If you could take just one dog out shooting, which would you choose? Nick Ridley suggests the Sealyham terrier, after witnessing them picking-up first-hand.
I get a real buzz out of watching any kind of “working” dog do what it was bred for, whether that is a hard-going spaniel tearing apart a bramble bush to extract a wily old cock pheasant, a Labrador taking the line of a 100-yard runner or a lurcher working with ferrets to bag a few rabbits. Over the years, I have been lucky enough to work a few different breeds of working dogs and in recent years, I have started to consider if there is such a thing as the perfect all-round canine country companion.
The first thing to do is to throw out all thoughts of tradition and accept that there will be compromises with this all-rounder. One breed to consider is the Border collie. On a shoot I pick-up on, one of the beaters brings along a collie which hunts quite nicely and is not a bad retriever. However, it is not keen on gunshot and as many collies have a sensitive nature this may rule them out. The lurcher is a pretty versatile type of dog and I know of a couple of people that use collie-cross greyhounds for deerstalking. However, if you were to turn up at a shoot with one you might be under suspicion of being some kind of ‘dodgy geezer’ due to the unfortunate stereotype and it can be difficult to stop a lurcher from chasing.
The Sealyham terrier selection
So how about a terrier? A few months back when I was doing some research for an article on the working Sealyham terrier I came across a piece written many years ago by politician and prolific Sealyham breeder Sir Jocelyn Lucas. Writing in his book, The Sealyham Terrier, back in 1922, he claimed that “a well-trained pack of Sealyhams are better than spaniels in the beating line” and that got me thinking.
After a few phone calls to Sealyham breeder Harry Parsons, a date was set for him to bring along some of his dogs to a prestigious shooting estate in the Cotswolds. Harry also told me about “Winnie,” a Sealyham bitch he had bred and whose owner, Dave Simms, had trained to work with the gun and to retrieve.
It has to be pointed out that neither Harry, Dave or the dogs had ever been on a driven shoot before, so the pressure really was on.
Dogs and ducks
Pegglesworth Manor is a stunning estate and as it was a “family and friends” day the owners had kindly allowed the terriers to take part. The little dogs certainly caused a stir, especially among the Guns as many of them had travelled from abroad and were fascinated to meet such a rare breed.
As we walked to the first drive I had a chance to speak to Dave and he told me that Winnie was his first Sealyham terrier, before that he had worked Plummers, but had decided he wanted a more versatile dog and he had trained Winnie to work with ferrets. He takes her roughshooting and enjoys a day’s ratting, but most interesting of all he has trained her to retrieve to hand. We had been warned that the first drive was going to be a busy one as squadrons of duck were pushed from a pond over the waiting Guns. I explained to Dave what was going to happen and as he slipped the lead from Winnie I asked him if he was sure she would be okay off it. There would be a lot of shooting and a lot of birds falling, but he assured me she would be fine.
A good number of duck were shot on that particular drive and I was spellbound watching Winnie standing next to Dave. Throughout the whole drive the little dog did not make a sound, she showed no signs of getting wound up. She watched and marked the duck as they were shot and most impressive of all, as the other dogs were being sent to pick the odd runner, she made no attempt to move. I really was impressed. As the horn went to end the drive, I told Dave he could now send the dog out, it was then he confessed that Winnie had in-fact never picked a duck before – she had retrieved pheasants and rabbits, but never duck. Dave lined her up like a little Labrador and sent her out. Winnie found her first duck without any hesitation and took it straight back, she collected another five and every single one was delivered to Dave’s waiting hand. Not one of them had any damage, her mouth was as soft as any gundog’s.
Meanwhile, Harry had joined the beating line with two of his other Sealyhams, “Betty” and “Madge,” and he had been put in the thick of it. He had been tasked with blanking in a section of old blackthorn to push the birds up to a flushing point, so there was the potential for matters to go very wrong. Madge and Betty bustled through the heavy cover and every time a bird flushed, Harry gave them a “hold up” command and they waited until told to “get on.” The terriers really showed their worth in a particularly dense patch of tangled roots and their tenacity evicted more than one pheasant from its sanctuary. I was again impressed by the dog’s calmness, I know for a fact my cockers would have been getting very hot with the amount of birds that were moving in front of them but the little dogs went about their work with a minimum of fuss.
Behind the Guns, Winnie and Dave were really getting into the swing of things and were fast becoming part of the picking-up team. Their high point came when Winnie disappeared into a block of woodland and came back with a runner. I did take a sneaky look at the bird and was amazed to find that it had no damage other than the shot wound. I would have put money on that bird being damaged by the terrier, especially if she had to chase it down, but I was wrong.
By the end of the day I was convinced that I had found the perfect all-round canine fieldsports companion. Earlier in the year I witnessed a pack of working Sealyham terriers clear a chicken shed of rats, I have seen them work with ferrets, I know of their abilities as a subterranean terrier and now I had seen them work in the beating line and as a picking-up dog on a big driven shoot. I think these little dogs have all the natural ability and it would just take some time and training to make one into a real Jack of all trades.