Until January 2004, David Lisett was a self-employed joiner. Gun dogs were simply a hobby, albeit a full-time one. But when Buccleuch Estates decided to revive and develop its famous gun dogs, sporting manager Roy Green employed David as gun dog trainer and handler, and his hobby became his profession. The first two entries in the Buccleuch Labrador studbook were gifts from Lord Malmesbury in the 1880s, though the 5th Duke of Buccleuch had been importing dogs from Newfoundland since the 1830s. A recent project has seen one of the old steadings at Chapel Farm, near Drumlanrig Castle on the Queensberry estate, being renovated from near dilapidation to offer the very best of facilities for housing and training gun dogs, to offer training courses, dogs at stud and continue the important and historic Buccleuch Labrador line.
?To start with, all the buildings were falling down and the house was almost derelict,? said David, as we started the tour of the kennels. Today, the farmyard has been done up to provide indoor kennels around an immaculate courtyard, complete with the Buccleuch logo in the centre, and houses some 34 gundogs of different ages, as well as several litters of puppies.To the left, and nearest the house, is the six-bay puppy area. Each bay has heat lamps to provide a concentrated heat source for the whelps, underfloor heating and roll bars on the beds to prevent the bitches lying on their puppies. One springer puppy was resident in this quarter, excitedly sweeping his tail through the scattering of shavings on the floor of his kennel when we appeared at the door. ?We keep the puppies and some of the younger dogs on shavings. It makes the kennels easier to clean. Anything liquid is soaked up and anything solid attracts the shavings, creating a snowball effect,? said David.
Across the courtyard the kennels house dogs in roughly age order, starting with the youngest at the far end. ?These are a couple of young Labs that we?re just starting to do a bit of work with, and the next lot are Labradors that are coming up to a year old and are about to have their hips and eyes tested,? said David. ?We don?t make the training too demanding until they?ve been tested, as we don?t want them running and jumping too much until we know their hips are okay.? David is assisted in the kennels by Andy Whiteford and Nathan White. Until recently, Andy, aged 22, was recruitment officer for Renfrewshire Council. Nathan, who is 16, has just started as a trainee with David. Both lads are making the most of this fantastic opportunity to nurture their existing interest in gundogs and they had been hard at work scrubbing the kennels, which were spotless.
As we walked down the line of kennels holding a mixture of Labs, spaniels and a few cockers, David pointed out some of his field trial winners and champions. In December 2007, David made it a record when he took first, second and third place at the Irish Springer Championship on the Glenarm estate in Northern Ireland. ?There are a few champions in there,? he said, outside one kennel, pointing to the winning Annickview Breeze and second-placed Annickview Anna. Third at the championship was Buccleuch Charm. Last year was a particularly successful one for David, who also won the Springer Spaniel Championship, made-up the first Buccleuch Labrador and qualifed the first Buccleuch cocker, with which he was placed fourth at the recent Cocker Championship at Sandringham. The dogs? delight at seeing him in the kennels was evident as they jumped up and down wagging their tails as he moved down the line.
Next we came to the isolation wing and first aid room, and then the shower to wash the dogs down, followed by a swanky kitchen with steel-topped units, an industrial washing machine and a tumble drier. In one corner was a huge feed bin. ?We feed a complete mix,? said David, grabbing a handful of the dried biscuits to show me. ?We?ll be promoting that very soon as we?ve just had the bags designed for it. We?ve been trying it for a year because I wanted to make sure it was right. It?s got plenty of oil in it, especially Scottish salmon oil, which is good for the dogs? joints and coats. There is also a walk-in chiller for fresh feed, such as tripe.?
Whatever the recipe behind the feed at Chapel Farm, the dogs were in immaculate condition and their shiny coats looked superb in the sun, even though many of them were having a short post-shooting season holiday. Crossing back along another side of the quadrangle, David showed me into the meeting room, which will be an important briefing and debriefing area for the training courses that are in the pipeline. With tea and coffee-making facilities, a large boardroom table-and-chair layout complete with coasters marked with the Buccleuch logo, it was the icing on the cake of this extraordinary establishment and further evidence, if it were needed, of the considerable investment Buccleuch Estates has made into setting up David as its professional gundog trainer and launching this part of the business.
?We?re going to be doing a lot of one-to-one and group training classes. Hopefully this time next year we will be doing several days a week with retrievers and spaniels,? said David. ?The fantastic thing about this estate is that we have every type of ground here, making it perfect for putting potential trial dogs through their paces. We have at least 10 ponds, as well as heather, bracken, reeds, woodland, fences, stone dykes so we can ask anyone who comes here for a training day what they want to achieve and we will have the ground on which to achieve it. ?We can do one day on dummies, for example, and then, say, one day on game.
It?s not about the shooting but about getting the dogs taught properly and putting them in situations that will test them, not to the stage where they?re going to fail, but so that we are pushing them. So long as you?ve got a bit of imagination then you can do anything here we certainly have the ground. We?ve got a rabbit pen of an acre and a half, and we have a piece of ground that we can set up for running lanes and fences to jump,? he continued. ?Whatever goal people want to achieve, whether its getting a dog up to shoot or field trialling standard, we?ll try to get to that level as long as they?re realistic as to the standard of their dog and the time it will take. The last thing I want is for anyone to go away unhappy, so the meeting room will provide the chance for the people who are visiting to let me know how it?s gone so we can get a feel for how the courses are working and get some useful feedback.?
