So, it’s high summer, lots of heat, midges and greenery and our thoughts of hunting with the lurchers seem far away but before we know it the dark nights will be upon us again. Another season with more excitement and, sometimes, heartache. The more work a lurcher gets, the more chance they have of a calamity striking them down one way or the other, and I’ve had more than my fair share of that! There’s no feeling worse than your running dog getting smaller and smaller in the beam, running a fast-departing quarry, until that tiny dark dot vanishes completely. For ten minutes or more you call and whistle and frantically flash the lamp about but there’s no sign of your faithful four-legged friend and suddenly you’re not quite the atheist you once thought you were. Now ten minutes might not seem long if you’re watching a film or having your dinner, but standing out in an exposed field, in the pitch blackness, ten minutes seems plenty long enough. I’m very lucky insofar as I’ve never lost a lurcher, somehow or other we’ve always managed to find them, but I’ve had more than enough close shaves. The funny thing is that this never seems to happen close to home, but when you’re three hours down the motorway and your heart’s pumping and the fields are moving with quarry then things are different. Many years ago we lost Scooby right on a roe buck just as dusk was breaking as we were heading back to the motor. So we whistled and we waited and we whistled and we waited some more, but the dog had vanished into the night. We had the lamps in the motor and it was a long search later that we found Scooby looking rather satisfied with a reposing roe complete with perforated throat and a wave of relief swept over me.
On some estates there’s many dozens of acres of game cover, as thick as a Borneo jungle and eight foot high, an ideal sanctuary for the pursued with a snapping canine breathing down their necks. I don’t know if you’ve ever been inside a big block of that game cover before, I have, and within no time you’ve lost your bearings and all you know is that there’s soil beneath you and sky above you and that’s that. It was into one such claustrophobic tangle that my dog vanished one night. We weren’t exactly where we were meant to be, the car was abandoned in the only place we could; a little lay-by that literally screamed to be investigated by the authorities. It was a long, long time before a pair of orange eyes flashed back as I swept the field for the umpteenth time. I ran as fast as I could meeting the dog half way up the field, his legs stiff and shaking and a pink elastic tongue so long he could have thrown it over his shoulder. Blood covered his chops and it was a fair guess to say that somewhere out in the middle of that elephant grass lay a prime lump of protein that soon the local foxes would be cleaning up. To be honest, I was just glad to get my boy back safe and sound, because, when all’s said and done, that’s the most important thing. A few of my mates have lost dogs, never to be seen again and that must be heart-breaking, not knowing what, why or where. There is actually a piece of kit that lads who like to travel have been experimenting with. It’s a GPS tracker collar that is worn by the lurcher that can be tracked by a receiver the size of a mobile phone, giving you not only the direction, but also the distance and whether the dog is stationary or not. I’ve not tried one out on a ‘lost’ dog yet, but the preliminary experiments look encouraging to say the least and this bit of kit will ensure no more lost dogs, whether the canine is dead or alive it can be located to within 10 metres, which is plenty close enough.
