If it were possible to set the ideal scenario for a day’s roughshooting, then the view in front of me on an estate near Wincanton, in Dorset, was it. It was a cold, frosty morning, and the field of rough grass and sedges before me was crying out to have a bustling spaniel thrashing through it in a quest to find some unsuspecting pheasants.

We had a good selection of dogs with us: Luke Holman had his springer, Aster; I had my two cockers, Harry and Fuss; and Neil Varney from Twistmount Gundogshad a couple of black-and-white springers. We were also accompanied by the gamekeeper, Ben Carter, and his two spaniels, and Gun Steve Dearn.

High spirits

From the outset, everyone was in high spirits and looking forward to a good day’s shooting. I initially opted to run my young cocker, Fuss, so I clicked the dog off to start him hunting, and I hadn’t taken more than a couple of steps before the little dog punched out a pheasant from a clump of frozen grass. The bird took flight over my head and, as it made for the sanctuary of the wood behind us, Luke managed to get off a quick shot and the first bird was in the bag.

As we walked on, birds started to lift in front of us, but they were too far away to offer the chance of a shot. When shooting over a dog, it is important that they have a tight hunting pattern, as there is little more frustrating than a dog that pulls ahead and flushes birds out of range.

Fortunately, Fuss quarters like a dream, so it wasn’t long before another bird was fl ushed, but as she jinked away, I had to hold on before taking my shot due to a small tree in my eye line. I pulled the trigger and missed with the first barrel, but I pushed through and managed to make contact with the second shot. The bird dropped immediately and I sent Fuss out for the retrieve. He had been unsighted when the bird dropped, so I had to handle him out to the area and he was making hard work of it.

I knew the scenting conditions were going to be difficult for the dogs due to the cold, but he couldn’t seem to get a line on the bird and eventually I called him back to me and asked Neil if he could try one of his more experienced dogs. Despite our best efforts, we couldn’t find the bird, but it was picked later in the day in a hedge line about 50m from where I had shot it.

Coots in the cold

Running parallel to the scrubby area where we had been hunting was a small lake, and Ben split us up so we were covering opposite sides of the water. It was so cold that most of the lake was frozen, but just as Fuss was hunting a reedy area, a covey of about 15 coots suddenly took to the wing. Ben shouted for us to take a shot at them — the birds are territorial during the breeding season and will drown the ducklings on the lake, so he was happy for their number to be reduced.

I was amazed at how well the coots flew, and as one headed towards Luke and Steve on the other side of the lake, a couple of shots rang out and the bird dropped like a stone. Luke laid claim to the shot — his first-ever driven coot. Aster made a rather unusual retrieve, and in her 10-year career as a gundog, the bird was a first for her as well.

Failing on fast-crossers

After a quick break, Ben decided to indulge Luke and Steve in their love of driven shooting by setting them up in a grass field while the rest of us pushed through a failed coverstrip. Surprisingly, it held quite a few birds, but I failed miserably in my attempt to connect with a couple of fast-crossing birds.

I had swapped dogs and was now running my older cocker, Harry. As we hunted the edge of the cover, a pheasant was flushed from the middle of the field and headed straight for me. I couldn’t shoot it out in front so I had to watch it go over my head and follow it as it flew down towards a small copse. I only managed to get one shot at the bird and I saw that it was hit hard, but it managed to glide down into the wood. It was going to be a long retrieve for a cocker.

Some people feel that a roughshooting dog doesn’t need to have any handling skills, but I disagree. As I gave Harry a “back” command, the months of training paid off, and I was pleased that I didn’t have to walk back down the muddy hill — as they say, “Why have a dog and bark yourself?” It was a fair distance to the wood, and Harry simply checked at the edge, took a scent line, and instantly came back out with a lively hen pheasant.

More birds for the bag

Later in the day we moved into a wooded area that had small areas of bracken and bramble, but nothing too heavy for the dogs to get through. We managed to add a couple of woodcock and three more pheasants to the bag, then we finished off by heading out to a block of canary grass.

Steve and Luke stayed at the bottom of the field as standing Guns while the rest of us took our dogs and worked them in the cover. I had swapped dogs again and, almost immediately, Fuss flushed a couple of snipe. Steve and Luke both took a shot at them, but the little waders proved just too elusive for them.

Neil had a lovely find-and-flush with one of his young springers, and she madea
good retrieve, all of which added to her education. Meanwhile, Fuss was hunting well, and he had a cracking flush on a hen bird that I made a mess of — I panicked, took two quick shots, but missed by a long way. However, I was able to make amends on his next cast — he flushed another pheasant and this time I made sure it didn’t get away. It may not have been the most sporting of shots, but when I go shooting I shoot for my dogs, and Fuss hadn’t had a retrieve all day, so it was my priority that he got his just reward for working so hard all day by getting a retrieve.

An impressive long retrieve

We had nearly got to the end of the grass when Steve shot a fast-crossing pheasant, and I watched it pitch into the corner of the grass field. I wasn’t sure that it was dead, so I pushed out of the cover and handled Fuss out towards where I had seen it fall. It was a long retrieve, about 80m, and I had to keep pushing Fuss further and further back. My plan was to get him a good way out and then send him left towards the fence line, which I managed to do. A quick blast on the stop whistle and a “back” command sent him along the fence line and straight to the bird, which, incidentally, was dead.

It had been a satisfying day, and both of my dogs had done well. They pulled off some impressive retrieves, and had worked far better than I had shot, leading me to go home a happy man.