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I often get asked how to get picking up on a shoot. To be honest there is no definitive answer, but once you have managed to secure a place you will
then have certain responsibilities to the shoot and – more importantly – any game that is shot.
Most shoots, especially the bigger ones, will want you to have more than one dog, as the main function will be to sweep up (we will come to that later) after a drive and the job needs to be done as quickly and as efficiently as possible. People ask what breed of gundog is best for picking up. Well the obvious answer would be a retriever – such as a labrador or golden or flatcoated retriever – but the HPR breeds and spaniels certainly have their place, and in an ideal world your team would be a mixture. However, there are more important things to consider than the breed of dog you have.
Before starting your day, check with the head picker-up as to the rules regarding sending a dog during a drive and in particular the situation regarding runners. Each shoot and indeed each drive may be different and that is why it is always worth checking. On one particular shoot I go to we stand high on a grass bank and the Guns are over the other side of a small lane in another field, so it is fine to pick runners during the drive before they reach the sanctuary of a small wood, but ordinarily we wouldn’t pick dead birds until the drive had finished. Last season during this particularly busy drive I sent the dogs for quite a few runners and was oblivious to anyone else as I was just concentrating on Harry and Fuss and the job in hand. The following week I was told that a number of the Guns had commented on how well the dogs had done. I mention this not to ‘big up’ my dogs but purely to make a point. You never know who is watching, so always be aware of that fact and act accordingly, which includes ‘reprimanding’ your dog and dispatching game properly. On the shoots I go to all the pickers-up have to carry priests and use them. The use of fence posts and tree trunks will not be tolerated and woe betide anyone that dares to swing a bird by its neck!
On or off the lead?
When arriving at the drive you will normally be shown where you need to stand. Just be aware that handlers will have their regular places and they can be quite possessive over their ‘patch’ of ground. Once you have been given your allocated spot, make your way there with the minimum of fuss and noise. I personally always keep my dogs on the lead until I get to my place and then I sit them up and take off their leads. Now there are a couple of points to bear in mind regarding whether you keep your dog on or off a lead during a drive. Even the best trained dog will occasionally have a ‘blip’ and during a busy drive birds will be dropping all around and your dogs have to be rock steady. One drive I pick up on is like Heathrow airport. We stand back in a wood in a position just at the end of the pheasants’ flight path and we can get anything up to 400 birds landing through the trees. Quite often the birds will be running right under the dogs’ noses – quite a temptation. You will need all your concentration to not only be watching your dogs but to also be on the lookout for any pricked birds, because at the end of the day that is the main function of picking-up, to find and humanly dispatch any injured game. If you have any doubt about your dogs’ steadiness then it is better to keep them on a lead until the end of the drive. Picking up is not a competition and it is certainly not the time to show off with your dogs… remember, a dog’s aim in life is to make its handler look like a fool!
The positioning of your dogs during a drive also needs some consideration. If you were shooting on a driven day, the best place for your dog would be about two meters in front of and facing you. That way you can watch the dog and he can mark any shot birds that fall behind you. However, when picking up I like to sit my dogs either slightly in front or to one side and facing the drive. That way they can see the birds coming and still get a good mark.
I have mentioned pricked birds a few times during this article and at some point during a drive you might have to decide to send a dog on a runner. It is a difficult descision and one that should not be taken lightly, as it could well determine your future on the shoot. A lot will depend on whether you have been told it is okay to collect birds during the drive and then whether you have a dog that is experienced enough to go out to a specific bird and ignore others landing around them. It really is ‘heart in your mouth’ stuff – even more so if you are in sight of the Guns. All I can say is be honest with yourself and if you are not sure, or if you have young dogs, then do not take the chance – just watch the bird and try and pick it after the drive has finished. You can train your dogs to deal with situations like this but a shoot day is not the time or place; you are there to do a job. At some point we all have young, inexperienced dogs to bring on but there are certain circumstances that you should leave to the older, better trained members of the team. That said, at some point you have bite the bullet and take a calculated chance, but just pick your moment carefully.
Earlier I mentioned ‘sweeping up’ after a drive. That means walking forward from your position towards the Guns and clearing any dead birds and picking any runners that have not been collected during the drive. At this point I have to say picking-up is not about who can collect the most birds. Unfortunately some people like to mooch around the pegs and come back laden with birds and think they have done a good day’s work. I would suggest the good picker-up is the handler and their dogs that will work hard to find that pricked bird a Gun has been sure he has hit – whether they find it or not, they are willing to give it their best.
Not only a cardinal sin but also damned annoying are dogs that constantly ‘swap’ game. We have all seen it – a dog is out retrieving, picking up birds, running off, putting that one down and picking up another one, running off with that and doing the same thing over and over again. Eventually it gets back to the handler, who in most cases is none the wiser. Meanwhile, the pickers-up and dogs that have been doing their jobs properly will have watched the birds fall, making a mental note of where they are, yet when you sweep-up after the drive… nothing. I watched a labrador last season collect and swap eight birds during a drive and we had real problems accounting for them all as he had run all over the place. It is well worth training your dogs to avoid this and to stop them stealing from other dogs, too.
Guns with their own dogs will in most cases want to pick their own birds, especially around the pegs. If you can it is always worth checking, but if not it is fairly safe to assume that they will pick up. However, still keep an eye out to make sure that they do collect everything, as they may well be quickly ushered to the next drive. It is also good etiquette to offer to take any birds from the Guns and when you get to the game-cart don’t just dump the birds and walk off. If you have finished your sweep help with tying up the birds, making sure you keep an eye on your dogs as some can become a bit possessive when there is a lot of game and other dogs milling about.
If you are lucky enough to get on a good shoot, over time you will get to know the routines and become a valuable member of the picking-up team. But just remember – when someone new arrives for their first day, take the time to help them out and point them in the right direction. After all, we have all been there.
Article by Nick Ridley.
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