“Do you want to try your pup on a Red?”
That simple question lit a fuse and the next few hours saw me frantically trying to organise a trip up to Ronnie’s place for a tilt at the big boys! Obviously the first thing I did was to ask permission from my wife, as she is, after all, the boss. Once this was granted, I raced home from work early to get myself organised ready for the trip to the mountains.
This whole situation was caused by an incident the previous weekend, when Ronnie and I had been out keeping the hares and rabbits down on some of his extensive permission. I hadn’t seen Ronnie for what seemed like ages so I stopped in at the grog shop on the way up there and bought a bottle of rum for once we’d finished hunting. We generally don’t need an excuse to have a few drinks and this day was no different. I’d been hearing about the Reds he had on his land, and we’d actually stalked one in the rut last year, which was the very first time that I’d ever stalked a deer. From the way Ronnie was talking, there were a few more on the property now than there had been and he had an inkling that we might bump into one when we were out lamping rabbits. After a few rum and cokes, we jumped into the Cruiser and off we went with a Remington .222 for company.
The last time we had driven this farm we’d noticed that there had been a massive decline in the rabbit and hare numbers, and we’d left it alone for almost a year in the hope that there’d be more sport for us if they were to breed in peace. Needless to say, I’d forgotten to bring my lamp with me, so our first port of call was the farmhouse to borrow a light. The one that the farmer gave us was one of those ones that plugs into the cigarette lighter jack, and Ronnie duly fitted this one into the still running Cruiser. The lamp was operated by a switch on the back of the lense housing and Ronnie flicked this to make sure that it worked. Nothing worse than going lamping with faulty equipment! The beam came on and instinctively, both Ronnie and I looked down it, to where it was shining in a field of oats. Bright eyes stared back at us, which I thought nothing of, being as this is a cattle farm, but Ronnie switched the lamp of straight away and whispered “deer!”
We moved to the front of the vehicle and lit up the field again. There, about 200 yards away was a mob of deer and they were coming our way! We estimated the mob to be about 20 strong and Ronnie reckoned most of them were 4 or 5 years old. Bold as brass, they ran straight past us and I was stood there open mouthed as they hit the oats and just disappeared. The speed with which they moved was very impressive and they moved so gracefully. The thing that struck me the most was their size. I was used to much smaller deer and these beasts were a world away from what I’d been catching with the dogs. One thought was pushed to the front of my mind…..and that was that I reckoned that my young dog could bring one of those down!
Ronnie must have read my mind as he said something along the lines of the Reds being too much for a lurcher, which I disagreed with. This brought laughter and abuse, which is pretty much par for the course when me and Ronnie get together. We said nothing more about it though and we went on our way after the hares and rabbits. One thing was abundantly clear though, our year off from shooting this ground had done nothing to improve the numbers. We struggled.
Back to the night in question.
The drive took just shy of 3 hours and I was getting tired by the time I got there. Mountain roads at night aren’t something I relish and all I wanted to do was get there in one piece and get out hunting. I was jumpy as I drove along, as I expected Kangaroos and Wallabies to jump out any second and judging by the carcasses by the roadside, that’s exactly what had been happening recently. Jimi Hendrix kept me company and I subconsciously found myself turning the stereo down in an effort to focus my thinking and concentrate harder on the road. It seemed to do the trick and I eventually arrived unscathed. As soon as I’d jumped out of the car and said my hellos, we were off again, this time in a little Suzuki ute, that had all the creature comforts of a Japanese prisoner of war camp. Suspension must have been an optional extra on this particular model. The .222 had been discarded in favour of a .308, still a Remington though, and I had this next to me, barrel down, bolt up, as we bumped along the rutted farm track. I’d brought the dog along this time, obviously, and he was tied on the back of the ute. The reason for tying him was that he’d get up there ok, but as soon as I’d get in the cab, he’d jump down again. He’d never been on one before so I couldn’t blame him. He quickly learned that the best way to travel on the back of a vehicle like this was to lie down. Within a few minutes we were at the farmhouse, where we slowed to a crawl. I grabbed the lamp and Ronnie grabbed the .308. Once we were both out of the cab, I released the pup from his lead and he stood at the edge of the track, no doubt wondering what the hell was going on. On with the lamp.
