Archive for November 2016

Alpha Male and the Dogs Home Crowd!

Our season usually starts very slowly for us diggers and this year is no exception. I should be used to it but I never fail to panic and imagine all sorts of reasons to be pessimistic. Few foxes – nothing like the old days – too much shooting by day and by night – hardly worth keeping terriers – little chance of them having enough work to show their ability. It all goes through my mind but then I look back to recent years and the proof is there, this season is no different to others, it’s the way of things, normal state of affairs in our country. It will all come right in a week or two, it will improve. And although these days I’m just happy to be out with the hounds it still doesn’t cheer me up. And then the first fox goes to ground, the first dig to a young bitch and the world is a much better place. And to make it even better, another dig on the same day to the brother of the young bitch and both did what they were expected to do. Both entered well and completed their first, not very testing work in a manner which pleased us and gave hope that they would prove themselves. And to make it even more unusual for me, the terriers were Borders aged 17 months and for both, this was their first time to ground. Cant be bad.

Katie digs to her first fox

Katie digs to her first fox

Regular readers will know that in May last year Chipper, following up on something he mentioned some years earlier, offered me a bitch pup, free of charge, from a litter he had bred up in County Durham. I didn’t really want another terrier for I had told myself that at my age I must start to reduce my stock by not replacing the old timers as they left the scene but I took Chipper up on his kind offer and decided that a little Border bitch pup would be ideal to take with me during the summer months when I do a fair bit of walking. From my experience with the breed some forty years ago I remembered that I could take eight or ten of them out over the mountains and through the forests and at the end of the day they would usually still be with me or not too far away. Especially the bitches for I remember Sally, one of my best workers, and one or two others would hardly ever leave my side unless we crossed some good scent and they would often be right under my feet, almost tripping me up. I like to walk with the dogs running loose, no need for leads, free to run on and run about without having to worry about them chasing sheep, causing trouble with other dogs or simply disappearing. I can’t do that with most of my black terriers, they just deaf me out and off they go. Steve, who puts this mag’ together for us decided that he wouldn’t mind having one and so in July he drove me up to Durham and we came home with two nice little pups, healthy and strong. I had chosen a lively little bitch which I called Katie, all she had to do was walk with me sensibly and if she also came to do a bit of work that would be a bonus. Steve selected a dog which he named Guto after a famous old time Welsh road and fell runner. Steve does a lot of running himself and the plan was for Guto to run with him and also to be a ferreting dog with some occasional ground work if it happened to chance along. As the months passed by our plans would start falling apart!

Katie. Job done!

Katie. Job done!

Katie turned into a keen ratter and Guto showed that he wanted more than ferreting, in fact, he would probably have just killed a ferret and as time passed he proved not quite suitable as a house pet; he needed work. And Katie would just run off into the forest and return when it suited her. It didn’t suit me! But both seemed to be willing to work and Guto, in particular had developed into some animal. He was all dog, a superb specimen of a Border and the only dog I can recall with the same Alpha Male attitude was Jason’s great worker and producer, Samson. There was also an “Alpha Female” type from long ago called Tess but that’s not quite in the same class as an Alpha Male!

Alpha Male – a young Samson

Alpha Male – a young Samson

Guto and Katie both started work this same day, Katie in the morning, Guto an hour or so later. I would love to have kept Guto but he’s far too much of a dog for me to handle at my age. I’m too weak for him! I just wish I had him in my kennel forty odd years ago when I had some decent Border bitches but spent my time mating them to working pretenders in the breed. Both of them impressed on their first outings and were full of promise and it will be interesting to see how they go in the months ahead. Both are blue and tan and on the big side according to the Kennel Club breed standard but I’m not concerned about that. All I would like is to see them progressing to acceptable standards as workers. If Guto was smaller he would be a hell of a dog in a show ring for he seems to have everything going for him from his great powerful head to the tip of his carrot tail. I would expect him to produce quality pups. He needs a working owner who knows dogs and knows how to handle such a determined, fiery character and he now has one. His new owner couldn’t quite get used to the name Guto, a Welsh name, pronounced Gee as in geese, toe, or Gut as in — gut— o. He said a more appropriate name would be Conan, as in Barbarian! I told him that he could call him whatever he liked – he would take no bloody notice! Alpha Male – but he will learn that his new owner is the boss!

