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Joe Shotton: The champion’s champion

A sunny morning saw me negotiating the winding lanes of Shropshire in an effort to locate a small village that is home to Chyknell cocker spaniels. A stop to check the map allowed me the chance to stretch my legs. In the field to my right two hares teased and boxed each other, oblivious to my presence. A redleg sprang from the road edge, its rapidly beating wings sending it quickly away to safety. In the meadow opposite, two cock pheasants stood as statues, each transfixed by the other as they sized up their rival for the attention of the nearby hen. Truly this was a shooter’s heaven, rich in game and other wildlife. It was, I surmised, a fitting place to produce one of the most successful gundog kennels of the last century.

Joe Shotton, the personality behind Chyknell cockers, has seen 12 of his little dogs become field trial champions in the last 20 years. A remarkable accomplishment on its own, but when you stop to think that 20 years ago Joe was already 68 years of age, the scale of the achievement becomes all the more noteworthy. On the day of our meeting, Joe had just returned from the moors where he had been shooting over the dogs and training them with Ian Openshaw.

Had it not been for the outbreak of the Second World War, champion swimmer Joe could have represented Great Britain at Olympic level.

When I entered my first field trial in 1989, Joe was by then competing with a little bitch called Chocolate Drop. Joe was one of the elders of trials – today, he is the elder statesman.

Chocolate Drop had a reputation on the trial circuit of the late 1980s as a genuinely first-class retriever. She handled smoothly, with minimum fuss, and could find birds that defeated less able dogs. It was said that she was Joe’s main picking-up dog, so it was Joe’s involvement in this discipline that I first wanted to ask him about.

A colourful life

Joe Shotton was born in 1923. His love affair with dogs started in 1949 when he purchased his first – a German shepherd. An intelligent breed, outstanding at work and in obedience, they are not often seen on the shoot other than to provide night time patrols with the keeper. Joe used two bitches for beating and picking-up work. At Weston Park during the 1970s the keeper was gundog handler Ken Howells. Joe recalled with some amusement the reactions of some of the guns and his fellow dog-men when they saw his dogs.

Cynics were soon silenced, however, once the bitches set to work. As picking-up dogs they excelled. With good handling ability and discipline coupled with superb scenting capacity and soft mouths, they put many a trained gundog to shame. It was this focus on good handling, good scenting ability and obedience that prompted Ken to talk Joe into competing and which brought him success very quickly.

Joe first started in trials in 1982 with a bitch known as Chyknell Dainty. Joe had already adopted the name of his home village as a breeder affix, little realising at that time how famous it would become further down the line. As a teenager, the young Joe Shotton was a champion swimmer and had the Second World War not intervened he was on course to compete in the Olympics. Instead, at the tender age of just 17, he volunteered for the Royal Navy.

After only a few weeks basic training, a posting to HMS Enchantress followed and the next year was spent escorting merchant vessels running the gauntlet of U-boats patrolling the East Atlantic between the UK and Africa.

Joe sailed on HMS Enchantress during the Second World War, where the boat’s skipper utilised his swimming talents for a very unusual task. Later, as a Royal Navy Commando, Joe landed at Normandy during D-Day.

Talent for swimming resulted in Joe being volunteered for a special role by the ship’s captain. One night a decision was made to attempt to ram a surfaced U-boat that had accounted for the loss of several merchant ships. The skipper of the escort vessel took this action rather than risk losing night vision by opening up with guns and then missing the chance to spot the sub if they failed. After an almighty collision, their target sank into the darkness and depth charges were dropped. In the dark the search for debris and survivors produced no result, save for one piece of paper seen bobbing on the waves. Young Joe was tasked to swim out to retrieve it. It turned out to be from the escort ship herself! The ability to ram must have caught the eye of the Admiralty, for later that year HMS Enchantress was chosen to launch the attack on Port Oran, where she rammed the harbour boom at the start of the North Africa invasion.

In 1943 Joe volunteered for special service and was enlisted in the Royal Navy Commandos, where he trained to land with the first assault troops and establish secure beach-heads. Training complete, the long wait came and then Joe was sent with his unit to participate in the Normandy Landings on D-Day.

