They say you should never work with animals or children — Selena Barr meets a Sussex-based gundog trainer and a game cook who think otherwise

It is widely accepted that teaching schoolchildren about the benefits of shooting and conservation is pivotal to the survival of the sport for future generations. And starting young is the best way to learn. So when professional gundog trainer Julie Elborough, of Woodruff Gundogs, met children’s cookery teacher and nutritionist Kathy Martyn, while picking-up on a shoot in East Sussex, they resolved to combine their expertise to launch a series of innovative training courses designed for children.

Based at the foot of the South Downs National Park, near Lewes in East Sussex, Julie and Kathy launched Junior Woodruff nine months ago and have been overwhelmed by the response to their courses, in particular, the Hunt, Cook, Eat It course, which combines gundog work and game cooking. “In the southeast, there is a real lack of gundog training classes for children, which perhaps explains the staggering level of interest,” said Julie. “Children from both shooting and non-shooting backgrounds attend. Many parents simply want their children to have a broader understanding of the countryside.” Since it started, Junior Woodruff has attracted the attention of the national shooting organisations. The courses have received backing from the Countryside Alliance, which provides all the rosettes and certificates and Julie is currently in talks with BASC about collaborating on Young Shots days.

“There was a definite gap in the market for gundog training classes for children,” said Julie. “In the past, the Kennel Club has refused to acknowledge this need, so I decided to do something about it.”

Recreating a formal shoot
The day I visited, the course was focusing on picking-up and took place over 300 acres of oilseed rape. The three children were assigned fully trained gundogs to be worked behind three volunteer Guns on a mini driven and walked-up shoot. Before the real thing, the three were given the opportunity to hone their skills on cold game. Whistle commands, hand signals and icking-up etiquette were all covered. Eight-year old Lana Lawrence was working Wilma, a cocker spaniel. “My family don?t shoot and I don’t have a dog, but I have really enjoyed learning how to direct Wilma on to game and seeing a pheasant retrieved properly,” she said.

As Lana’s father Justin watched his daughter confidently direct the spaniel on to a tricky retrieve in some dense cover, he explained how gundog training has taught her a raft of personal skills. “Patience, persistence and assertiveness are just a few of the skills she has gained,” said Justin proudly. “Caring for an animal forces a child to think selflessly and gundog handling promotes a wider understanding of how rural life works.”

For the mini driven shoot, beaters pushed a small block of woodland towards the waiting Guns – Julie and Kathy were both keen to replicate a formal shoot day as much as possible. Behind peg No 1, Charlie Craddock was working Feathers, a field trial-winning Labrador. “The gundogs have to sit quietly next to us for the entire drive without a lead and are not allowed to pick-up any fallen birds until after the drive has finished,” said Charlie, as he reminded Feathers to stay seated. Charlie’s father David, a keen Shot, said that he was eager for his son to train the family’s new Labrador puppy when it arrives. “I think Charlie relishes the fact that his extra-curricular activities are a little different to his peers, who attend the usual swimming lessons, Scouts and football matches,” he said.

On course for competition success
As the beaters neared the end of the drive, Kathy’s husband Dave expertly shot a cock pheasant with his first barrel and dutifully left it on the ground for the trainees. Each of the three children instructed their dogs to mark the bird, then concentrated on the rest of the drive. Guns Kim Reed and Geoff Allum also contributed to the exercise by shooting a hen bird each. In turn, the children sent their gundogs to retrieve one of the birds. All three successfully worked their dogs with minimal direction and help from Julie.

So how long does it take for a novice to reach this standard? “I have taught these particular children over the past year. They learn how to handle a fully trained adult gundog first so that they can then apply their knowledge to a puppy,” she said. The oldest on the course, 14-year-old Imogen Boath, also comes from a non-shooting family and is not allowed a dog at home. “I’d like to train as a vet and have a whole of pack of gundogs,” she said. Since attending Junior Woodruff lessons, Imogen has won numerous honours, including being awarded second place in the Skinners Working Gundog Junior Test Challenge and Best Hunting Dog in the Kennel Club Young Handlers Working Test at Chatsworth.

Julie is extremely proud of her student. “For a young girl who has never lived with dogs in the family – her only pets are rabbits and guinea pigs – she has embraced the gundog world with heart-warming enthusiasm, an attitude to be encouraged in all our young handlers,” she said.

Practising game cookery
In the afternoon, Kathy put her encyclopaedic knowledge of nutrition and game cookery into practice. Back at her farm in Chalvington, East Sussex, she said that for many children, this is the first time that they have prepared gamebirds for the table.

“Despite all the campaigns by celebrity chefs, it?s shocking how many children still don’t understand where their food comes from. Whatever we shoot in the morning, I encourage the children to eat later,” Kathy said as she showed Lana how to pluck a pheasant.

In addition to working as a principle lecturer in physiology and nutrition at the University of Sussex, Kathy often visits local primary schools to give talks on game cookery and shooting. “Schoolchildren are utterly fascinated – it’s often the squeamish teachers who are watching through their fingers,” said Kathy.

A solution for the holidays
The day ended with a final dog handling session and a simple working test, after which certificates were awarded to each of the beaming children. It was clear that Julie and Kathy’s infectious enthusiasm for shooting had rubbed off on the youngsters.

By the end of the course, all three children were handling their gundogs confidently and hoping to compete in a proper working test during the summer. With parents often wondering how to fill the summer holidays and half-term breaks, Junior Woodruff might just be the answer.