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Should you check you have permission to use land for dog training?

Intervening in a dog training session on open access land prompts David Tomlinson to lament a shortage of facilities for triallers

Triallers face a considerable challenge to find good ground to use for training

Few birds are more easily overlooked than the woodlark. Small, beautifully camouflaged and spending much of their time on the ground, it’s often only their song that gives them away.

The song is one of the most beautiful of any British bird. It consists of a series of accelerating notes, often falling in pitch yet gaining in loudness. Since late January, when I heard the first song of the year, I’ve been surveying the woodlarks on my local nature reserve while giving my spaniels their early morning walk.

What, you may well ask, have woodlarks got to do with a column on gundogs? Quite a lot, as I will reveal. One morning earlier this month, I heard a lark singing from a different part of the heath, so I went back a few hours later — with binoculars, not dogs — to check it out. My heart sank as I parked my car. Not far up the road were two double-cab pickup trucks and a large estate car and, from the area where I hoped to hear a singing lark, I heard instead the unmistakable note of a dog whistle. A scan with the binoculars revealed three women, each with a black labrador, taking part in a gundog training session.


Land for dog training – the tricky position

This put me in a difficult position. The nature reserve is owned by the local wildlife trust and I was a trustee of the latter when it bought the land 12 years ago.

I am no longer a trustee, but I am an official volunteer on the site, which also happens to be a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and open access land. The law requires dogs on open access land to be on leads from 1 March until 31 July — this is a legal requirement that has nothing to do with the trust, though it does try to enforce it.

I had two choices. The easy one was to walk away and pretend that I hadn’t noticed what was going on. I don’t enjoy confrontations, but this was something I couldn’t do. I was hoping that I wouldn’t know the women training their dogs but, as I walked towards them, I was greeted with a cheerful “Hello, David”. I knew two of them well, for they are both leading triallers.

It’s exceedingly difficult in such circumstances not to come over as a pompous old spoilsport, so I tried the best I could — probably not very successfully — to explain why they shouldn’t be training their dogs where they were and the fact that they were breaking the law. They didn’t think they were doing anything wrong, let alone illegal, while they assured me that they would never dream of disturbing nesting birds. They clearly believed that there were none.

The ideal gundog training ground is an area blessed with water but it is not vital

I am sure that they wouldn’t have deliberately disturbed any form of wildlife but, not surprisingly, they were unaware of the presence of woodlarks, let alone the fact that these birds are early nesters, not infrequently laying their first eggs before the end of March. Secondly, anyone training dogs on land where they haven’t got permission should consider whether it is legal for them to do so. In this case, it wasn’t.

Needless to say, my conversation with the women ranged rather more widely. One told me that she had been training on the heath for years and knew the former owner well. Both told me that I am apparently well known for being anti-trialling, while a recently published article of mine — not in Shooting Times — had also upset them. This encounter did nothing to enhance my reputation as being a friend of the trialling community, but we did part on amicable terms and the training session was abandoned.

What this encounter highlighted was the difficulty many people, not only triallers, have in finding somewhere to train their dogs. The heather-covered but undulating heath is ideal, as the dogs have to work hard to find dummies but are always in view as they work. The sandy, free-draining soil makes the going good
for the dogs, with the added bonus that they come home clean.

Sites like this are few in my part of the world. The majority of heaths are either nature reserves or open access land, so finding a place where dogs can be trained during the nesting season is a considerable challenge. The best bet is to ask a friendly farmer, but running a dog in a field of winter wheat is hardly as satisfying as doing the same thing on a heathery heath.

I’m sure there is an opportunity for landowners to set up gundog training areas on their land. The area needn’t be big — two acres would be fine, three acres even better — while it wouldn’t take long, nor cost much, to turn an unproductive field corner into a training ground. If there’s a pond or water, so much the better, but neither are essential. The potential for income is considerable — certainly as good as a pony paddock. Such a facility might well prove surprisingly popular.