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Reporting on the IGL Retriever Championship

From a starting field of 50, one dog is unfazed by the distractions all around and claims the title at the IGL Retriever Championship, says Ellena Swift

IGL Retriever Championship

Kevin Butler runs eventual 2022 champion FTCh Turpingreen Bohol

Since January 2022, handlers have been trying to qualify their dogs for the prestigious International Gundog League (IGL) Retriever Championship. It is no easy task simply to qualify, let alone finish the three gruelling days of hot competition. Throughout the season, dogs and handlers from all over the world make their bid to secure a spot on the running card for the IGL Retriever Championship. 

This year the championship was held at the beautiful Holkham Estate, by kind permission of the Earl of Leicester, and Kevin Butler’s FTCh Turpingreen Bohol showed a very strong field how it was done and landed the top honours. Holkham is believed to be the birthplace of driven game shooting and it is truly a privilege to attend. The championship was last held here in 2004, and before that in 1996. It was an absolute pleasure to be back.

The sheer variety and abundance of game and wildlife on such a beautifully managed estate was wonderful to see. You could not walk more than a few yards without seeing woodcock, hare, pheasant, English and French partridge as well as a variety of deer and songbirds. We in the viewing gallery even spotted a cheeky fox sneaking about looking for breakfast. 

The estate has five keepers managing it, with the headkeeper being Mark Fitzer. Mark was Steward of the Beat for the three days of the championship and did a superb job of keeping the Guns, dogs and handlers right to make for a testing but very successful competition. The tradition surrounding the estate and those who work on it was apparent, with the keepers wearing bowler hats. The keepers are not permitted to wear these unless they have worked on the estate for at least a year, so it was grand to see so many of them. 

IGL Retriever Championship

The four judges compare notes during the prestigious three-day final

Fifty dogs qualified for this year’s final. There are normally a few more but sadly, with a somewhat irregular season, fewer qualifying stakes were able to be held. Of those 50, only two dogs didn’t run due to a case of kennel cough. John Halsted qualified an impressive four dogs and has now qualified every year since 1992 — an unbelievable achievement that I am not sure will be matched. 


IGL Retriever Championship: First-timers

At the other end of the scale, there were several first-time handlers at the championship including Di Stevens, Oliver Bell, Julia Reed and Tucker Munday. Birgitta Staflund-Wilberg and Louise Munchaus Adsbol were both first-time qualifiers as well and were two of three Scandinavian handlers making a very strong bid for the title. 

From across the water came five serious contenders from Ireland. Tony O’Hare, John Peach, Declan Boyle, Oliver Bell and Michael Corr. Declan Boyle won in 2019 with his FTCh Miller Mcduff and continued to run him up until last year, when he was the oldest dog on the card. This year Declan was running one of the youngest dogs, with the average age being around five years old. 

IGL Retriever Championship

The Guns ensure there is plenty of game, with considerable variety, during an exciting competition

IGL Retriever Championship

Turpingreen Bohol shows why he is such a worthy champion

As always, there was a strong challenge coming from Scotland as well, with nine handlers qualifying. David Lisett won in 2017 and Gary Wood returned as the defending champion with FTCh Millbuies Ghillie. Kevin Haynes, David Logan, Robin Drysdale, Greig Patterson, George Buchan, Billy Steel Snr and Kirsty Cousins were all extremely serious contenders. Kirsty was one of 14 female handlers here and has proven herself many times, including achieving a Diploma of Merit in 2021. 

There was only one golden retriever qualified this year and that was FTCh Think Twice Zero To Hero. This amazing dog has qualified every year he has run and stands out as one of the most consistent and talented dogs out there, achieving third in 2021 and Diploma of Merit in 2019. 

This year’s judges were four extremely experienced and talented dog handlers. Jayne Coley, Alan Rees, Steve Polley and Tim Brain are all A panel judges and have themselves made up many champions and run at the Retriever Championship. It is a real honour to judge this event and for many the pinnacle of their career.


IGL Retriever Championship: Wounded game

The first two days took place in a mixture of game cover, surrounded by woodland, park and arable land. There was never a shortage of game, with a steady supply across the three days. The Guns can make or break a trial and the team here were absolutely fantastic, consistently providing the dogs with testing retrieves. Good marking skills and the ability to follow a line on wounded game is key for any working dog. 

