David Tomlinson discovers the joys of working cockers and the attributes of their cockerpoo cousins during a day’s sport at Holbeam Wood in Sussex
I must admit that I’ve never seriously considered the potential of the cockerpoo (cocker spaniel-poodle cross) as a gundog, but a recent encounter on a Sussex shoot did give me food for thought. Four cockerpoos were in the beating line, and from what I saw they were doing an excellent job, hunting with enthusiasm and no fear of cover. It was clear that all four were real characters, and the fact that they looked impossibly cute shouldn’t be held again them.
I hadn’t gone to the Holbeam Wood shoot, near Wadhurst, to watch the cockerpoos: they were just a bonus. I was there to fulfill a pledge made earlier this year at George Butler’s annual shoot evening of the Sussex branch of the Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust, where I’d given a talk on being a gundog columnist. As it was a fundraising evening I had offered to photograph a day’s shooting, a pledge made more attractive because my friend Peter Smith promised to provide the successful bidder with a calendar illustrated with photographs from the day.
Bruce Copp made the winning bid: he is a full Gun at Holbeam Wood, a farm shoot on attractive rolling ground overlooking Bewl Water.
Cockerpoo – a strong working spaniel instinct
I arrived at the shoot bright and early, and was soon joined by the numerous beaters and pickers-up who make the shoot possible. No one is paid: they all work because they enjoy the fresh air, exercise and working their dogs, though the Guns do provide them with an excellent lunch. There was a rich variety of dogs on parade: springers, cockers, Labradors, terriers, an English pointer, plus the cockerpoos.
These last, I soon discovered, were all related. David and Annie Alfille started with a cockerpoo bitch called Guinness. She was in turn put to a working cocker dog, and three of her progeny, Harvey, Lewes and Freddie, have since been recruited to the beating line. Thus the three new recruits are technically three-quarters cocker and only one-quarter poodle, and it was soon evident that they retain the strong working instincts of their spaniel heritage. When you think about it, there’s no reason why they shouldn’t.
Cockers were very much the dominant breed of spaniel on the day of my visit. Emily Fraser was picking-up with her eye-catching red cocker, Ollie. Though only two, Ollie proved to be a steady and accomplished worker. Emily had lost her previous cocker to cancer at the age of just four. Until this season she had been picking-up on a nearby shoot that has now gone commercial: she switched to Holbeam Wood because it was a more enjoyable place to work her dog.
Tempted to switch birds
Most of the drives at Holbeam Wood can be walked to. However, a Mule is used as the gamecart, driven by Tony Dobinson who was picking-up with his yellow Labrador, Fly, assisted by Steve Bailey and his 18-month-old cocker, Huxley. Despite only having started picking-up this season, Huxley was doing well. On the last drive Steve sent him for what should have been a simple retrieve, but as he ran out, another bird dropped just 10 yards away. The young cocker was clearly tempted to switch birds, but a whistle from his master checked him, and he stayed with the bird he had been sent for. I congratulated Steve on his handling. “Lots of practice with two dummies,” was his reply.
It was apparent from the start that Holbeam Wood was a very dog-friendly shoot. This was confirmed by the fact that two handlers and their dogs were making their first appearance in the shooting field and were all enjoying the day immensely. One of these was Julia Smith who was working her cocker Ned under the guidance of Peter Smith (no relation), and benefited from his decades of experience of working spaniels. Ned made several successful retrieves, growing more confident with each one.
On a shooting day the picking-up dogs arguably get more than their fair share of the glory, but it is the beating dogs that make much of the shooting possible, and there were several impressive dogs out. There were three springers — Timber, Pixie and their mother Cleo — in the beating line, handled by Jack and Laura Feaver. I’ve always suspected that the beating team gets the most fun on a shooting day, and there was no question that Jack and Laura and the spaniels were all having a great time.
Without the beaters, the pickers-up and their dogs, the Holbeam shoot would struggle. However, the fact that it has attracted such a merry band of dogs and handlers says everything you need to know. This was a genuine sporting shoot much enjoyed by everyone taking part, including me, shooting with a camera. The bag was 107 pheasants, six red-legged partridges, one wigeon and one pigeon.
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