Tess – Alpha Female!

Tess – Alpha Female!

And as if that wasn’t enough I now have a little Jack Russell bitch in the kennel? What’s going on? My friends couldn’t believe it! Thought they were seeing things! I couldn’t believe it myself! My dog box in the van has three compartments and at one meet I had a Border, a black dog and the Russell; and Pipey said I only needed a Lakeland for the full set! Rhodri said it looked like a van from Battersea Dogs Home! The young men of today – no respect for us old buggers! Here’s how it came about.
Eddie Chapman rang me one day recently and asked me if I knew anyone who would take a young Russell dog, aged thirteen months and, in his own words, “busting for work”. It would be free of charge, the only condition that it had to go to a reliable, knowledgeable working owner who knew Russells. I thought I knew just the man and after contacting TC, he said he would take him. He had immediately come to mind because I knew his old Russell dog Spot had been a special dog by any standards and he had never replaced him and I knew that any dog with TC would have a great chance to work and develop his full potential. He would live on a hill farm in great country and he would spend much of his time with TC and his Lurcher and Collie around sheep, cattle and all sorts of wildlife. A sort of paradise for a young terrier. TC can handle animals, he’s a hunting man, a dog man, he knows what he’s doing, I rate him a top countryman. Look on the internet and you will see a short video of a fox he once reared from a cub which used to round up the sheep with his Collie; and his current Collie at just a year old is already hunting and finding foxy.

Guto – powerful head

Guto – powerful head

We arranged to make the long trip to collect the dog but now there was another condition, we had to take a bitch, a month younger and if possible keep them together. TC didn’t want the bitch but maybe his mate Harry would try her. When we arrived the pair were not immediately impressive, the dog had a long hairy coat and the bitch seemed a bit shy and on the frail side and when we got back to Wales she ended up with me temporarily for Harry didn’t want her. TC sheared the dog the next day and, as we had suspected, underneath all the hair was a decent looking Russell type and within a day or two he was catching rats. This left me with the little bitch and fortunately she immediately settled in with Katie so she would be no trouble until I found her a good home with someone who would treat her well and give her a chance to work. For she was now my responsibility and I had promised Eddie just that. Easier said than done.

Guto – Alpha Male

Guto – Alpha Male

Two weeks later she was still with me, a lively little thing, very active and with that intelligent expression which many Russells have; she was quite happy and got along with all the other dogs and I thought that if I had to keep her she could be the one to walk with me in the summer, obedient and sensible and also have a chance to show what she was made of. So I took her to a meet and no sooner was she out of the van than I had an order for a pup and I could have passed her on immediately! And people were taking notice of her. And all the years I have had my black dogs, many great workers, only those who know a digging dog ever took any notice of them! I had been told she was inclined to be a bit shy but she walked among us, took no notice of the hounds, pricked up her ears when she heard the horn and the music of a full cry, and just seemed to be at home with it all. She was a little bit reluctant to come to hand but that will improve. Of course my digging friends have all laughed at her, “snipey faced so and so” etc., but I’ve just told them to wait till later in the season when vixens are killing lambs to feed their cubs in tight little mouse holes! Perhaps they think I have finally lost it, old age has taken its toll but I just look on it as a bit of an experiment. After so many years of watching and owning some great Patterdales I know the score!

Spot

Spot

I have all the working dogs I want at the moment, terriers that suit my stage of life just now, easy for me to handle, my foxing bitches Rags, Bones and Dixie; together with the other lads’ dogs they will do all we ask of them. Nothing will be lost by carefully running on the Borders and the Russells alongside them if that’s how it turns out and if, by next April, I can report favourably back to Chipper and Eddie then I will be well pleased. And if a season of work manages to calm Katie then I may be able walk through the woods and over the hills in the summer with a sensible Border, sensible Russell and sensible black dog trusted and running loose. Just as if I had collected abandoned strays from Battersea Dogs Home! The Border would be Katie, not Conan. He could still well be the Alpha Male who pleases himself.