There they were! “Go on!” I hissed and the pup was away down the lamp at pace! I kept the beam on the Reds as the pup was eating up the ground. The approaching lurcher spooked them and they started away into the oats. The pup was right up with them………where he pulled up, stopped and came trotting back to us.
“He thinks they’re cattle” whispered Ronnie, as he stood there, rifle in hand, leaning against the little truck. Not an auspicious start to the pup’s career as a Red Deer courser. Oh well, back to the drawing board.
We ended the night drinking far more rum than is good for us, particularly considering we had a 0500 start in the morning. I’d like to say we learned our lesson, but I’d put money on us doing it the next time…and the one after that…you get the picture.
It was still pitch black when Ronnie and I were up and about the next day. After gathering our various odds and ends of equipment, it was back in the little Suzuki and away for a morning stalk. I rode in the tray with the pup and we hurtled down the rutted dirt tracks towards our farm. We intended to stalk in to the deer this time though, so we left the truck at the farm gate and walked in. Keeping the pup on the lead, we walked along a dry creek bed being very careful not to make any noise. Ronnie was in front and I followed about ten yards behind him. The pup wanted to pull ahead so a few tugs on his rope reminded him to behave himself. This creek bed was deep, about 15 feet I’d say, and Ronnie motioned me to stop while he crept up the bank in order to get a look out across the oats. Just as he got near the crest of the bank, a hare jumped up and slowly made its way along the top of the rise and then down towards me and the dog! I kept a tight hold of his rope and looked at the pup as the hare got closer. His eyes were out on stalks and he was tap-dancing just like his mother used to do when she was in sight of her prey! I held him back and just hoped he’d remain silent as the hare finally realised his mistake and took off at right angles to us. The pup reared up and clearly wanted to go, but I pulled him back and crouched down with him in an effort to calm the lad.
Ronnie was crouched at the fence line now and looking through his scope. His rifle dropped as he peered into the distance and I thought this must have indicated there were no deer there. This changed though when he brought the rifle up to his shoulder again. Turning, he motioned me to come forward and I made slow progress, determined not to make too much noise. I crept up that bank and saw Ronnie pointing out over the cereal. I raised myself very slowly and there, about 150 yards away were a small mob of deer. I crouched down again, smiling at Ronnie, who then brought his Remington up to his shoulder and scanned for a killing shot. After what seem like ages, I heard Ronnie swearing as the deer were positioned in such a way as to preclude a decent shot. We waited. And then a shot rang out.
I released the pup from his rope and Ronnie and I jumped the barbed wire fence. We walked around the oats and the pup was nose to the ground, searching for scents. We hit the track on the other side of the crop and there was no sign of the deer. We walked a little way down the track and there he was. How something so big can be disguised by the tiniest bit of cover was amazing and just goes to show how people can miss these massive animals. The pup got to him before we did and promptly started rolling in the ground where the deer had fallen. Within seconds he’d covered himself in scent and blood and looked a proper state! He carried on doing this for a few minutes as we positioned the stag for a few pics. We all walked back to the Suzuki with the intention of putting the stag on the back and then dressing him back at the farm. Well, either we underestimated the weight of the deer, or we overestimated our own strength, but one thing was certain, that stag was not going on the back of that ute! There was only one thing for it and that was to dress him right there.
Once we’d got the stag cut into joints, we loaded him into the Suzuki and off we went, happy with the mornings work. The rest of the day was spent butchering and bagging and we were constantly followed by all of the dogs until we’d finished with our admin. That left the rest of the day to drink beer and talk crap…..which is a favourite pastime of ours! We could sit and ruminate on hunting and more specifically dogs for days on end, but then I bet most of you are the same too. I don’t know how, but the conversation got round to bolting terriers and the question was asked:
“What would you think of if someone asked you to describe a good bolting terrier?”
I’ll go out on a limb here and hazard a guess that it’d be a smallish, yappy thing, and predominantly white. A dog that sits off its quarry and harries it, putting pressure on to ensure the bolt. That’s certainly what Ronnie and I thought of, and the history of the Jack Russell, with its use by the southern mounted packs, lends itself to this mental image of ours. We all know the story so well – southern white bodied dogs are bayers, whilst the northern coloured dogs are killers. This is all very well in theory but how does this hold up in reality?
