Tim Maddams joins members of the Working Clumber Spaniel Society for a day’s pheasant shooting
I love shooting over dogs, so when my friend Nathan Hawkins posted an open invitation to shoot over a breed I had never heard of — the Clumber spaniel — I jumped at the chance.
Charming Clumber spaniels
This is a breed that has been apparently superseded by springers and cockers, the little rocket dogs of walked-up shooting and picking-up. Yet here, a mile or so along a bumpy private track, in a hidden valley on the side of Exmoor in Devon, Clumber spaniels have an earnest, fond and dedicated following from all over the region. These dogs are indeed deserving of this, being both charming and misunderstood — as I was to find out.
Nathan had arranged the day to promote the breed — he has a Clumber that he is hoping to trial next year . The host of the shoot was Debbie Zurick, honorary secretary of the Working Clumber Spaniel Society (WCSS), and her husband John Zurick, who is the field trials secretary.
Different from other breeds
First, I had a quick tour of the kennels. Debbie’s interest in Clumbers comes from her father: “I love the breed,” she said. “They work so well and they are different — working Clumbers are very different from other breeds of working spaniel.”
As I left the kennels — resisting the urge to put my name on the puppy list — I met a whole team of Clumber-mad people out to show off the breed in all its glory.
A brief safety and set-up talk was swiftly run through by Debbie, who was clearly in charge, and the Guns were split into two groups. At the bottom of the valley were Nathan Hawkins and Sam Middleton, accompanied by John and his expert picking-up Clumber Zeus, and me, while Heidrun Humphries and her excellent Clumber Amy, began working along the hedge just in front of us.
Almost immediately, strong and flighty birds were put to air by Amy under Heidrun’s expert tutelage, but all were missed. I was so busy enjoying the scene with John that a late flusher which could have just about been reasonably described as “my bird” got past me, unsaluted.
Look at the wonderful Victorian paintings of Clumber spaniels and you will see a dog that has only a passing…
During 2015 there were 217 Clumber spaniel puppies registered in Britain. Compare this with 10,500 springer spaniels and 22,500 cocker…
A lot of fun
Again it was missed, so it wasn’t a great start for the Guns, but I have never been interested in numbers and this was a lot of fun. A little further on, Amy flushed a single hen that was despatched cleanly by Nathan’s 12-bore. The bird plunged straight into the icy river.
One of the great falsehoods about Clumber spaniels is that they hate water — and that certainly wasn’t the case here. Amy was soon off, with Heidrun in tow, and the bird quickly picked from the water. We continued in this fashion along the valley bottom with the odd bird being flushed.
After a few hundred yards we all converged in a gateway. Stories were swapped and the overall plan of attack was revealed. We all lined out and worked the hill, where many pheasants presented themselves. These wild birds were frisky, clever and skilful at making an exit without offering a shot, but a good few were dropped and some excellent retrieves were made.
The next walk took us to the top of a bank of bracken. As soon as the dogs were released, birds began to flush and Andy dropped a lovely pair going away, only to insist that I then shoot the next. I obliged, adding a nice crosser to the bag.
The latter half of the day found me standing with John at the bottom of the valley, close to our starting point, where it was hoped a few “Exmoor screamers” would show themselves but it was not to be. I did have a fine chat with John, though, about the dogs and the WCSS, and I was intrigued to find that he picks-up three or four days a week with his Clumber Zeus on nearby shoots.
Steady working dogs
Having seen such excellent dog work from these quiet, steady working dogs, I started wondering why this once popular breed had fallen so far out of favour. Historically, it was the shooting dog of kings — King Edward VII having bred them at Sandringham in Norfolk.
Having watched these dogs work I have become enchanted with them, but they are not showy and they are not lightning fast. They sort of “pootle” about. But they are switched on when they hit a scent and I have seldom seen better marking. Of course, it is likely that I have witnessed some of the best Clumbers in the country, but these dogs certainly deserve the following they have, and that following is growing.