Nick Ridley counts himself lucky that he’s able to do what he loves: shoot with his dogs

A few weeks ago during the Highclere Game Fair, a chap came up to me and told me how much he envied my job, and to be honest it did put things into perspective. The previous week had been particularly stressful and as we chatted he reminded me how lucky I am to be able to go and work my dogs in some of the most stunning countryside and to then write about the day. He said he would give anything to be able to spend just a few days experiencing what I call work.

The next morning, as the alarm screamed in my left ear and Mrs R jabbed me in the ribs with a well-aimed elbow, I wasn’t feeling quite so lucky. I rolled over and saw the clock – 3.30am: I had half an hour to get dressed, load the dogs and gun and head off on an hour’s drive to meet up with my good friend Steve Carter. I have known Steve for over 20 years. He works as a Ranger with the Forestry Commission, and although most of his work involves controlling the ever-growing population of deer, he also has to take care of the rabbit population in certain areas of woodland, especially in clear fell and newly planted blocks.

Under normal circumstances, areas of conifers that are being felled and replanted are fenced with rabbit wire and then the area is cleared of any unwanted conies. The area in which we were working hadn’t been fenced, and as a consequence the rabbits and deer had been feasting on the young trees. The wood is used by a lot of walkers, hence the reason we had to be on site very early – Steve reckoned we had a window of a couple of hours before it would be too busy to shoot.

Steve had recently retired his rabbiting lurcher and had asked if I could take Harry and Fuss and walk up the margins of the plantations. We wanted to see if we could manage to bag a few rabbits, but it would also give him an idea of how many were on the ground. It had been a few months since the boys had been on any game and I jumped at the chance to put them through their paces. As we pulled into the gateway I did start to get just a little excited – the cover was perfect for the spaniels, there was still a lot of dead bracken with just a hint of new growth coming through, the ground was very sandy, and despite the rain the previous day, it had drained really well. It was quite humid and I knew that I would have to swap the dogs around as they were in ‘summer soft’ condition and they would soon suffer in the warm weather.

I always find it difficult to decide which dog to run first. I haven’t quite mastered the skill of hunting one dog and walking the other at heel, so I tend to use Fuss first as he refuses to go to the toilet first thing if he thinks we are going shooting, and it gives him the chance to do his morning ablutions. As I got the little dog out of the box Harry gave a sigh and just settled down again; I guess he knows the score by now.

The plantation block had not long been felled and the ground had quite deep furrows where the young trees had been planted. Steve headed out about 50m and I took the forestry edge. The cover was ideal for Fuss; on his left-hand cast he could bury himself into the laid bracken and on his right-hand cast he hunted the ridge and furrows of the forestry. We hadn’t gone very far when he flushed a young rabbit from the bracken and it bolted along one of the dips. I waited and waited for it to come onto the ridge and offer me the chance of a shot but it disappeared into a small copse.

I quickly realised that I needed to be walking on top of the ridge to give myself half a chance to shoot anything that tried to make its escape the same way. I also had to remember that this wasn’t a fun day out; I was there to do a job and every bunny in the bag meant one less to cause damage to a future cash crop.

Further out Steve pushed out a muntjac that had been laying out in a furrow and over the next few weeks he will be aiming to cull a few of these little deer, as he is sure they are contributing to the damage of the young trees. As I headed along the plantation edge Steve dropped down a bank to a track, and when he was in position I hunted Fuss down the hill and into an area of gorse. The ground was full of holes and as we got about half way down I saw Steve shoulder his gun and take a very quick shot. A loose rabbit had bolted along the track and made for the sanctuary of a thick gorse bush. Steve was pretty sure he managed to hit it and I quickly sent Fuss to the shot line. The dog picked up the scent and dived into the bush and in no time at all he was back with a very dead rabbit. After about another 40 minutes he was getting very warm and he soon found a muddy puddle in which to cool off, so I decided it was time to give him a rest and let Harry strut his stuff.

As we headed for another plantation Steve shouted over to me that it was okay to have a shot at the numerous pigeons that were constantly clattering out from the standing fir trees. Just as I acknowledged his offer, Harry shoved into a stick pile and stood back looking for the flush – nothing came out, so I encouraged him in again. He punched in and again, nothing. I was sure there must be something that was causing him to try and make a flush so I walked over to take a closer look, and hidden in the sticks was a fledgling jackdaw. I reckon it must have only just left the nest that morning and as I looked around I could see another three. I was really pleased that Harry hadn’t pegged the little bird and I told him to leave it and we got back to hunting for the elusive rabbits.

A bit further on we came to a sparse area and I had to hold the dog back as he kept pulling into the small areas of bracken and was getting a bit too far ahead. I had just cast Harry to my right to hunt under a fallen tree, and no sooner had he forced his way under the broken limbs than a fully-grown rabbit bolted from the far side and headed into the forest. As I have said before, I am far better at snap shooting, and in no time at all I had mounted my gun and 28g of lead shot headed in the direction of the fleeing rabbit. Within a micro second I saw leaves and twigs fly into the air as I missed my shot by inches. The rabbit jinked but it turned into a clear area and I pulled the trigger again and saw it bowl over. Harry had been watching everything and had a good mark so he went straight out to the rabbit, picked it and came running back. Over the past few months I have been working on his delivery, as he was getting a bit sloppy and on occasions he would just drop the retrieve as I went to take it from him. I have been using dummies of different weights but had not had the chance to try him on any kind of game yet, so I was very pleased when he came up to me and sat and offered me the dead rabbit.

Time had got the better of us and we started to see a few early morning dog walkers so we headed back to the vehicles. Just as we came to the edge of the plantation Steve pointed out a pigeon sat in a tall fir tree. Despite my best efforts I could not see the bird but I had a pretty good idea that it would fly away from me, so I crept forward, trying to keep a clear area in the trees above me. Just as I drew level with the fir the pigeon launched itself and flew straight over my head – another quick shot and I saw it glide down a long way into a bank of bracken. I wasn’t sure Harry would have seen it, as being that much lower to the ground his point of view would have been obscured by the trees, so I had to give him a couple of “go back” commands before he disappeared over the brow of the bank.

Over the years I have quite often been in situations in which you can’t see the dog and just have to trust that they haven’t disappeared into the next county, but as Steve came up and was congratulating me on the shot I was beginning to get a little concerned. I resisted the temptation to blow the recall whistle and then I suddenly felt a nudge at the back of my leg. I looked down and saw Harry sitting behind me with the pigeon.

On my way back home I reflected on what had in fact been a really nice morning. Both the dogs had worked really well and they had some very testing retrieves, but more importantly Steve had a better idea of what was causing the damage to the trees.

I hope the reader who spoke to me at Highclere enjoys reading about another one of my days at work, and I thank him for making me stop and take stock and realise just how lucky I really am.

Pictures and words: Nick Ridley