Plenty more hunting to do yet…

A wet Saturday afternoon, September 1st to be exact was to be the opener for the season. Come early September and I am usually up and away on a morning with the dogs and sometimes a ferret or two as well, but today, for some reason, I was at home for the early part of the day. My friend John rung me earlier in the morning and we had planned to take the dogs for a rake locally, with the intention of heading up onto the hill ground just to see what was about.

As the afternoon approached I pulled on my boots, grabbed my coat and loaded the young bitch into the van. As I drove through the village to collect John the light seemed to be fading, it was dull and wet but still quite warm and the rain, although light, collected on the windscreen very quickly again each time after the wipers flicked it off. I pulled up at the edge of the road and a few lads were outside a pub smoking and laughing. Another couple of lads came out of another pub and crossed into the bookmakers. I sat a minute almost lost in my own thoughts, considering life without a bit of hunting. As I pulled up at John’s a large black bull cross tore up the ground at the side of his house and jumped and pawed at the rear of my van to get in. He walked out, opened the rear door and she jumped up in and skidded up the back of the van, snorting and sniffing every corner before finally settling down as we made the short drive up to where we would set off.
The rain got heavier and the mist got thicker as our altitude increased. I knocked up the wiper speed and increased the fan to clear the windscreen as we turned off the side road and onto the long and winding track. The little van shook, bounced and rocked all along the track but never gave up! A credit to its now almost 300,000 miles. I parked up, pulled the handbrake up as far as it would allow and set the keys on the wheel below the arch.

Early fox with JR

Early fox with JR

I don’t carry the keys with me when I am out as I have already experienced losing them completely already and would prefer not to do it again! I don’t worry about the van getting stolen as nobody in their right mind would steal it but it’s the hassle that it causes.
We crossed the stream and as I zipped up my jacket the lurchers stopped in the middle to drink before taking off and coursing each other across a large stretch of grass, in and out, twisting and turning while barking and snapping at each other. They were just letting of some steam and settled them down for the walk ahead.

As we set off on the bottom of the hill a snipe flushed, then another. I have always noticed when rough shooting that when Snipe are in numbers on a piece of ground, a shot will not flush them all at once like other birds, instead they will sit tight even after two or three shots until they are disturbed by either the oncoming gunner or a dog. On this particular day the dogs seemed to flush bird after bird and it was great to see them, they shot up with their familiar call and the lovely drum from their wings. A fantastic bird in a lovely setting, far from the pub and the bookmakers below. As we reached the top of the first hill I could feel it on my lungs, this ground would test anyone and is made all the more difficult by the thick heather. It didn’t take a wind from the lurchers as they raced ahead, my young bitch following the Bull cross and emulating her every move as she has done since she was a very young pup. This old bitch, Roxy, now long dead taught the little bitch to jump, and now was teaching her to hunt up, get ahead and find the quarry because it definitely wasn’t going to come to them.

7 weeks

7 weeks

We had nothing in mind on this particular day at all, in fact, we had just been out for a rake and hoped to maybe spot a bird or two and see what else was about. We reached the flat ground and stopped for a breather and take in the view. Not that far from home and we were on top of the world, we could see for miles, the little truck looking like a fly in the distance. We could see the estuary and the river snaking out into the sea. As we walked and talked about this and that the bull cross, who had been hunting out to our left, pulled back in and I saw John put the slip lead on her. Just as I was about to question why he nodded ahead and I looked across to see my young bitch with her nose tight to the ground and running hard, very obviously following a scent. She disappeared into a large reed bed and out the other side shot a fox. He was wasting no time, and the young bitch appeared from the reeds behind with her head now up and she was gaining ground quickly. We ran to keep up, the fox now going uphill, higher and higher with the bitch giving her all behind him. I could barely catch my breath as we ran, desperately hoping to catch a glimpse of the chase. My mind was racing as quick as my legs, this was the first time she had seen a fox, if she did manage to get up to it would the proverbial hit the fan? If I am honest I never intended her to be anymore than a rabbit dog, but if this didn’t go as I would have liked I would have been gutted. I lost the pair for what seemed like minutes and then spotted the bitch again a couple of hundred yards ahead. She was literally snapping at his brush as they went through another reed bed, in one side and out the other and straight over a crest and we lost them both.

By now my lungs were almost in my throat. I kept up the momentum until I reached the crest and cupped my hands above my eyes, searching for any sign of the pair. John and his bitch were just to my left and he too stood watching and scanning the horizon for any sign. I called to him to ask if he could see anything and as he replied I spotted a fawn tail circling in very thick heather ahead. Round and round it went, she appeared to be searching hard and I could see no sign of our old friend anywhere. After a couple of minutes she seemed to give up the search and as I shouted and whistled she made her way back through the heather a little slower than before, tail in the air and her sides heaving.
I was on one hand happy, she had put in the effort and hunted the fox hard across the hill for over half a mile, but on the other hand doubts crept into my head… had she let it go? Had she given up?
“Don’t worry,” John said, “time will tell, time will tell.”