Interesting Morning

Bump, bump, Bump… the lurcher’s head is cocking from side to side. Her body is like a taught spring. Mine is too as anticipation builds. Bump, bump, bump… the ferret is clearly moving a rabbit about below ground in this small open warren, but it’s not been persuaded to bolt yet. This is what first did it for me; the underground rumblings of a ferret working through a rabbit warren. It all goes quiet then suddenly the rabbit explodes from a hole. It is beautifully entangled and bouncing about in my purse net. This got me hooked as a schoolboy. No doubt it did many other readers too. I am still hooked now over forty years later and am getting another fix at 8.15a.m. on my day off. It was a nice start to my day, with a quick first rabbit apprehended.

I am having a mooch around my lamping ground today but during daylight hours. It’s a Sunday morning. The first shoot of the season here was yesterday so I am free to wander where I like today. I don’t often get to see this beautiful place during daylight hours. It’s great ground for lamping on but not that good (or easy) for ferreting. This is because most of the rabbits live in the dense banks of gorse rather than in workable holes. There are some great looking open warrens up on the high ground. They tend to have rabbits in during the spring and summer but they move out to the safer and possibly more sheltered gorse banks come the autumn. Rabbits do of course use the ones in the open as escape holes when being lamped but they are seldom found in residence during an autumn or winter’s morning.

This morning I was travelling light with just the lurcher, a couple of ferrets and some nets in a game bag. Spade and locator are close at hand in the car. Whilst there are loads of rabbits to be had here by night it’s hard to get a big bag during the day. They are very safe in their dense gorse sanctuaries.  If I get half a dozen during the course of my walk this morning I’ll have done OK. Numbers aren’t on my mind; I’m happy just to be out in the beautiful Welsh countryside. I’ve got nothing much local to go at this year due to myxomatosis as I told of in my last article. I was also practicing what I advised any young hunters to do in that same article and ‘spreading my wings’. I was glad I did as it proved to be a very interesting morning.

There is only a small window of opportunity to work this high ground with the luxury of four wheel drive transport. The land is still fairly dry now. It’s only possible to get right up to the best spots in a vehicle early on in the season. Once the autumn gets wet the higher fields are only reachable on foot or in an all-terrain vehicle. It’s hard work hiking up on foot with ferreting kit and spade, especially if you are working alone. This morning I drove right up and, apart from one wheel-spinning moment as I passed through a gate, I made it without getting stuck (why do farmers always put gates in the muddiest part of the field?). The weather which was fine when I left home at 7a.m. was now turning a bit rough but I was here so I pressed on.

I had my first rabbit in the bag and was now checking out a steep bank that had been recently cleared of gorse. Quite a few small buries had been exposed and some looked quite well used. Hazel the lurcher was casting up and down working into the wind but not showing any interest. Suddenly she slammed the brakes on, head turned and stood in that solid marking stance. I scrambled up the bank to what turned out to be a small three hole burrow. The dog was moving between two of the holes and staring intently into the ground. I slipped nets on the first two holes and as I moved to the third, net in hand, a rabbit bolted out of it! It shot up the bank and out of my sight with Hazel on its tail. I shook my head in amazement. I’ve seen this before and wrote of it before too (ED-RD, no. 255). I thought, perhaps a bit optimistically, there may have been another rabbit in residence? When Hazel returned, empty mouthed, I ran the ferret through but drew blank. I’d guess it was fairly shallow and the rabbit didn’t feel safe. The ferret was certainly in and out quickly.

Hazel carrying one back alive

Hazel carrying one back alive

Although there were plenty more holes now exposed on this bank with the gorse gone, there were no further marks. I reckon most are just small breeding holes. We moved on to check a nearby grassy open warren of about twenty holes. Hazel gave a positive mark, so down went the nets. With the last net set I walked back to the ferret box which I’d placed about 20 yards away and down wind. I’d done this as the young ferret who was accompanying the hob was scratching away noisily at the lid of the box.  I looked back and Hazel was laying down on the warren surrounded by nets. It was an exact replica of a scene I photographed on her first ever ferreting session. Same venue, same warren, same position. The picture I took that day is on page 38 of ED-RD, no. 257. My camera is on the front seat of the car today or I’d have taken another photo to compare. It was in the car as I had enough to carry and as the weather was showery too. If the rain clears I was planning to get the camera out and perhaps bolt a few for the dog. Hopefully I’d try and get some pictures then. As I was bending down to open the ferret box I heard a rabbit squealing. I quickly looked around and one was neatly netted with Hazel covering it! Two in a day both bolting before a ferret had been entered! This one unlike the first didn’t escape. I ran the ferrets through the warren and netted another two from it. This warren is not a shallow spot either so why one bolted before a ferret went in, I don’t know. Any ideas?

