A Pair In Late Summer, Early August.
Well the weather finally seems to have turned for the better, better for us of course, not for Joe Public who no doubt was enjoying the last few days of a dying summer. I can’t quite put my finger on it but this time of year always brings a change in mood for me, something which lifts my spirit and leaves me feeling at peace with the world and with a sense of national pride which transcends politicians and indeed, has nothing to do with tit-for-tat politics whatsoever. At times like these I feel very lucky to be British, although this feeling is something which quickly evaporates when I see what’s happening to this country. To walk amongst the orchards on a still afternoon, seeing all of the colours of the leaves clinging desperately to the branches, kicking chestnuts as I walk along with dogs in tow is truly one of life’s real pleasures and as the sun begins it’s descent and the gloom encroaches, I thank God that I am fortunate enough to be able to do this, like my family have before me. Conditions underfoot have changed too with the rain managing to soften the ground sufficiently enough for my thoughts to turn to running that pup of mine on some rabbits. Having recently turned 13 months old, she was ready for a little more work than the mooching she’d had up until now. I’m not one to keep a diary of game or quarry caught, but I think that the pup had caught about a dozen rabbits up until this point, with most being straight forward and none being what I would describe as difficult, which is how it should be for a young dog starting out in it’s vocation. On the subject of keeping records I did go into town once years back and bought myself a diary with the expressed intention of not only logging my catches but also keep an accurate account of what happened, warts and all. As with my one and only attempt to keep a personal diary, this started out well with records for the first few weeks, then dramatically tailed off into one line every fortnight when I could remember. Looking back on it now, I flip to the last entry and it reads “Billy missed fox, bolted, railway.” Maybe some people aren’t cut out for the dedication it takes to keep a diary up, or maybe I’m just a lazy bastard!
Without going into too much detail here, I had been running the pup on the lamp for a few weeks and she was doing ok. The ground was right for her, if anything a touch heavy as the rain had been incessant but she was coping well. The trouble I was having was that I was taking her lamping to places where she’d ran recently and during daylight too. Whilst she was on the slip all the way up to the field, once I’d found a pair of rubies for her and she’d strained to fly after them, she was loosed, only for her to charge off to where she’d caught or found previously, totally ignoring what I had presented to her. Her nose was winning the war against her vision and maybe because of the type of work she’d experienced in her short life with me, she trusted this more than what she could see. This carried on for a while and I was almost to the point of resigning myself to having a dog to which not only was the retrieve something akin to learning brain surgery, but was also finding lamping an ordeal too. What changed all of this was the simple decision to take her to a place which she had never seen before and put some hard graft her way. It was as if she’d experienced something along the lines of a road to Damascus conversion! The more work that went her way, the more she learned how to run where the lamp was pointing. To say I was pleased would have been an understatement and I was in raptures just watching her work things out for herself, chasing bunnies all over the fields we were shining in. Don’t get me wrong, she didn’t suddenly turn into one of these great lamping dogs you’ve read about in the books and articles over the years, but she had finally understood that she needed to trust my judgement and work with me instead of being an individual on the field. She missed more than she caught but progress is progress and she’s still learning the game so maybe one day I will be moaning about the weight of the rabbits I have to carry back to the car!
With all of the work I had been doing with the pup, I had somewhat neglected the terriers of late. Bear in mind that I had missed the start of the goose season due to being on holiday with my family and then add in to that my recent trip to see some dogs in America, and there’s a fair bit of time where the dogs have been idle. They’d been getting their walks but that’s not the same as being out hunting and I feared they’d gotten stale in my absence. Once I’d returned I had a bit of time before I had to go back to work so I decided it was to be terriers during daylight and the lurcher at night, keeping up the progress we had made earlier. Having a pest control job supplies me with plenty of opportunity for getting out with the dogs so the little bit of weight they’d put on was soon run off as the dogs accompanied me on my rounds of the farms. There is never a day where there is nothing to do on the farms, be that pigeon shooting, rabbiting, geese, squirrels etc The list of vermin is a long one and for every one you kill, another seems to take it’s place, which means we have to keep on top of things and be seen to be making an effort.
Towards the end of the summer, there seemed to be a endless procession of foxes making their way across my land and the dogs had great sport on them, with 3 in a couple of hours being our best morning. I don’t know if it was something to do with the change in the weather or maybe the lads shooting the geese with shotguns, but suddenly we weren’t seeing any foxes at all. Places which always held were now empty and despite the abundance of fallen fruit old Charlie seemed to have moved on which puzzled me. We’d walk the rounds every time and the dogs would search high and low with no success, much to their and my disappointment. Thankfully this changed last Saturday morning.
