I’d done two seasons up in the highlands, learning about the ways of the red deer. My faithful young terrier Scrumpy had done me proud and somehow survived his many encounters with foxes in those big rocky places. I do avoid known bad spots, and mines, but I also feel that a terrier should be able to perform in rocks as well as earths, so I always put working opportunities first and simply hope for the best. When I became the keeper on a border shoot, I was blessed with a 12,000 acre hill estate, that had many great earths that foxes just loved. And there were plenty of crags and rocks too, and only a couple of old coal mines that were to be avoided. I later found a third spot to avoid, but only after the dog spent 3 days in the ancient quarry, battling his fox which must have held an advantageous position to have lasted that long.
I then made enquiries with local terriermen to obtain some new stock, and soon received a rough coated bitch that I named Nettle, bred from some decent local black dogs. A couple of weeks later, I bought a smooth black bitch from a cross-bred mating between a nice Russell dog, and a small black bitch; sadly the lad lost 8 out of the 10 pups to parvo virus and of the two that pulled through, one was a great strong dog pup, and the other a runty weak bitch. I visited my sister in Snowdonia and walking the mountains with the pups, she decided to name the wee bitch Gwena. I usually called her ‘G’
It was nice rearing two pups, and comparing them against each other. They took to ratting easily and at a very young age while playing around the barnyard. I treat the rat as both a major pest and a sporting quarry, I could usually take a pup and dig up a rat or two at any time, or bolt one with a ferret, well, perhaps not with the terriers!
Hunting the river banks for mink in the summer months is perfect pre-work action for young terriers and gets them used to swimming in currents and exploring overhanging banks. Some terriers can really hunt. Jonny and I witnessed old Scrumpy make a fantastic catch, an underwater dive! The mink ran down the field drain after bolting from the smoke from a rabbit hole where it was pushed into half an hour before. It entered the water, and we were all in hot pursuit, and as we watched it swim close to the bottom and heading to deeper water it looked like it could make an escape, but no, the one terrier of ours that was a poor swimmer, Scrumpy, dove in and caught it by the tail, rising to the surface in a rage, where they made sure this mink was added to the game book.
The young bitches had been around holes now and then, as they approached the 12 month old stage, and it was Nettle who wanted to work first. Her first dig was a nice easy two footer, and we gave her plenty of time to get into her stride. She opened when she was up close and she maintained close proximity to her fox. She was looking for an opening to the foxes neck as we broke through, moving her head from one side to the other, and baying furiously all the time. As I lifted her, I was happy, it was a good start for her. Young G – on the other hand – was curled up almost asleep on the back of the quad bike while all this was going on, and only became interested when we pulled the despatched fox from the hole. I let her check it out, but I am not too fussed about hissing them onto a dead creature, instead I just pray that they are born with the desire to work, and hope that at some time, this desire will drive them into action of their own accord.
It was shaping up to be a good season now, the first time I’d had two terriers on the go at once. And as any keeper or pest controller can attest, if you kill the foxes on your land, more will soon fill the void, especially if you have huge tracts of forestry as your neighbour, as I did. Scrumpy was doing the job in the deeper spots, and Nettle was gaining experience in the shallower earths and crags, proving that she could move well among the boulders. On a shoot day, we ran a big fox out of the dene, and he was clipped by a guest gun on the number 8 peg, and my spaniel Benny put his nose on the line and sped off on it. I might have been laughed at for having an unruly spaniel by some, but I can’t blame the old dog, he spends as much time mucking in on fox hunts, and digging holes on the hill, so he gets on with it with no complaints from me. It certainly wasn’t the first time he’d left a drive chasing a fox, but usually he would be back in a couple of minutes, he wouldn’t run a line for very far, but he’d run it as fast as possible. After organising the beaters, Benny was still absent, so I jumped on the bike and went looking. I found him half way down a steep wooded bank marking strongly, though silently, digging and biting. Being short on time, I blocked the holes with rocks and wood, and got back to the partridges.
