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The perfect beater’s dog

Beating has come late in life for me – and had I not had an abandoned spaniel wished upon me, I would have stayed within the much safer but more rarefied realms of the picking-up world.

Buzz was what is euphemistically called an old-fashioned type of spaniel. In plain speak, he was a large bone-headed animal of a morose disposition, whose one intention in life was to please himself. Luckily for me, his build and well-established instinct to traverse the ground in zigzags meant he was never very far in front of me. It was a blessing, which as every beater knows has little to do with training and everything to do with years of breeding from the right dogs.

In hindsight, I guess my fellow beaters could not be blamed for taking the arrival of a large lady of advancing years accompanied by an enormously fat and hairy dog with mild derision and a pinch of salt. The first time I clambered into the beaters’ wagon and had to prevail on a kind soul to lift Buzz in, I wondered whether this activity was such a good idea. I had been ‘around’ as they say, but nothing had prepared me for the loud, good natured chatter of the beating cart. The first thing I had to learn quickly was the art of ‘double speak’.

No words are taken at face value, all have a double meaning and that meaning is always filthy. I know one should never generalise, but in this case I think I can safely do so. The F-word is an indispensable adjective and as such loses its initial sting, so much so that I found myself happily adding it to my own vocabulary.

Buzz, delirious with joy and anticipation, filled me with even more foreboding. I resolved to keep him at heel – easier said than done with many of the spaniel breed. However, either because of his vast bulk or original training – I prayed it was the latter – he stayed firmly at my side. Gradually my confidence grew, and when in time we came to a field of roots I ventured to cast him out, figuring that at least in roots I stood some chance of keeping him within view and nipping attempts to riot in the bud. Much to my amazement and delight, Buzz proceeded to work a copybook pattern in front of me, turning with a neat skip to the whistle and returning promptly to my side at the end of the drive. That was it – I was hooked.

Buzz did sterling work for three seasons, no cover was too thick, no bog too deep. He threw himself into freezing water where, floating like a mat, he swam purposefully with all the sedate dignity of an old aged pensioner. Back on the beating wagon he would get under the seats away from the melee, viewing the world of mud and wellington boots with glum resignation, until he arrived at the next drive and he could put himself back into gear. He was that paragon that switches off when idling and only engages when there is work to be done.

I began to look with pity at other wretches with their whining dervishes in perpetual motion. Buzz and I were doubtless viewed with amusement, but while I probably stayed a figure of fun, I think Buzz gradually earned a grudging respect. The first time we were given a thick hedge to work on our own was an exciting milestone as well as being a terrifying responsibility, it seemed the success of the whole drive depended on us. We accomplished our task without disturbing the whole countryside and thereafter were entrusted with many other single-handed jobs. I felt entitled to my money at the end of the day.

However, as I became aware of the finer points of spaniel work, so Buzz’s faults became apparent to me. He never worked too far away, and would sit quietly watching a crowd of pheasants being teased out over the Guns, but it dawned on me that, while he flushed birds hard and fast on command, his aim was first and foremost to peg. As age crept up on him he learned that this ambition was best accomplished by stealth. Finally, if I let my concentration drop for a moment he discovered the dreaded art of pegging at heel.

He would never dream of chasing a hare, but he had got the ability of pegging them down to a tee. I reckon he and I could have lived off the land quite comfortably. However, by then he was 12 years old, totally deaf and well past the age of redemption.

Despite his later misdemeanours, he gave me the confidence to enjoy my beating, and though his style was not spectacular, Buzz worked solidly the whole day. I saw many other spaniels with breathtaking style, but personally
I would have needed a double gin with my cornflakes and even then it would have been a white-knuckle ride. I think most keepers are just as happy with a quiet, unimposing dog, which does no more than go into cover and push the birds out slowly and surely and, above all, stays close to the line.

What amazed me was the shape and size beating dogs come in. Though the majority were spaniels, there was the odd slow Labrador, a few collies, Cairns, Westies and even a Doberman-cross (though the last spent the majority of its time on a long lead).

Finally, I learned what an underestimated necessity beaters are to the shoot. We may look like a ragged mob, hardly worth a second glance let alone a ‘good morning’ or a ‘thank you’, but believe me we are not knuckle grazers; we are sentient beings! Beating is enormous fun and beaters themselves some of the wisest, funniest wits around. Every Gun should do at least half a dozen days’ beating in order to appreciate his sport fully.