The Victorians were the great dog breeders and the vast majority of the breeds we have today were created and refined by them. They were great categorizers and everything had its place; its own little box that it fitted into – from dogs to entire races of people. They seemed to deal in absolutes, which when everything was confined to theory and the staid environment of academic debate, were fine and a case could be upheld, but often the reality was a different proposition altogether. Absolutes are very useful when dealing with and talking about a perfect “type” but you must bear in mind that although this “type” exists, certainly on paper, the individuals that make up the breed as a whole, may differ dramatically from one another. All Russells do not sit off and bay, despite what the breed history says. Experience tells us this. Not everything is black and white.
Go into any book shop and pick up a tome on dog breeds. Turn to the page on the Bull Terrier and what does it say? Invariably there will be a short section on the history of the breed and it will be the same rehashed nonsense that has appeared for years – A breed created as a bull baiting (?) and fighting dog by James Hinks. If you’re really lucky you may see some mention of the famous Puss or mention of the word “gladiator.” Compare this to the real history of the Bull Terrier detailed extensively in the biography of James Hinks by Kevin Kane. Then turn to the lurcher page, if there is one, and you’ll find that these dogs are only kept by Irish Gypsies for illegal hare coursing! Joe Public likes categories as they keep things simple. When everything is black and white there’s no confusion. When you start introducing shades of grey, then things start to get complicated. When you consider the breeding that has gone on for generations, it’s hardly surprising that there is often more variation of type within a breed itself, than there is between different breeds. And when I say type, I mean working style rather than physical conformity.
If we accept that white bodied terriers made their way north with the miners who just happened to be members of the Ilfracombe Badger Digging Club, and that these dogs entered into the northern dogs bloodlines via Fred Barker, Anthony Barker, Sid Wilkinson and then on down to Gary Middleton and Ken Gould, then we are saying that we have been dealing with shades of grey for some time now. Offspring from some of these northern dogs even made the return journey, with white “sports” from coloured parents finding their way back into the southern dogs’ gene pool, thus muddying the waters even further. Coat colour is no indication of working style so the introduction of southern blood to northern blood and vice versa presents us with a problem in terms of predicting how the offspring of a particular mating will work. Mind you, this is only a problem if you are intent on the prediction in the first place. If you don’t care what style of work the terrier employs while at its task, then the fact that it stays until it’s dug to should be enough. It could be French kissing its quarry for all I care, just as long as it and its prey are there when I break through. I’ve only dealt with the Russell vs. the Fells here but of course, there are other breeds in the mix. It would be foolish to deny the presence of bull terrier blood in a lot of terriers, and this hasn’t always been a particularly modern method of breeding either. Indeed, the Reverend John Russell himself used to favour a rough type over a smooth, as it was his belief that the latter belied too much bull blood, which, going back to the absolutes I mentioned above, would harbour traits he considered uncharacteristic of the type he wanted to create.
Time and time again we see the question asked on the many hunting websites “is my dog a Patterdale?” And the answers posted in reply often show that people still do deal in absolutes. Names and titles are useful to convey a picture to someone; a quick and easy but basic way, to let people know the type we are talking about but beyond that, they show their limitations. If someone asked me what I thought of when the word Patterdale was mentioned, I’d have an image in my head, and chances are it’s going to be roughly the same image that you would have in your head too. Ask me about working style and that’s an entirely different thing. I’ve come across so many people who churn out the same old lines about these dogs; they are too hard, they are reckless, they are fighters and can’t be trusted with other dogs. In short, a miniature pit bull terrier. How many times have you heard this? A very common description over here and one I’ve heard in America many times too. The more this view is espoused, the more it is believed. Perception becomes reality and people then buy these dogs believing this to be true. There’s no investigation into the line, the style of its sire and dam; the very grey areas that actually make a dog. Of course, these very absolutes can be used by the money men in order to shift their stock, or to favour their stock over someone else’s.