7 years

7 years

Looking back on my diary for that day I made a note of it and wrote below in brackets ‘(I doubt she would have done it much harm anyway)’.
After she got her tongue in we walked on while she trotted ahead right up to big wide kicked out earth at the bottom of a clump of reeds, the smell was undeniable and the young bitch stuck her head in and out, trying to make sense of the whole situation, she was a little over a year at the time and it’s strange to imagine she is approaching 7 as I write this.
It was only a few days after this I took the young bitch out to lamp a few rabbits locally. It was a little warm for my liking and the air a little too still. I collected John and he was alone tonight as his bitch had picked up an injury earlier in the week and wasn’t just right for running. We had no plan in particular in mind and just checked a few local rabbit spots. This particular September I remember well from looking back at my diary as the rabbits were booming locally. From the couple of spots we did we bagged a dozen rabbits in a very short space of time, which is good for round here. The further we walked the warmer and clammier it got and John suggested we head for higher ground where there is always a breeze and it might be a bit cooler.

We loaded back into the van and set off up a long old windy lane not too far from home, the ground stretching further than the lamp and I thought we were wasting our time as he waved and flicked the lamp across the inky blackness. The van creaked and bumped over the old lane and the exhaust caught on a stone here and there as we rumbled along barely getting out of second gear. John whispered “stop” under his breath and I turned the key, knocked off the lights and the van ground to a halt. He began calling and while doing so we both got out of the van; he had the lamp off and I got the bitch from the back and slipped a lead under her collar. She stood intently, ears blowing in the wind while John called, and I gave it the occasional flick of light but he wasn’t too keen, although he was edging slowly. I climbed through the ditch of reeds in the dark and made my way out onto the hill with the wind now really getting up. The fox was to my left, John was up on the lane to my right and he continued calling.
“Waste of time this carry on” I said to myself as I flicked the lamp on it again and he was sat looking back. He kept on calling and then started flicking his lamp near me.

Roxy, tough as old boots

Roxy, tough as old boots

“What the f*** is he at now” I said to myself as I kept on lighting the fox in front of me.
He was squeaking like a mad man and had his lamp on and kept shaking it near me and drawing it back up the hill. Then I realised there was a fox running down the hill to the right. I knocked my light out and squatted down. What a fool I am!
John kept squeaking and the fox was now coming at quite a pace, heading for another big clump of rushes directly to my right. I felt the little bitch tighten up on the slip and my heart was nearly coming through my chest. The fox went behind a dip and then I caught a quick glimpse of him heading straight into the reed bed. He came out the far side, I let him get clear of it, the bitch spotted him and I slipped her. He made for the reeds but she turned him out and he went straight up the hill like a rocket. About 6o yards in she struck him, the two bowling over in my beam, but he broke out of the scuffle and amazingly headed back straight towards me. I kept the light on him and the pair passed me no more than a few feet away. I thought all hope was gone as he headed for the lane. Over the ditch they splashed, through the stream and up onto the higher ground. I could hear the feet on the lane as I tried to scramble up the ditch to keep up. As I got onto the lane I could see John’s lamp on. “She has him” he called. When I reached them a few yards further on Fudge was tussling with the fox. He was literally pulling her up and down the lane as she held him by the throat. He broke free, got a few yards and stupidly dived into a large tractor tyre which was holding some covering on a pile of turf someone had stacked to dry. She ran up onto the tyre, managed to grab him again as he tried to get out, with another tussle up and down the lane, until she eventually got the better of her opponent.

Early fox with JR

Early fox with JR

She stood in the lane, totally exhausted, sides heaving and tongue out and when I put my hands on her I could feel her heart pounding through her whole body. I took a good look at the fox, he was an old dog, with scars on his muzzle and an old broken grey tooth. Maybe a few years earlier he would have put her in her place! She did well but she was lucky too, she isn’t a fox dog and a proper one would have made short work of the fox but it’s the heart and determination I admire, never giving up even when the odds aren’t in your favour, that’s all we can ask I suppose.
Noting it in my diary the next day, I noticed the brackets at the end of the earlier entry ‘(I doubt she would have done it much harm anyway)’ and laughed to myself. Some years have passed since that night, my bitch now, according to the showring, is a ‘Veteran’, the age requirement being 7 years old. That’s a bit early for a veteran I think, there’s plenty more hunting to do yet.

