The first field trials took place in the mid-19th century and were only for pointing breeds. The progress of the trial was dictated by the speed with which the muzzle-loaders could be recharged ? the average time to reload was about three minutes, or longer if something went wrong, which was a fairly frequent occurrence. However, when the breechloading shotgun appeared at the end of the 1850s, the way gamebirds were hunted changed, and the number of birds shot increased dramatically. The development of the hammerless, self-cocking mechanism by Anson and Deeley in 1875 quickly made the hammergun obsolete, and this, together with the more powerful smokeless Shultze powders, improved cartridges, ejector mechanisms and other technological advances, all combined to make a faster turnaround for the game Shot.

With more birds than ever waiting to be picked-up, a dedicated retrieving dog was needed. Flatcoat retrievers were used originally, as there were plenty of them about, but the setter breeding in them favoured a long, curving outrun, using the wind for air-scenting, which had two distinct disadvantages: firstly, the fact that the dog didn?t go in a straight line to the retrieve wasted a lot of time; and secondly ? and crucially ? this curving outrun flushed other game that was probably out of range and thereby lost to the bag.

With these developments, the spaniel came into its own. Spaniels had by this time already been divided into two breeds, the cocker and the springer, and had moved on from flushing for the hawk to working in front of the Gun while walking-up. The cocker was used in likely woodcock-holding areas, such as open woodland, while the springer worked open fields as well. Walked-up shoots suited the spaniel, as birds flushed by the close-working dog were shot within easy retrieving distance and so a dedicated retriever that worked at long range was not needed any more.

Then, with the advent of the driven shoot in the form of the battue, introduced from France, everything changed. The beater appeared, complete with bowler hat and stick, and the spaniel completed its transition to the role for which it is known today: quartering, pushing the birds forwards, and flushing into the air any that were sitting tight. Spaniel trials were first held in 1899, incorporating retrieving competitions as part of these events (spaniels were not always required to retrieve at that time).

At this point in shooting history, once the Guns were escorted to their peg, all they had to do was to wait patiently for the game to arrive in range overhead ? which it did, in large numbers. With game now falling all over the place, retrieving it all became a major task, and so an efficient retrieving dog became a major requirement once again. The exuberant flatcoat, never the steadiest or easiest to handle, had to be held by a dog man, and the curlycoat retriever was equally unsuitable.

In the light of this new shooting method, the biddable Labrador ? viewed hitherto with some derision ? made its way to the fore due to its superior marking, straight outrun and its willingness to please. By 1870 it was well established, in 1904 it appeared in its fi rst fi eld trial, and by the time of the Great War it was the predominant retrieving breed.

Field trialling played an important role in the development of all the breeds, with the best-performing providing the benchmark to which others aspired. Thus the competitive nature of the field trial contributed, as it still does today, to the field performance of the shooting dog.

Field trials today

Trialling today still fulfi ls the function of improving breed performance, and the most successful trial dogs are sought as breeding stock for future generations. While it is largely an amateur sport, for the professional trainer and breeder it can add a great deal of value to a dog ? not only to its own resale value, but also to the price that can be asked for its progeny. The demand for British-bred gundogs is high, and one has only to look at the running card at international events to see the huge contribution made by UK-bred dogs.

At the time of writing, over 650 field trials were licensed in the shooting season, and the majority of them were oversubscribed. Numerous trials are held by the 98 retriever, 80 spaniel, 26 pointer and setter, and 26 HPR societies, in addition to championship stakes.

Trials are often oversubscribed across all the subgroups, with the retriever group (and open stakes in particular) being difficult to get a run in. One complaint often heard is that the same dogs and handlers seem to get runs in trials. What is often not appreciated, however, is that in open and all-aged stakes, the rules allow for preference in the draw to be given to dogs that have had previous successes, so that they will get a run based on their performance ? ensuring that the very best dogs come to the top and are represented at the highest levels.

A field trial should follow, as closely as possible, a ?normal? day?s shooting, even with the formalities of the running order, the presence of judges, and following the regulations under which the trials are run ? not to mention the crowd of competitors, guests, observers, the red flag, the steward, game carriers and spotters, all trailing along at a discreet distance behind! Retriever trials are held in both driven and walked-up categories; spaniel trials are usually held in woodland, where their quartering drive and flushing abilities can be seen best; and the pointers and setters are out on the big, wide fields of Norfolk, or on the grouse moors.

This article was extracted from The Competitive Gundog, which is available to Shooting Times readers at £18.46 (RRP £19.95). Tel 01672 520320 and quote ?ST/Gundog offer?. Visit