After having had a great morning shooting 15 squirrels (maybe I should buy myself another diary?), I decided to have a stroll through the orchards and see if anything had put in an appearance. Now if I go anywhere near this side of the farm, the male dog knows where we are going and buggers off ahead of us in the hope that he bags something himself. His excitement is a joy to see in a dog who otherwise is slowing down considerably, with age taking it’s toll on him after all his years of service. As I watched the old dog cannily run to where the foxes have pushed a gap underneath a wire fence, I smiled to myself as I know this dog has always pursued the path of least resistance in whatever he has done over the years. The other dogs would jump the fence, but not him. Why risk jumping when you can sneak under? Upon reaching the fence I unlocked the gate for the lurcher as she’s not confident with jumping those kinds of heights yet, and let her through. As I mentioned earlier, we’d caught here before and the pup was straight on the job, searching the fields for movement and listening out for any sign of contact. Being rather aggressive when it comes to hunting and with something of an independent streak too, the black bitch had gone off to search the fields and orchards on her own, leaving me and the pup to bring up the rear. Remembering what I was told by my dad when I was a kid, I turned to close and lock the gate we’d just come through only to see a fox make his way across the field we’d just walked through. He was in no way hurrying but you could tell he had somewhere to go. With his determined gait he crossed the field and as he did so, the lurcher spotted him. She began pawing the dirt around the bottom of the gate furiously but realistically she had no hope. By the time I’d have opened the gate, Charlie would have been lone gone so I let him run out of sight before calling her over and giving her a consolation pat on the head. Cursing our luck, I shouldered my air rifle, making promises to myself to get off my arse and apply for the FAC I keep forgetting about. As I looked up, movement caught my eye on the field in front of me and there was another fox hightailing it away from where I’d last sent the black bitch heading towards. Once the fox was about 40 yards away from the hedge, the bitch emerged in hot pursuit, which was only going to have one winner. The fox moved effortlessly across the field, whilst the bitch was going flat out in an effort to make up ground. The plough was heavy and her little legs were struggling but she never gave up. Being surrounded by a wire fence topped with barbed wire, the field was fully enclosed, but this didn’t bother the fox, who cleared one fence, then another to get into the next field and another step closer to safety. Finally the fox jumped a 6 foot boundary wall and disappeared from view. My eye now rested on the black bitch and she was scaling the fences too although she was losing ground all of the time and the fences only served to slow her more. Once she’d scaled the wall I ran over the field to make sure I was on the spot when she came back. Well I knew the plough was heavy but I didn’t realise how bad it really was! By the time I was on the other side of the field I was puffing and panting like an asthmatic! My boots were clogged with mud and the sweat was pouring off me and I thought I was relatively fit.
Within ten minutes the bitch was back, climbing the wire fence with her tongue hanging out and dropping herself down at my side. I already knew the answer before I did it, but I sniffed her face just to double check there had been no contact and there hadn’t. The dog and the fox had gotten no more than some autumnal exercise. If I’d smoked I would have lit up at that point and reflected on missing two nice foxes which looked in a fine state of health, but we still had more places to check and couldn’t sit about all day brooding.
After deciding to make the next spot the last for the day, we headed up to an area which has a huge earth, with piles of bright orange sand banked up outside the many entrances. I’d seen foxes basking in the sun here before but always within a few feet of the safe haven of copious bramble bushes and gorse. Today was no different and as I drove up the field there was a fox jumping up and jogging into cover. The dogs were making whining noises in the back of the car as they’d chased foxes here before. I’m pretty sure they can’t have seen the fox make his escape and that they were whining on memory alone. Writing off their chances of catching that particular fox, I decided not to let them out of the boot, preferring to have a walk around myself. The reason for this was that some of the holes in this earth were pretty large and that black bitch of mine might go to ground and I had no collars with me. I changed my mind when I saw a cat though and although I didn’t think they’d catch it, I let the dogs out to chase it off. Once they were back from this errand, the lurcher jumped into the open boot and the black bitch crept into the brambles. She wasn’t gone more than a minute before I heard the tell tale noises of contact! The noises are never hers as she is mute when working, but something was making them. Maybe old Charlie hadn’t made good his escape when he had his chance?
