Terriers are an asset in the beating line, says David Bezzant, after observing a Jack Russell at work on a shoot.

A terrier was the last breed of dog my brother John expected to see on the still September morning when he turned up for a day’s beating. But there, as bold as brass, standing in the middle of the cocker spaniels and energetic springers, was Molly, a little tri-coloured Jack Russell, totally oblivious to the fact that she was the odd one out.

Some of the gundog owners who were unfamiliar with Molly cast scornful looks in her direction, no doubt imagining that upon being liberated from the lead she would turn into a yapping tyke, racing uncontrollably to and fro, snapping menacingly at their dogs and scattering the birds to the four winds. However, neither her eyes nor her demeanour revealed signs of her being a canine anarchist intent on creating pandemonium.

Unorthodox but effective

On the contrary, she stood peacefully at the feet of her owner, Stanley. In return for putting himself through the physical rigours of a season’s beating, Stanley was given rabbiting rights on land belonging to the farmers who made up the syndicate.

As the first drive of the day got underway, Molly began to work her way methodically through the rough ground, then came to a sudden halt, before pouncing at a tuft of grass concealing a pheasant, which in response rapidly took flight. It may have been an unorthodox way to flush birds from the cover, but it was nevertheless effective, and Molly’s ready response to her master ensured that she remained in line and under control.

Other terrier owners in similar situations have employed a long leash, but these can be more of a hindrance than a help in locations other than open moorland, as they get wrapped around trees and tangled in brambles. At best, this results in the terrier being stopped in its tracks, and at worst, half strangled. They are a poor substitute for trusting that your dog will heed vocal commands, and unnecessary for any experienced working terrier.

Terriers

Terriers working as a team

During the course of the morning, John noticed a definite difference between the way the spaniels and Molly worked. The spaniel is without doubt in possession of a far more sensitive nose for bird detection than the average terrier, though there are reliable accounts of Border and Irish terriers capable of pinpointing every bird in the neighbourhood. Molly was not of this ilk, and so relied on a combination of enthusiasm, hard work and curiosity to discover what a spaniel would with its nose. The spaniels also displayed a far more congenial approach to getting the pheasant airborne, which is not always easy. One spaniel that encountered a particularly objectionable pheasant attempted to cajole it into flight by gently pushing it with its nose. Again and again, with a pleading expression on its face, the cocker pushed the bird, but all to no avail.

Sensing the spaniel’s frustration, Molly rushed at the pheasant and in the process secured a mouthful of feathers, scaring it into taking to the air. Such stubbornness as displayed by the bird in question is by no means a recently acquired characteristic, as I discovered while reading an American hunting encyclopedia published in 1949, in which there is a description of a setter actually resting its jowls on a pheasant in an effort to get it to move. The typical terrier is forceful and, as my own Jack Russell demonstrated when he saved me from the attack of our feisty man-eating maran cockerel, has the ability to rough up a bird without causing it any physical injury.

With the succeeding drives, my brother, who was beginning to suffer from the combined effects of hunger and exhaustion, encountered a jungle of intertwined brambles that seriously slowed the beaters, much to the keeper’s annoyance. It was here that the terrier began to excel. Molly exhibited her talent for negotiating a path through the densest undergrowth. Oaths were muttered as the beaters felt the raking effect of thorns against their skin, but Molly appeared to be immune to any pain as she pushed her way resolutely forward, denying the birds any respite.

The combination of a small compact body, toughness and the expectation that they can get anywhere is what makes working terriers such skilful movers through the most energy-sapping and impenetrable vegetation that the larger spaniels struggle with, particularly as their sensitive long ears can sometimes get snagged by the brambles.

Close co-operation

Far from resenting Molly’s easy progress, some of the cockers intelligently followed the path that she made, which was typical of the closeness and co-operation that the dogs had exhibited all day. Terriers have a long history of working closely with other dogs and still commonly operate in packs. Molly herself usually hunts alongside three other terriers and encountered no difficulty in being teamed up with good-natured spaniels. Both had something different to offer and were far more interested in getting on with their job than anything else. Stanley certainly had no intention of usurping the spaniels’ role with Molly. She was there to assist them by shifting stubborn birds and getting into places they found difficult to penetrate. By the end of the day, her abilities had won her some human and canine admirers.

The earliest reference that I could find of terriers being used in a similar way dates back to 1910 and was penned in a letter by one Fred Lewis. It relates how a Sealyham terrier bitch successfully followed a meandering line to track down awinged hen pheasant when a strong, drying wind meant that there was little scent. During the search she travelled more than 200 yards at the gallop and jumped a six-foot-high bank before finding the bird in some furze. He also mentioned that the terrier always handled the birds a bit but never mauled them and the pheasant he picked up was still alive.

Reluctant to surrender

Following World War I, Jocelyn Lucas, who founded the reputed Ilmer Kennels of working Sealyhams, used a pack of 20 Sealyhams as beaters and claims that they were steady and methodical. He even taught them to retrieve, but once his terriers got hold of a bird they tended to consider it their own property and were reluctant to surrender it. G. H. Wildish, writing from South Africa, had a similar problem with his Sealyhams when he was shooting quail. Though they took to the gun and had excellent noses for finding dead and wounded birds, they would chew them to pieces, and it was the native helpers job to seize the dogs by the tail to make them drop their catch. The Irish terrier, however, has proved more successful at retrieving because it possesses a velvety mouth –  an unusual feature in a dog that was initially bred to kill vermin.

Clearly there is no reason why working terriers cannot prove useful on a driven shoot. They possess the stamina and capacity to cover a huge area of ground more thoroughly than human beaters and in overgrown locations that conceal pheasants of an especially wilful disposition can prove to be an invaluable assistant to the gundogs.

  • Tim doyle

    Hi david lovely read. Read your book on rabbiting terriers really enjoyed that. Mail me if ya want a chat about ferreting terriers,have my own line for generations.