Now I know there’s going to be a few people scoffing, thinking that a lurcher’s got to be pretty thick to get lost, but should a game and committed running dog accidentally get onto a deer that’s equally committed then a conclusion don’t always occur within sight, in fact, having a dog dragged off into a wood by a fallow buck wasn’t exactly rare. If you ran enough fallow, that is. I remember we were once hunting sika on some proper rough moorland high up in the hills. From a distance it didn’t look too bad, but when you tried to walk on it you soon realised that the heather was going on two foot high with lots of tall, yellow grasses in between and Christ was it hard to walk on. How the dogs ran on it I’ve no idea, but they did. Late one evening we spied a sika hind right next to the old track we were walking up, she was one of those dumb individuals that was simply begging to be taken out of the gene pool; curiosity doesn’t just kill cats, it’s also been the downfall of many a deer too. One of the lads managed to do a sneak on the Japanese Bambi and in short order both dog and deer vanished from sight down a slope. We all ran to the edge of the drop-off, expecting to see the dog together with his deerly departed, but all we could see was a load of lank, brown heather swaying in the breeze. It was incredible to think that, despite having a vantage point and a clear view, there wasn’t a sign of the dog. So we walked the heather through, then retraced our steps and walked the opposite way, but again, no sign. Darkness falls rapidly on the hills and soon we were enveloped in a blackness rarely encountered by city dwellers like me. This was a proper black night, untainted by the shimmering light pollution of cities and streets and us humans in general. We got the lamp out of the jeep and scanned the heathery slopes, a slight twinkle momentarily shone back but I dismissed it as a rabbit or a sheep or maybe just a figment of our imagination. So we walked and lamped some more until the others decided that we’d better investigate that original twinkle. I was adamant I was right but, guess what, I was wrong! Over ¼ mile away as the eye can see turned out to be a reality of over ½ a mile away on foot, walking down the heathery slope then back up the other side. Here the lads found both dog and sika hind, the lurcher having hurt his leg badly and couldn’t move. Thankfully, after a course of anti-inflammatories he made a full recovery but it could have been much worse. Just think if he’d been fitted with a tracking collar, ten minutes and we would have found him.
Losing lurchers aside, there’s many further dangers lying in wait for our fleet-footed canines as they hurtle up and down the beam multiple times per night. I’ve seen numerous dogs lose their teeth as they ran into rocks that appeared just too fast for them to avoid. There has also been the odd tooth clattered over the years when a dog had been sent down the beam to fetch a rabbit that was, in fact, just a rock pretending to be a rabbit! The first few collisions I saw happened when out with my uncle and his canine lamp maestro; Jim. I was a ten year old, as crazy as they come on hunting, but my success was pretty limited if I’m honest and I welcomed tagging along with anyone if it meant a bit of sport. In those days everyone around here would go out of their way to trip the rabbit up if it was heading straight down the beam and I was no exception. I’d seen my uncle perform the feet a few times and on each occasion the rabbit was in the bag and so I was determined to ‘man up’ and have a go myself should the occasion arrive. I’d already embarrassed myself earlier on in the evening when I decided to try and grab a squatter instead of the dog. Fair play to my uncle for putting up with my crazy ideas. The rabbit highlighted in the beam, squat as tight as any rabbit ever squat, with this gangly-legged greenhorn coming stealthily up the rear, closer, closer and, when only two foot away I lunged and grabbed the pancake-shaped bundle of fur only for the rabbit to summon enough power to bounce right out of my hands and away down the field, lurcher soon on his scut. My uncle found it all very funny and although today I see the funny side, that night I felt pretty low, out-wrestled by a three-pound bunny. Fast forward an hour or so and we were lamping a place that was steeped in mystery for me, a farm that had a reputation for being a bit of a warm place due to the farmer being somewhat crazy and totally anti-lurcher, as was everyone in those days. A nice breeze wafted our faces as we quietly got in position with our backs to the hedge, a sloping field ran upwards away from us and my heart pounded like it was trying to leap right out of my throat. The Lucas headlamp was turned on, illuminating the yellow grass and a couple of rubies twinkled back. Jim was given a hiss and up the field he thundered, straight for the nearest clapped coney. Now, from down at a dog’s eye level there was no way he could see that rabbit, but through his experience in the beam he knew that, as sure as eggs is eggs, there was a rabbit waiting for him. Lo and behold Jim must have seen something move, or a twinkle of those red-reflecting eyes, and he went in to lift the squatter up. This time, however, said coney was a bit too cute for the pro-predator and it hurried between his legs, getting a good head start on the lurcher. I know that there’s been a few people over the years that have told me that rabbits can’t run downhill due to their hind legs being longer than their front legs. But, I have to say it’s just another urban myth. That rabbit was tear-arsing down the slope at full bore as a light-bulb illuminated an idea in this adolescent’s poor excuse for a brain. Now was the time for those three-sizes-too-big you’ll-grow-into-them wellingtons to make their mark and trip the rapidly-approaching rabbit up, claiming it for myself and helping to erase the memory of earlier incompetence. The rabbit hadn’t read the script and he obviously decided that this skinny boy stood before him wasn’t much of an obstacle. In one fast, fluid movement the rabbit weaved around me and as I turned to watch its departing white scut I was lifted from my feet, flying up in the air, a shockwave thundering through my body, not knowing what had happened for a few moments, before coming crashing down to the ground in a heap of pain, dust and embarrassment. Jim caught the rabbit on the hedgerow and did a fine retrieve back to my uncle’s hand whilst I made a noise that was neither laughing nor crying, but both. Christ it hurt. My uncle laughed all the way home and as we got almost home he gave me two of the four rabbits Jim had snaffled up and I limped off up the hill home like a war veteran, rabbits over my shoulder like you could do in those days. We still talk about it now and laugh and maybe when my nephew is a little bit older he can be the fool and I can be the experienced hand stood back laughing. Maybe. Maybe not.
