In the north rabbits tend to stay in the open rather than sit in their warrens
By Nick Ridley
Friday, 24 August 2012
Shooting rabbits over spaniels in Yorkshire
For some it could be a driven grouse, a stratospheric pheasant or even a covey of partridges bursting over a hedgerow, but for me it is shooting the humble rabbit over a cocker spaniel that really floats my boat. Over the past few years, I have been lucky enough to make fairly regular trips to the North Yorkshire Moors to visit my friends, Andrew and Fiona Robinson of Whaupley Gundogs. I usually try to head up there just before the grouse season starts, as that is when the rabbit population is at its highest.
I find the rabbiting scene up north extremely interesting. It is commonplace for professional gundog trainers to travel hundreds of miles to shoot rabbits over their dogs here, and the top field trial spaniels have a lot of rabbits shot over them. I asked Andy how this situation developed, especially with regard to spaniel trainers. He told me that rabbit shooting ground is very highly valued, especially in the North, and a spaniel that is being trained for a trialling career has a huge advantage if it has had rabbits shot for it, over one that hasn’t. Even a dog destined for pheasant trials will benefit hugely from its experience on rabbits.
Apparently, it is all to do with accuracy. A good rabbit dog, often working in light cover, has to be extremely precise in everything it does. It must work a close pattern and be a good gamefinder — heavy cover will test a dog’s courage, but rabbits sitting tightly in light cover will instantly to the flush and then collect its retrieve with the minimum of handling.
In the white grass and heather that makes up most of the rabbit ground, any intruder can easily be spotted. The dog’s pattern has to be near perfect and it must be totally steady, as rabbits will be flushed from under its nose. It is generally considered that a dog trained on rabbits will deal with feathered game with ease, while a dog trained only on pheasants may struggle when faced with tight-sitting rabbits in fairly open ground. Though I don’t trial my cockers, I do love to see them work on the white grass of the moors, and it is a great way to tune them up before the gameshooting season starts.
Ideal weather for working
Fortunately, during this trip the weather was overcast with a brisk wind blowing, and despite it being midsummer it was quite chilly, which was ideal for the dogs.
As we drove up the track, I could see there were plenty of rabbits running around. Andy stays off the ground for most of the summer to avoid disturbing the grouse and other ground-nesting birds, but by the end of July the nesting period is over and he can start shooting over his dogs again. The first area we hunted was classic upland moor — a mixture of heather, rough white grass and stony outcrops.
To start with, Andy ran Dizzy, a pretty little lemon bitch that won a novice trial last season. He is getting her ready for her first open trial later in the month. As I watched her I began to understand what Andy meant about accuracy. The rabbits sat tight, and on more than one occasion, Dizzy’s head just flicked as she winded a rabbit, punched into the grass and pushed it out.
One of the joys of working dogs on rabbits is watching them take a line, and Dizzy made a stunning retrieve over the brow of a rocky outcrop. The rabbit had run a good 25m and, as Andy sent her, she took the scent line and followed it like a train on a track. She was back with the rabbit in no time — very impressive.
As the day progressed, various cockers were put through their paces, and the rocky areas really tested them, especially when out on a retrieve. When flushed, many of the rabbits made for the higher ground, and in places it was difficult to see where the rabbits lay, so the dogs had to use their noses and not just work on sight.
Quite often the rabbits made for the numerous stone walls that abound in this part of the world, which made the shooting difficult. Once they reached the sanctuary of the wall there was no chance of retrieving them. The rabbits also laid in the rough grass alongside the walls, so it was worthwhile hunting this area.
Finn, a smart-looking blue-roan dog had a cracking find-and-flush right at the base of a wall — as a rabbit jumped through a gap, Andy managed to get off a snap shot and it ran on for about 10m before it dropped. Finn hadn’t managed to get a mark on the rabbit but, with some expert handling, Andy got him over the wall and he made a good retrieve. It always amazes me how these little dogs manage to scramble over such difficult barriers.
Building up experience
It should be emphasised that these days are not about shooting as many rabbits as possible; they are about training the dogs and extending their experience in the shooting field. During my trips I see a daily change in my own cocker, Harry.
It takes a day or so for him to settle down, but once I have tightened up his hunting pattern, he really starts to enjoy himself and quickly gets into the swing of things.
We kept an eye out for any rabbits that flushed “loose”, as they can make good blind retrieves for the dogs. The other absolute joy of working dogs in this part of the country is that because of the terrain you get a totally different perspective on things. For example, you can be handling your dog on the other side of a gully and he can be at the same level as you, and that is something I just don’t normally get to experience in the flatlands of southern England.
Finding locations to shoot rabbits over your dog can be difficult, and most opportunities will be in the North, as there the rabbits tend to lay out in the rough grass cover during the day, rather than sitting underground in their warrens as they do elsewhere. Your dog will also have to be pretty well trained, as no-one will appreciate a dog running wild over the ground, flushing any rabbits that are laid up — believe me, seeing that white tail bobbing is a mighty temptation for any dog.
Most locations can be found through a network of contacts, or you may be lucky enough to have trained your dog with a professional trainer who can offer you a chance to sharpen up your dog’s skills. You can expect to pay around £100 a day per Gun/handler, though there is no guarantee on bag numbers. But then, as I learned a long time ago, shooting rabbits is more often a case of shooting at rabbits.
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