David?s enthusiasm and passion for the gundogs and the facilities he has been provided with is undoubtedly contagious and has certainly rubbed off on his two young protégés. They are each training a young dog and gave a short demonstration in the field below the house. ?This will give you an idea of how we start the young dogs off,? said David, as Andy and Nathan took their Labradors out to put them through their paces with a couple of easy retrieves. ?That dog with Nathan is about seven months old. He?s just got him walking to heel and at this stage it?s about encouraging the dog?s enthusiasm and building it up slowly. Nathan?s learning, too, so it?s all about having the right attitude both for the dog and the trainer as well as building the dog?s memory. We train the young dogs in that field because the grass is short, but there are a few stones
in there as well, which makes it harder for them. As the dog matures and becomes more confident we make the retrieves harder,? he continued.
?Andy won a novice trial before he came here with one of his own dogs and both lads have great temperaments for it. They?re calm, not too excitable and not too worried about anything,? said David. Not only do Andy and Nathan have a dream job, they are lucky enough to be learning from a great mentor. While David?s championship victories are hard proof of his ability, you only need watch him working the dogs to recognise he has a rare talent for the job. His first love is, perhaps, the springer spaniel. ?I?ve always had springers and love working them, though the more I run the Labs the more I?m learning what makes really good or difficult retrieves,? said David, before he demonstrated with two black Labs a retrieve of more than 500 yards and then another away over a wall into a small wood, handling both dogs simultaneously. Next were the spaniels and he took three into the rabbit pen to demonstrate their steadiness.
?The pen?s not looking its best because the grass is very low just now and I?ve actually spent the past two days putting three trailer loads of brashing in there to provide a bit of cover,? said David. ?When the grasses are high, the rabbits sit tight and you could have 100 rabbits in here and struggle to find one. We sit the dogs in the corner and walk the rabbits up so they?re actually running past them in order to teach them not to chase.? He sent the spaniels in turn to hunt some of the brashing and whenever a rabbit bolted each dog jerked to a halt in an impressive display of steadiness.
?The most important thing is that the dog has a good temperament and enthusiasm. Really enthusiastic dogs keep that enthusiasm. You don?t want a dog for which everything is a problem you know, jumping in and out of a vehicle is a problem, meeting other dogs is a problem. Everything?s a challenge. You?ve got to get them used to different environments.? And what of looks? Gundog enthusiasts will argue for ever about what a dog should look like and I wondered if David had a stamp of Lab or springer that he preferred. ?I wouldn?t say I am a materialistic type of person and that goes for the dogs as well. I don?t care what colour they are, what size they are or what shape they are. I?d love them all to be a good size, with a lovely head on them, lovely bone in their legs, determined all the qualities you?d naturally want in a dog. But I?ve got a tiny little cocker in there, Bramble. She?ll bring back a brown hare and she?ll jump a fence with a rabbit or a cock pheasant now tell me that dog?s the wrong size. By the same token, if she wasn?t doing her job properly, wasn?t jumping the fences and bringing back her retrieves, and she was very small, then you could put it down to her size. But as long as the dogs complete the challenges that I set them, how can I possibly say they are the wrong size??
Put like that, not many people could argue. Yes, it?s nice to have a good-looking dog, but if it can?t do its job then its looks count for nothing. ?In the kennels I?ve got some big boys, some wee girls, some with lovely big heads on them, some with snipey heads,? David continued. ?But it?s personality that?s important. If they?ve got the right personality and attitude towards training and doing the job properly then that is what counts. You?ll grow to love the one that can do the job even if it doesn?t look that good, but you?ll end up loathing the other one. ?I think you?ve got to
try to get to that high standard, though. That?s what we?re trying to do here with the breeding get a good size, a nice head and the temperament and looks to go together. But first and foremost, that dog?s got a job to do. It?s all a matter of taste ultimately.?
There is no doubting David?s natural ability with the dogs has contributed to his success so far, but he?s also very superstitious. ?I had some lucky pennies at one stage and I was trialling up at Invercauld one day when they wore a hole in my tweeds. We got to the run-off scenario and I realised I had lost the pennies I was beaten that day. So I made a pact with myself to give it two months and if things didn?t get better then I was going to go out there and look for them with a metal detector! My lucky whistle took over after that I?ve had this lanyard since I started, and when I was just starting Rab Clarke gave me the gamebag I still take out on the hill.?
Whether its pennies or lucky whistles that count for his success, the set-up at Chapel Farm coupled with David?s natural flair and enthusiasm for handling dogs will no doubt carry him to many more field trialling victories and, I?m sure, see him exceed Buccleuch Estates? expectations. They are very lucky to have him.
For more information and to see a virtual tour of the kennels, information about the courses available and a history of the Buccleuch gundogs, visit www.buccleuchgundogs.com