When it comes to working dogs, there is a harsh reality that gamekeepers must acknowledge: you will have quite a lot of them, and you will outlive the vast majority of them.
I?m in the position at the moment of having a kennel full of dogs, a number of which are getting a bit long in the tooth, but I am not the type of person who simply has them dispatched when they are no longer functioning at the same level as they did in their prime.
This policy can lead to a few problems from time to time, when replacements are due, as space is limited. Anyway, I?m hoping I will get a year or two?s respite when I retire, and I believe that an animal which has served me well should be afforded the same privilege, so my three 11-year-olds can potter around for another year or two on the moor, and pick-up a few grouse in the process.
A little dog with a huge heart
I like to think I have never been a snob when it comes to the breeds of dogs I?ve owned ? if they did a good job, I was happy to have them, even if they were a bit unconventional. My first dog, Whim, was a Labrador-spaniel cross ? rather rare in his day, as most crosses were simply drowned at birth.
Pedigrees and papers were the order of the day; everything else was worthless.
He was a great little dog with a huge heart, and if he had faults ? and he did have quite a few ? they were mainly my doing. If, on the other hand, you needed something picking-up, Whim would pick it up where other dogs would fail. One evening, he made a retrieve of a pinkfoot which I still recall as being as good as any I have had from my many dogs. It was the second of a right-and-left in the gloom, wingended, and I heard it fall some distance off. Whim was away a long time before I finally heard him breathing heavily as he came back with it.
Whim was with me on every estate I ever worked at. He rather set my attitude towards working dogs, and over the years I?ve had the lot. Many have had papers, and I enjoyed my time running in trials with my working cockers immensely.
However, over the period of my working life, it has been very interesting watching the change in the dogs now out on many a shoot day. From the 99 per cent Labrador and spaniel-dominated field, there is now a huge array of breeds and, more notably, cross-breeds.
For many working keepers and for those who stalk and shoot, the cross has been the dog to have. Perhaps one of the main sires for those crosses is the German wirehaired pointer (GWP), which has primarily been cross-bred with Labradors, but also with springers, as well as a few minor breeds.
One thing you do get from any first cross is a real dose of hybrid vigour. Almost every one of these crosses I have seen will go all day ? they have a real engine in them, as well as an exceptional nose. There is still the risk of a problem with the mouth with some, but that goes for almost every breed from time to time. For the stalker, though, the intelligence married to the slightly more sedate temperament of the Labrador more often than not produces an excellent worker.
A scattering of crosses in the area
The number of years I may have left on this mortal coil, and the number of old dogs in the kennels, meant that I needed some younger blood, and the latest addition to my pack is from the springer cross stable. Rather like my very first dog, the litter was hardly planned. GWPs can jump, and the kennels in question had no top on them, so when the need arose, the dog simply jumped into the next-door kennel for the night. The keeper, my neighbour, was a rather puzzled man in the morning when he went to give them a run out, until he realised what had happened.
Anyway, there is always a light at the end of the tunnel, and the end result is a fair scattering of rather nice crosses in the area. Monty, as he is known, is a lovely natured dog, who I?m hopeful will do a good job for me for years to come. I should add he is only about seven months old, so there is a long way to go, but he has already retrieved some cold game and has dealt with it rather well.
I have also welcomed another cocker (slightly younger than Monty) into the fold which is typical of its breed ? it can soak up all the attention you wish to give it and still want more. The additions, then, are in equal proportions ? one pure, one cross ? so there is no bias there, and sad though it will be, I hope I see them go, and not vice versa.