Looking at the cover in front of me I realised I had problems. The brambles were over 7 feet tall and at least 15 feet deep and they looked painful. When it comes to decisions in a situation like this you have to get stuck in. Knowing the bitch like I do, there was no way she was going to leave her prey, she never had in the past and she wasn’t about to start now. That meant that there was only one course of action and that entailed me getting lacerated! Making a sort of gap in the cover with my foot, I pushed myself into the brambles only to find the going way too heavy. The only way I was getting in there was to go along on my belly and simply push through. Being in such a rush to get to the bitch, I ignored the thorns and made my way very slowly to the where the dog was. When I got there, the bitch was ragging what I considered a decent size dog fox of maybe 20lbs. Grabbing the lustrous tail of the fox I made my way back the way I’d came which was considerably more difficult than getting in there. For one I couldn’t see where I was going and two, not only was I dragging the body of the fox, I was also dragging the black bitch too, as she’d clamped herself onto its head. There are times when I curse her tenacity!
Once we’d cleared the cover, I stood up gingerly and inspected the fox which when weighed was a shade over 18lbs, which just goes to show that appearances can be deceptive and bulk is often made up of simply fur. I also inspected my own cuts and scrapes and once the blood was rubbed away, there were only a few minor cuts and nothing to worry about, but plenty to exaggerate to the lads down the pub later. The bitch had a few marks on her too, but the majority of these were from thorns rather than from the fox.
The next day was pretty much the same routine, shooting and walking the land, mooching about to see if anything was about. The lurcher was feeling pleased with herself as she’d caught a rabbit over by the fruit farm. When I say “caught” I really mean picked up as this rabbit ran to the fence and upon finding no way though, decided to sit in a clump of dead nettle stems in the hope that it wouldn’t be found. Needless to say, this didn’t work and the rabbit was picked up, crushed and paraded up and down the lane for my benefit. Thinking this would be a perfect time to coax the pup in for a retrieve; I knelt down and encouraged her to come in to me. Looking behind to see the terrier’s way off in the distance, I felt sure that the lurcher would bring me her prize. She retrieves dummies and toys like a dream, but put a real rabbit in her mouth and you can forget it. This time was no different and the retrieve just wasn’t happening. I took the advice of a lad I spoke to in a pub during the Brighton protest and walked away, thinking she’d have to follow me….which she did, without the rabbit. I’ll keep trying.
As the morning was drawing to a close, my little team and I arrived at the spot where we’d seen the two foxes yesterday in the hope that they’d come back for a feed. As usual the dog was off before we’d even reached the gate and I let him run, thinking that if there was a fox there, he’d put it up and maybe we’d get lucky with a runner and drop onto it. Nothing was seen or heard for about ten minutes but as we made our way through the glorious golden yellow carpeted cherry orchard I heard the dog open up. He was yipping his way through coppice and although I couldn’t see him I started to run in the direction his crying was heard. Not even the lurcher had stayed with me and so I had no idea where any of the dogs were at this point. About half way to where I thought the dog was, I stopped in my tracks as he came sauntering towards me with not so much as a mark or hint of fox scent on him. That meant that he’d missed again and I knelt down and gave him a rub almost as if to say “don’t worry son” before heading off again. By now the lurcher had turned up but we were still missing the black bitch. Ten minutes had gone by since the dog had opened up and I thought that the bitch must have gone back to the car as she often does when she loses us. I walked the lanes of raspberry canes but she wasn’t there and she hadn’t gone back to the big field where she’d chased the fox yesterday. This is so often the escape route for Charlie so I thought she might be in the vicinity, having lost him again. Whistling had no effect and neither did calling her name so it was down to just keep on doing what I was doing, walking the ground and keeping an eye out. I didn’t have to look very much further as I passed a crab apple orchard and spied her struggling to carry a fox towards me! Running towards her I was grinning like a Cheshire cat as she dropped her quarry and carried on ragging it. The dog must have ran the fox straight though this orchard where it had the unfortunate pleasure of meeting the bitch and once she gets hold, there’s only one outcome.
This fox was a vixen and it weighed in at just over 13lbs and a healthy specimen, as was the dog fox from the day before. In fact the only fox which showed signs of mange had been a cub taken over the summer.
All in all it had been a very productive weekend and probably one of the last for the bitch this season as she has come into heat and will be mated in a few days time. Last time she didn’t take which was a disaster so its fingers crossed this time and plenty of rest for her. I don’t know how we’ll cope without her but we’ll soon find out.