The next night out with Jim he ended up completely out cold, typically if there’s one lump of farm machinery or metalwork in a whole 20 acre field that rabbit will head for it. This time it was a rusting cattle feeder and Jim hit it at full belt, spinning off in a cloud of dust. I was panicking but not so my uncle, his chilled attitude spoke volumes and after a minute or so a very wobbly lurcher got unsteadily to his feet. Within twenty minutes he was back lamping again, such was the way things were in those days. Accident or no accident, in those days the lurcher was there to fill the bag. End of. Although I disliked seeing dog’s having accidents, such experiences were grist to the mill for young Darcy. I was reared on tales of dogs and the various exploits and now I was actually out witnessing it with my very own, impressionable eyes. However, Jim’s next accident wasn’t something my young eyes had been expecting. In those days the local quarries were stuffed to the gills with rabbits and likewise the fields surrounding such places were lamped hard by practically everyone on the estates. One such field bordered the top side of the quarry and had a pylon in the middle of it. Come the tail end of winter, once most of the rough grass had been weathered flat, the grass underneath the pylons was still fairly rough and an ideal place for a bunny to feel safe during the night. Wind was fairly gusting and, ignoring the orange glow from the adjacent street lighting, we crept into position. The rabbits leaving this field ran along a narrow finger of grass that lead to the railway tracks and this is where we hunkered down. The beam was swept around the field and just next to the pylon was a squatter, practically begging to be harvested. Jim was on his way and after missing the rabbit on the approach they weaved their way back towards us, toward the quarry and to the rabbit’s sanctuary. Now Jim was a classic lamp dog, a veritable Einstein on the ways of Brer, but this rabbit must have read the dog’s mind as it made the grassy finger a yard or two ahead of Jim. The rabbit was going full steam ahead with lurcher approaching hard from the rear when Twang! Jim hit the wire fence, carried on the run and came back after half a minute. The facial wound was nothing short of nauseous; a four way rip opened the lurchers face up and it really was a shock for my young eyes to see. That was the first time I’d cursed the dreaded barbed wire, and, unfortunately, it wasn’t the last. Jim made a full recovery with nothing more than my uncle just smoothing the skin back into place and that was that. In those days a trip to the vet’s simply wasn’t even considered.
Since those innocent days of so long ago I’ve seen lurcher run into most things, as well as the odd rabbit or whatever have the occasional collision too. We even once had a crazy fallow pricket run full speed into the front of my car in a land far, far away, but that’s another story.
There’s not much we can say for sure with regards working dogs. You say one thing and the dog makes you look a fool buy doing the opposite, but one thing is certain and that is that our cunning, running dogs are risking life and limb each time out. They’re putting their life on the line in the name of hunting and maybe we should value the good ‘uns just that little bit more. In another month I will be starting this year’s youngster and I can’t wait – hope he makes the grade, it’s about time I had a decent lurcher about the yard.