I picked up my nets just as the heavens opened again and the wind picked up. I was contemplating sitting in the car until the rain passed but then something caught my eye. I was still stood on the warren, dog at heel. It was on an inclined bit of an otherwise flattish area of field. It was rough pasture that was fairly well cropped by the rabbits and grazing sheep. A rabbit was coming towards us from the far side of the field. It was about 75 yards away. I had a clear view of it as did the dog. The wind was directly in our faces so the lurcher will have been getting its scent too. Something didn’t look quite right about this rabbit and at first I thought it may have myxy (it didn’t). It was definitely heading for this warren we were stood by. It looked rather shaky and laboured but carried on running towards us. As it came closer I heard its pitiful screams carrying on the wind. I clicked at that very second exactly what was happening. Before I could do anything Hazel galvanised into action. I was too late to stop here. The rabbit was about thirty yards away now with a lurcher on a collision course with it. Just before she reached it, the rabbit squatted down and continued to scream. Hazel on reaching the rabbit hesitated for a second, perhaps confused by it behaviour? She probably wondered why it wasn’t running. She hesitated only for a second before scooping it up. It was at that moment that I spotted the stoat. It was where I’d first seen the rabbit, about 75 yards away but coming in fast and gracefully. I was very interested as to what was going to happen next! One of Nature’s finest spectacles was being unveiled before my eyes. Hazel was halfway back to me now gently carrying the live and still screaming rabbit (she is very soft mouthed). She must have picked up the scent of the fast approaching stoat and to my amazement dropped the rabbit and switched quarry. The stoat had got to within about 25 yards of her and was now in no man’s land with a long way back to safety. She closed with it and after a few twists and turns her head came up with it in her jaws. A quick shake and it was all over. Did I just say she was soft mouthed? Well not with critters that bite! The pungent whiff of mustelid scent gland filled the air. Hazel dropped the now dead stoat and for some unknown reason barked at it twice! Perhaps she wanted it to run again! Meanwhile the rabbit remained in its squatting position nearby and continued to scream pitifully, its eyes still bulging with terror. I walked over to pick it up but Hazel suddenly remembered it and beat me to it.

One of my local stoats

One of my local stoats

What an amazing sight to witness. The rabbit clearly feared its enemy the stoat more than the dog and human. It’s something I’ve been lucky enough to see before but not for a while and certainly not with a lurcher involved. I like stoats and don’t go out of my way to kill them. This, however, is keepered land and the stoat is one of nature’s most ruthless killers. Game birds stand little chance. If Hazel hadn’t caught it one of the many tunnel traps would have. Funnily enough she and my terrier have hunted one out of the same thick cover close to my house twice lately. The first time I wasn’t sure what they were hunting as both were very fired up and exhibiting different body language to that when hunting a rabbit, pheasant or rat. The scent of a stoat certainly fires up dogs. I’ll recognise that body language in my own dogs now. A stoat in the open like this one this morning is no match for a lurcher so one was unlucky and paid with its life. I placed it in the game bag to show my host and we moved on. Another one for the taxidermist.

The fruits of an interesting walk

The fruits of an interesting walk

Hazel marked another open warren and I netted another rabbit. The ferret didn’t show. More bumping told me another was at home. The rabbit cautiously appeared at a net before backing away down the tunnel. It was unlucky as the hob ferret must have been right behind it. He soon had a front hold and the rabbit’s backside then appeared at the net. It was trying to back out and the ferret was trying to pull it back in. Four times its backside appeared in the net, half in and half out of the hole. I was pleased with Hazel as she stood there, froze to the spot watching and not diving in. Last season she’d have probably dived in. Suddenly the hob let go and the rabbit was perfectly pursed up in the net with lurcher covering it. It takes a few seasons and much work to make a ferreting dog and get them steady. This incident made me feel I was finally getting there.

I mentioned at the start of this article how the underground rumblings of rabbit and ferret got me hooked on country sports. The sight of a stoat hunting was another thing that made an early impression on me. This morning I experienced both yet again and as it always does, it made me glad to have discovered the countryside, country pursuits and the secrets of nature. I’d like to conclude by asking what was the sight or sound that got you hooked on what you do? Answers please in next month’s magazine.