Joe Shotton and Ian Openshaw: a meeting of minds

After being sent to India on V.E. Day, of all days, Joe was de-mobbed in 1946 and went into the management of swimming pools and leisure centres. He lived in both London and the West Midlands, and in 1968 was elected president of the Midlands branch of the Institute of Baths and Recreation Management. Joe and his team worked hard to support handicapped children and were recognised for their efforts when Prince Phillip paid a visit to see them in action. Joe finally settled in the quiet village of Chyknell. Then came the birth of Chyknell cockers, and yet, it wasn’t until a chance conversation at a field trial in 1998 that the breakthrough came.

At the time Joe was competing with a liver bitch called Chyknell Jessica. Jess had won a novice stake but was struggling to put together a performance good enough to win an open stake. But she had caught the eye of the other competitors. One afternoon, after receiving one of several certificates of merit at a trial for an adequate, but not outstanding, performance by Jess, Joe was approached by Ian Openshaw of Rytex Kennels. Ian needed no introduction since he and Joe had competed against each other on numerous occasions.

FTCh Chyknell Megan is one of 12 Chyknell cockers to have achieved that status – a testament to Joe’s eye for a good dog.

Bravely, perhaps rather over-confidently, Ian told Joe that given the opportunity he would make Jessica up to champion in two trials. No mean feat – to become a champion, a dog must win two open stakes. Two wins out of two entries? It seemed a bold claim. Joe was tempted to laugh it off but didn’t, and decided to listen and discuss the offer in more depth. It was a good decision. Ian took Jess in for training and soon she benefited from the skills and experience Ian offered. In the event, the assessment of two trials did prove very slightly over-confident – it took three!

Over the years, Joe has only competed with one dog, Chyknell Freckle, who won an open stake in 1993. Since then Joe has preferred to compete with bitches. He has now won 27 field trials and been placed in the top three 56 times. Twelve Chyknell cockers have attained the title of champion. Among the best was Chyknell Megan who, in 2003, won both the UK and USA championships. Chyknell Goldstar won the UK Championship in Scotland in 2004.

Spotting a winner

The list of successes goes on to include Chyknell Red Kite, who won the USA championship in 2006, and also Goldfinch, Brit, Flash, Judy, Heidi, Iris and Puffin, all of whom became champions within the last few years. Iris was the runner-up in both the 2010 and 2011 championships. Another bitch, Chyknell Lilly, owned by Mr J. Heeley, has also achieved champion status. Joe puts a lot of thought into breeding decisions. He always uses stud dogs that are of sound confirmation, which display no known vices. He takes time to observe dogs he is thinking of using and then studies how the pedigree will look on paper to ensure the mating is not too close, which might produce an increased risk of inherited faults.

Miracles happen

Joe is hard-pushed to identify a favourite dog. He prefers smaller cockers and loves working with puppies but, if pressed, he recalls having a great deal of fun with FTCh Chyknell Brit. Brit won an open stake at quite an early age and struggled to win again. She rewarded the faith her owner showed in her when her second open win and champion status was achieved in 2002, at the age of eight. Brit even won the heart of a judge at that final trial when, on returning with a partridge seemingly shot an impossible distance away from where she first found it, her retrieve inspired the appraiser into a rendition of I Believe In Miracles.

Another favourite was Chyknell Heidi, a lovely golden-coloured bitch, with white markings on her face and chest. Qualifying for the UK Championship five years in a row from 2008-12, Joe describes her as a “great little bitch that requires only a minimum of handling”.

Joe at home training two youngsters from the Chyknell kennel.

Joe missed the 2011 championship due to illness but is now strong again and back in training. He highlights his strong appreciation and gratitude for the good wishes and assistance he received during that difficult time, especially from the Openshaws, who drove him around the country to compete and who continued the training of his beloved dogs.

In 2012, at the age of 88, Joe Shotton truly is the ancient mariner of field trials. A modest, unassuming and warm personality, he is an example to those who hope to follow in his footsteps. Seek him out and shake his hand at the 2013 championship. You won’t regret it. Some of the magic may rub off on you.

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