I had a good bolting bitch a while ago and I’ve written about her many times. She was ¾ Staffordshire Bull Terrier ¼ Patterdale (that word again!) and she was 16″ and 24lb. She wasn’t spannable. She wasn’t a bayer. And she didn’t sit off her quarry. Add to this the fact that she was brutal to the point of recklessness, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that she doesn’t sound much of a bolting type. But if I was one for keeping accurate records of number of digs and bolts, the latter would outweigh the former quite considerably.
A certain ash tip was the scene of many hunts, and with it being within sight of my back door, was handy when we only wanted a quicky. Many people don’t do ash tips due to the fact that cave-ins can be a frequent occurrence. I’ve experienced a few of these over the years but they have been rare to be honest. This tip was created by the farmer piling hundreds of grubbed out apple trees in the corner of a cereal field and repeatedly burning them, year after year. What was essentially only a few feet high at the start, grew to be 10-12 feet high and the size of a tennis court. It was not only the trees themselves that were burnt on the pyre. The ash was littered with the metal fixings from the posts holding the trees up, chicken wire to keep the rabbits off, nails, glass and rubble. Naturally this provided very easy digging for the foxes and as soon as it was deemed to be safe temperature, the holes started appearing. The location of the setts changed slightly over the years, as more trees were dumped and burned, collapsing the existing tubes in the process. The last time I was over there I had my little bolting bull & terrier with me, and there had been a fresh delivery of trees piled on top of the ash. They hadn’t been lit though so the tip was quite safe…..well, as safe as an ash tip could be.
There were three holes to this tip, one of which was actually under the freshly tipped trees. The other was a little bolter, not as heavily worn as the one that the dog was pawing in an attempt to go to ground. As soon as I released her collar, she flew down the tube but was soon struggling. This tube went about 3 yards straight in at an angle of about 40 degrees before it turned a sharp left. The bitch was soon out of sight, round the corner, so to speak, as I could not only hear her digging on, but I could also see the ash being thrown back into the tube as she made her slow progress. I sat at the entrance to that sett and watched and listened to the bitch pushing and digging on until I could hear no more. It’s at times like these that I got to worrying. The fact that the bitch was a little on the large side for these foxy earths was the reason for so many bolts. She was nothing if not determined and her fox could clearly have heard and smelled her pushing her way through to him. A slighter built dog could maybe have made their presence felt before a bolt occurred, but not so with my one. Thirty or forty minutes had gone by since I’d last heard anything from the bitch, and clearly the fox hadn’t been too quick to make up his mind as there’d been no bolt so far. Within minutes though, a ginger snout had poked its way tentatively out of the little used entrance and soon old Charlie boy was pursed up in a net. The bitch didn’t come out the same way though, eventually returning from the way she’d entered, leaving me to assume that something more substantial than ash was barring her progress.
So job done. We got the bolt. And with an iron hard, mute, bull terrier-saturated, fair old lump of dog. A dog that is a million miles away from my own mental perception of what a bolter looks like. The right end product, but as the result of a dog’s limitations rather than because of its abilities. Hunting, like life, is very rarely black and white. There are too many variables to take into consideration – too many shades of grey, to issue definitive statements regarding types or breeds, or whatever you want to call them. A generalisation is only ever going to be exactly that…the mean, the average, an approximation. Something issued for people who have but a passing interest, often by people who have little working knowledge of the “type.” Or alternatively, by those who seek to entice. Show me the small print; the workings behind the glossy façade; the text behind the headlines and that’s where the truth invariably lies. Families within lines within breeds within types. That’s what makes it interesting for me.
I’d intended bringing that bitch over here with me when I moved, but unfortunately it wasn’t to be. Ronnie would have liked her as he’d seen the pics and videos and he’d often asked me about her when we were sat around shooting the breeze and drinking beer. Never mind.
I awoke the next morning and made the winding drive down from the mountains a little bit dry-mouthed and knowing full well there’d be a welcoming committee waiting for me when I got home. The news that we’d got a stag would be out by now and I always find it amazing how many friends I have when I return from a hunting trip. And sure enough, I pulled the Mitsubishi into my driveway and there he was….my Sicilian father-in-law, just popped by to say hello! What a coincidence!