September, well, there’s nothing better.”

Robert Cuthbert: The Drakeshead name is synonymous with top-flight field trial labradors. Where did the name come from?

John Halstead: “The Drakeshead prefix – our kennel name – came from my love of shooting duck, of wildfowling. I’d always been keen and interested in shooting. The drake part is simply from the duck part of my life. Sandra, my wife, used to show dogs and she suddenly took one of them to a show, totally unbeknownst to me, and came back with a great big trophy for best retriever in show. We then got involved in the various labrador clubs locally and then into the field trial element of things. I was lucky. I just had an instinct, an aptitude for training dogs. I got second place in my first field trial in 1968. Once you’re bitten by the trialling bug, it’s hard not to carry on.”

Robert Cuthbert: So how many field trial championships have you secured?

John Halstead: “Between Sandra and I, we have 32, but I’m the only person to have won the IGL Retriever Championships three times in succession with the same dog. That was 1985, 1986 and 1987. I won the challenge trophy outright, and re-presented it back to the society in perpetuity.”

Robert Cuthbert: Is there anything you haven’t done, any combination of shooting you haven’t tried?

John Halstead: “I think I’ve shot every species of game except ptarmigan but I think I’m a little past going up the hill for those now. I’ve had a really good life and I’ve seen a lot. I started out shooting rabbits, really. In our area, when I was a boy, if someone saw a pheasant, you’d read about it in the local papers. Burnley wasn’t really an area for game like that. Rabbits were our sport back in the pre-myxomatosis days. We’d ferret them and trap them. My father was very keen. You could easily sell trapped rabbits but I loved shooting them. That’s how I started as a young man. I used to train lurchers for hunting rabbits, intelligent dogs, like border collie cross greyhounds, then put them back to border collies again, so they had quite a bit of brain about them. We would train them to hunt and mark the rabbits. It was only when I’d been married a few years that we got involved with retrievers.”

Robert Cuthbert: You’ve trained for and rubbed shoulders with some fascinating people; what’s your abiding memory?

John Halstead: “I think the loveliest memory was being invited down to Buckingham Palace to take lunch with the Queen and Prince Phillip. That was incredibly special, but there is another, when I won the third championship in the presence of the Queen. We were in the final minutes of the championship and I had a feeling I was thereabouts to win it. Then the Queen had a word with the judges and she said there was another partridge, giving them directions as to where this bird was. My heart went up into my mouth, because I thought I’d more or less won it and, suddenly, I could have lost it all. The Queen, who’d marked it, advised the judges who then sent me for this bird and, thankfully, FTCh Breeze of Drakeshead, my dog, was successful and that concluded his third championship.”

For more information on Drakeshead Gundogs, visit drakeshead.co.uk