Scrumpy was laid off at the time as his last fox had peppered his face with minor punctures, as was the norm, so Nettle was loaded, and along with me was the Laird’s son who was keen to see a terrier at work. I told him that the fox had been shot and may already be dead, but we positioned him down the bank against a large birch, with his old man’s shotgun at the ready. He was a keen shot and safe enough to trust. Nettle was unboxed and ran up the bank, digging at one of the blocked holes. It was the same hole the spaniel had been marking. I opened the holes and she crept to ground with her nose leading the way. It wasn’t long before she made contact, but the sound of baying got further and further away from me, as I lay with my head close to the hole she had entered. I stepped back and we waited. And waited. After some time we agreed to get the digging gear, it was now too dark to safely shoot a bolting fox. We got a mark of 8 feet, and started removing the top layer of moss and bracken away, the bank was quite steep. We took turns, and the young squire was doing a fine job and was enjoying the team effort. We had some roots to chop and some rocks to lift out, but there were no complaints from him. I was glad that the sound of baying was getting closer with each spade full of stoney soil, but also remembering to not rush the job, as the young bitch was obviously having a ball of a time, as she was telling that fox all about it! The soil got sandy and then we broke through under the light of our torches. Nettle gripped the big fox by the neck almost straight away, making it very safe for us to lift them and despatch this fine fox. She had done a good job, and again she avoided the foxes fangs, yet was always looking for her chance. I was enjoying her work so far. I skinned that fox, and found only 3 pellets of number six shot under its hide, hardy enough to slow him down I thought, and still wonder why such a good looking fox was so quick to go to ground as it would likely have been well in front of old Benny. A daft error, or did he have a bit more wind knocked out of him than it appeared?
Gwena, on the other hand, still showed no interest in entering an occupied hole and she was fast approaching 18 months. I was starting to question her attitude in the back of my mind. Then, she found her nose, and wanted to hunt! Letting her run alongside the quad, on my rounds, she would see many weasels, stoats and other critters being removed from traps and it was around this time that she marked a live stoat in a wall on the fell. She followed the stoat with excellent precision, I sighted it several times before I got a safe shot at him. This was a good morning. Her nose power was accurate, but she worked using all her senses, and kept contact with the stoat at all times. At one point the stoat was fighting her at a gap in the stones and she bayed and really wanted in there. Well, I’ll cut to the chase now and tell you all, that she did make the grade, and made a real terrier, and that point arrived like the flick of a switch. To see this in a young, late starter is a very rewarding experience. I knew as I slipped the collar on her that she was wanting in this time; today she was different, she had a purpose, and she went to ground like she knew the script. Being a shallowish spot we could hear her meet her first fox, she let out such a long, high-pitched scream that for a moment I thought ‘oh crap, she’s in his jaws’, but no, she was just very excited, and continued to scream/bay for the rest of the straight-forward dig.
She never looked back, and the two bitches went from strength to strength as I worked them in all of our available holes and rocks.
Next, I will add, especially for the benefit of our younger terrier enthusiasts, that the two bitches were reared alongside each other, and always got along very well. But, out of the blue, their respect for each other disappeared and they became competitive, both for work in the field, and affection at home. A fight broke out when I was not around and both terriers were found in a bad way, but thankfully both alive. I had no choice but to give one away. And the bitch I kept, was G. Even at this early stage in her career, I could tell that she had an edge on Nettle, in several ways. Her biggest attribute was her nose power, which made her excellent for use in those huge sprawling places. She was a superb locator and finder, and she was a baying terrier, not even a mixer, she didn’t look for the kill and never killed to ground, but she would hold her line at all costs, and her quarry was never allowed freedom to turn away from her. Her size was both an advantage and a disadvantage, as she could travel a tight spot quickly, but if working any particularly feisty customers she could get a hiding. I’ve seen her shook like a rat by her game, but with courage she held to her task.
G only recently retired. We dug so much game with her, a tally that old Scrump could only dream of. Many days we dug 2 or 3 times to her, in her prime. I’d be glad to share some of her stories.
Good hunting everyone.