Coloured Filters Still blinding Lampers

Do you use a coloured filter when lamping? Many of the younger generation of lampers coming into our sport may have never worked without one. Most older hands may have tried them. Maybe you still use one? If so please read this with an open mind, as I think it may just help you catch more rabbits without such needless accessories. What do I know you may rightly ask? As well as being a dedicated lamper for thirty-five years now, I’ve also been a keen observer of the behaviour of our night time quarry. As I’ve got older I’ve learnt to keep a more open mind too. I was also once, let it be whispered, a ‘filter user’ myself though I have been clean for many years now! Let me explain more….
I upgraded my DIY, homemade lamping kit 26 years ago to a purpose made kit. I bought it at the Midland Game Fair from the Deben stand. I walked back and to twice and had several longing looks, kicked my heels a few times, before parting with my hard earned cash. You see we’d always made our own cheap lamping kits with old headlights and motor bike batteries.

I must admit that I’d had one of the very early purpose made kits called the ‘Sportsman’ which I’ve mentioned before. It was a basic 6 volt battery in a metal carry case and a small lamp attached to it. It was probably one of the earliest ready-made kits. The beam went about 50 yards which was more than enough for the little Bedlington lurcher I had at the time. I then moved onto my home-made headlight job as I sought a more powerful beam. This more powerful beam would surely catch me more rabbits wouldn’t it? I even modified it with a black 110mm plastic drainage coupling as a shroud (any builders will know what I am talking about) taped on to make the beam tighter. Now here I was finally buying an even more powerful purpose made kit. This my friends is where I believe lamping all started to go wrong.

The manufacturers of the new lamping kits at this time had suddenly started to use new and exciting terms to describe the power of their lamps, like ‘1 million candle power’ and other similar evocative terms. I bought a ‘Blue Eye’ lamp which was 250,000 candle power and according to the description on the box was so powerful it could cut through fog! It couldn’t, but that aside, 26 years ago, it was an OK lamp with a tight beam. Interestingly it came with a free red filter. That clinched the sale!
The salesman (for that’s what he was) on the store assured me that animals wouldn’t be able to see the red light as they are all colour blind. (This isn’t strictly true) This, he continued, meant that lamp-shy rabbits would no longer disappear at the first flick of your beam as it was now invisible to them. It certainly sounded good as there were plenty of lamp-shy rabbits around my neck of the woods; mainly because of me! Your dog of course wouldn’t be able to see anything with the filter on your lamp either he advised me, as they too are colour blind. He was wrong on this point too. This myth has since been debunked. Dogs eyes do see colour, but they see it differently to ours. They have two types of cones in their eyes, so they see orange, yellow and green as yellow. Blue-green is seen as white and red looks as though it is brownish-black. While they can see blue, they can’t distinguish shades, especially as the colour blue gets darker. But back then most of us took it as read that all animals were colour blind and filters were the answer to desperate lampers prayers. This is of course why so many people bought them. Lamp-shy rabbits it seems weren’t just a problem in my area!

Lamp shy rabbits are less likely to squat

Lamp shy rabbits are less likely to squat

The theory behind using these filters was that you spotted your rabbit, kept your red beam on it, got within range, whipped the filter off and slipped you dog onto the surprised rabbit! Some manufacturers even started putting hinged filters on which remained attached to the lamp and just flipped up at the desired moment. I eagerly ventured out and tried this new method that very evening. Being a keen student of animal behaviour I soon noticed that my supposedly colour blind dog was able to see the rabbits in the lurid red light. Surely if the dog can see in the red light then the rabbits can see in it too? Nobody else seemed to be raising such concerns and it quickly became the new accepted method of lamping. Indeed the market place was soon filled with other colour filters like amber, green and blue. Arguments raged as to what colour was best. This I believe did more to make rabbits (and other quarry) lamp-shy than bare white lights ever did. Here’s my reasons why, based on my own practical experiences, in the fields by night.

I went lamping with a gamekeeper one evening up in the Scottish Highlands. I was staying up there for a week hunting rabbits which at the time, were in abundance everywhere. Many of them were lamp-shy as the keen young trainees on this estate were always lamping them using rifles, air guns or even shotguns, often off the back of quad bikes or pick-up trucks. Whilst these rabbits may not have seen any lurchers they certainly knew that lamps meant danger. Like most other lampers of the time I had my red filter on and started scanning the parks (Scottish grass fields). I whipped it off when suitable rabbits were spotted and made a few catches on what I considered normal slips (they were actually very long slips to the locals). My keeper host soon instructed me, in no uncertain terms, to leave the filter off and told me it was unnecessary. I politely disagreed as many reading this now who use filters will disagree with me. You see I’d become so used to using it that I was almost scared to carry on without it. I genuinely believed I’d struggle to get near to rabbits without it. The keeper then took his turn to run his dog and quickly flicked on his own lamp (without a filter) for just a few seconds before switching it off and quickly moving in the dark. He’d spotted a suitable rabbit that was out of range and was getting in to a position of where he guessed it would run. Once in position the lamp was flicked on again and off went his dog to intercept the rabbit. After a couple of turns the dog had its prey and the lamp immediately went off. The dog carried the rabbit back to hand in the dark and they were off again. The lamp was quickly flicked on for a few seconds and then turned off as they once again got into position.
We were walking along a fence line that bordered some forestry. The ideal position for a run was to have your back against the fence with the rabbit directly in front of you out in the park. The dog would then go out to the rabbit and if it missed, it would be running directly towards you which is always better for catching. They caught a couple more using the same method and then it was my turn again.

