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Field Trials – how safe are they?

A recent change in field trialling practice has highlighted the most dangerous of situations, one which the Kennel Club refuses to acknowledge or address. Field trials can only be run under the Kennel Club rules and the judges of field trials must operate within the regulations published by the Kennel Club at all times. In the not too distant past, competitors were placed some distance back from the Guns during a drive. Recently, it has become the practice to place competitors and their dogs alongside or close to the Guns. The reason is that should a bird be wounded, fall behind the Guns and then run, a dog can be sent to retrieve it without fear of the dog interfering with the line of Guns. This practice does not take account of the fact that at least 12 competitors are put within potential killing distance of the shotguns. In this position they must rely on safe gun handling by those shooting.

I trial my Labradors throughout every shooting season, across the country, whenever my name is drawn out of the hat. I have witnessed and stood in line competing in many drives at field trials alongside many Guns from all walks of life. Most of the folk shooting at field trials are expert gun handlers and beautiful Shots — countrymen regular and true. To them, safety is a habit and they make everyone around them feel safe.

Unfortunately, not all field trials are blessed with such experts. Increasingly, the field trial Gun team includes a beginner — an occasional clayshooter or simply a shotgun owner who is making up the numbers. On more than one occasion I have found myself looking down the business end of a shotgun. I have often seen a gun levelled at a competitor through the incompetence of a gun handler. I understand from a conversation with one A-panel judge that he has witnessed two competitors shot in separate field trials.

It has often been my experience that when judges are aware of dangerous gun handling during a drive at a field trial their decision is to do nothing. They must hope that an accident will not happen on their watch. I have several times asked judges to address dangerous gun handling — they have refused. One judge advised me that I could disqualify myself by moving out of the line to a safe position. In private, judges have often said to me that safety is the responsibility of the host, shoot captain, landowner or the gamekeeper: in fact, anyone except the judges.

Yet who is watching the Guns, where the birds fall and the competitors throughout each drive? The judges. It is only the judges who are close enough to the Guns to instruct immediately a Gun to hold their shotgun in the correct and safe manner. Where safety is concerned, time could be of the essence. The question of safety cannot be sidestepped. There may be judges who on their own initiative will address this situation if it occurs, but there is no clear and unequivocal guidance from the Kennel Club.

The responsibility for safety does not rest with one particular person. It must be the top priority for everyone involved in field trials, particularly for the judges who are on the spot when breaches of safety are committed. Only the judge can deal with the situation immediately. Judging takes courage and authority — it must be used in these situations. The Kennel Club regulations must reflect this and offer clear guidance to deal effectively with this potential danger.

I recently wrote to the Kennel Club to suggest that its Judges’ Regulations should be amended to include the following prior to the start of the next field trial season: If competitors are placed within dangerous distance of a shotgun, every judge attending must, without fail, make themselves aware of the safe gun handling of every person shooting.

In the event that they are unsure or not confident in the safe handling of any gun they must immediately and without further consultation to any party move all competitors to a safe distance. In the event of a competitor complaining to a judge of unsafe gun handling during the course of a drive, the judge must immediately and without further consultation to any party move that competitor to a safe distance. Such a competitor must not be disadvantaged in any way as a result of their request to be moved to what, in their opinion, is a safe distance. The judge should use his/her discretion to move the entire line to a safe distance.

In the case of a walk-up situation, should the judge be made aware of unsafe gun handling, the judge must without further consultation immediately advise the Gun of the safe and proper way to handle the weapon.

Any subsequent complaint regarding that person’s safe handling of the gun should result in that person’s involvement in the trial being terminated immediately.

I received a reply, dated 19 May 2009, which stated: The issue of safety largely rests with the host, but judges would be expected to have a regard for this at all times. The letter goes on to say that the Kennel Club feels this adequately covers the situation.

Come on Kennel Club. This is sidestepping the issue. It is in every field trial competitor’s interest and safety that it addresses this through the Judges’ Regulations in a detailed and proper manner.

Ken Byron competes in field trials with his Copperwheat Labradors. For more information, visit