On the first day, this was demonstrated beautifully by Julia Reed’s labrador dog Staverton Tarrogan. A hen bird was shot at around 100 yards and was clearly going to run. This cracking hunting dog hit the fall and made a difficult retrieve look remarkably easy. Following the wounded creature’s line, Tarrogan required no input from his handler as he quickly and efficiently found the bird. Natural abilities like this are a joy to behold.

Defending champion Gary Woods’s dog demonstrated why he was the winner in 2021 when on the second day he was asked to pick a hen bird across the other end of the line. Although the bird was dead, the handler could not see the dog at the end because the ground dipped away. 

IGL Retriever Championship

Mark Fitzer, headkeeper at Holkham Hall, is Steward of the Beat during the three days of the final

The line was around 89m long, meaning the retrieves were a similar distance. In a sea of cover, full of live game and with the pressure of the crowds and the event itself, no retrieve is ever easy. Another dog was tried on the retrieve but sadly struggled once out of sight and lost his line. Millbuies Ghillie took a perfect line and held it true once out of sight. He hit the scent and worked tidily back in on the wind to pick the bird. 

Thirty-five dogs were required for day two and a full day of difficult dog work took its toll. Challenging scenting conditions made pinpointing game difficult. 

By the morning of day three, only 10 dogs were required to return. Each day started early, with the contenders having their first retrieve easily by 8.30am. To get to the final stages of this trial is an immense achievement and the tension was palpable. By 9.40am, two dogs had fallen and the retrieves were coming thick and fast. 

A lot of woodcock were taken and even a snipe. If the dogs did not have a good nose, these birds would be impossible to find. The snipe was shot off the far side of the line and, though it landed relatively close to the gallery, we couldn’t see it at all. The first dog struggled to make the area. 

The second dog sent (Gary Woods) got to the area and took direction well from his handler. This teamwork was impressive and he soon picked the bird. A woodcock was then shot across on the left-hand side of the line, quite a way in front. Again, the first dog struggled to get a touch of scent. 

Emmanygan Spring of Chatsworth, handled by John Halsted, finishes in second place


Powering out

After being called up, Kevin Butler’s Turpingreen Bohol was tried. He had marked this bird within an inch and made a difficult mark look very easy, powering out, hunting a small specific area hard and being rewarded with the find. Trusting your dog under this pressure is no easy task. The handlers consistently showed their calm resolve throughout the day.

A hare was shot on the far right-hand side and a dog from the left sent. Paul Wheeler’s FTCh Willowrise Star Spinner took a perfect line showing his style, drive and speed. As he hit the fall, he showed no signs of slowing down as we in the gallery held our breath. The handler remained calm, trusting his dog and, with no interference, Spinner slammed on the brakes about 8m past the hare as his nose hit the scent. He turned and hunted back on to pick, showing just how natural these dogs are. 

Four dogs were taken through to a small drive within a large wood. The rest of the trial had been walked-up and the dogs were tested with their steadiness and memory to mark. It was an impressive display with lots of game and the Guns provided plenty of challenging retrieves, giving the judges enough to finish the trial. All the dogs picked their birds, meaning there were four in the final awards. 

This championship is something we mere mortals can only dream of reaching, and those who even qualify — let alone get in the awards — are to be respected. It was truly a display of the best dog work on one of Britain’s best shooting estates.


IGL Retriever Championship: The awards

1st: Kevin Butler’s FTCh Turpingreen Bohol — awarded the Retriever Trials Championship Challenge Cup, the Lady Auckland Memorial Salver, the Hiwood Challenge Trophy and the IGL President’s Trophy for the winner and the Kingsford-Lethbridge Trophy for the breeder of the winner.

2nd: Duchess of Devonshire’s Emmanygan Spring of Chatsworth handled by John Halsted — awarded the FTCh Ulstare Style Challenge Trophy for the dog placed second

3rd: Gary Wood’s FTCh Millbuies Ghillie —awarded the Lorna Countess Howe Memorial Trophy for the best dog entered by an owner resident in Scotland

4th: Paul Wheeler’s FTCh Willowrise Star Spinner