My old ‘Blue Eye’ that came with a free filter

My old ‘Blue Eye’ that came with a free filter

Once again despite my host’s groans I started scanning the fields with the filter on. The rabbits were disappearing quickly before I could get into suitable positions so I had to resort to long slips. True I caught a few but not as many as my host.
Later on when we were finished he told me I was leaving my lamp on too long. He was right, I was. It was a very bad habit I and many other lampers who had bought filters were guilty of. Somehow I’d grown into this habit. He then pointed out how little his lamp was actually switched on compared to mine. I’d had my lamp on for twice as long as him yet had caught half as many rabbits! I had the more powerful lamp too. He was lamping how I used to lamp and how I was taught to lamp. A quick flick of the beam, spot a rabbit and lamp off. Get into a suitable position/range, lamp back on, dog away and lamp off as soon as the course is over.

Filters had created a generation of lampers, including me, who wrongly believed that the quarry couldn’t see their filtered beam. We’d forgot the old ways, the fieldcraft and stealth. We were scanning the countryside using our filtered lamps like great big search lights. We were making the rabbits more lamp-shy than ever. Artificial light will spook spooky rabbits no matter what colour it is. We were also casting our overly powerful new beams hundreds of yards ahead and even into the next field. This simply pre-warned our quarry that we were on our way! I realised he was right. I realised what bad habits I’d picked up and vowed to revert to the old ways. I never used a filter again. Nor have I ever used overly powerful lamps.
A friend started to come lamping with me occasionally on a shooting estate in north Wales and insisted on bringing his filter. I’d long realised the error of my ways by then. My friend was a good lurcher man but he was doing exactly what I’d been guilty of and like me had become conditioned to needlessly relying on his filter. He was almost like the toddler that won’t give up its dummy! He insisted on clinging to his filter as he believed it gave him an edge. It didn’t, it just gave him bad habits. His lamp was never off and he was shining too far ahead. Eventually I convinced him to leave it in the car and he was slowly converted. His catches improved as he began to employ the old ways and fieldcraft once more.
Many people reading this will still be convinced that they can’t catch rabbits or get slips without using their coloured filters. They will even make excuses to continue using one. I know because I did it myself. There are of course no rules on how you should lamp, with everyone having their preferred methods. All I can say is here are some tips to think about and if you have an open mind to try:

1. Leave your filter at home.
2. Never lamp too far ahead. You’ll see what’s in the next field when you arrive there!
3. Don’t use your lamp like a prison camp search light. Use it sparingly. The darkness is your cover and your ally.
4. Always work with the wind in your face. This may mean back tracking a few times as you move between fields but it is worth it.
5. The only time you need to leave your lamp on (when a chase isn’t on) is when you are illuminating a squatter for your dog to go out to. Once your dog knows about working squatters you can cover some of the beam with your hand to reduce it in these instances.
6. Consider the power of your beam. If you are lamping rabbits it doesn’t have to be ridiculously powerful. If it is too powerful it will simply make rabbits lamp-shy quicker.

7. Don’t be trigger happy with you lamp switch and continually flicking it on and off and looking for rabbits that aren’t there. This usually happens on unsuitable nights when it’s still or moonlit. In desperation for slips the lamp starts to stay on longer and longer. The simply solution is don’t lamp on unsuitable nights. Wait for better conditions.
8. Don’t shine over hedges from your vehicle before setting off on foot as you lose the element of surprise.

My First lurcher, Max, bringing one back on the lamp in the days before filters and overly powerful lamps had been invented

My First lurcher, Max, bringing one back on the lamp in the days before filters and overly powerful lamps had been invented

If you do use a filter have a think about what I’ve written. Then next season try without it and let me know how you go on. A good hunter with fieldcraft and a medium powered lamp will always do better than someone without fieldcraft who simply owns a very powerful lamp and several coloured filters. Remember, if you keep doing the same things then you will keep getting the same results!