It was just another early morning e-mail check and coffee fix, scanning through the mails and hitting the delete button. Things were about to change. As I opened one e-mail, I stopped in my tracks, re-read it about three times and tried to digest what it said.
"How would you like to come over and judge our Spaniel Trials in NEW ZEALAND."
I was honestly like a pointer on point, a springer flushing game, I just couldn't believe what I was seeing, the hair was up on the back of my neck. I had gone from half awake to very alert in a very short space of time!
"However after a couple of days judging rabbit trials in New Zealand, it didn't take a rocket scientist to realize that tall, leggy springers were at a severe disadvantage in rabbit trials. Springers and cockers are both allowed to run in these trials and smaller compact dogs did extremely well."
I quickly answered "Are you serious?"
The answer came back, "Yes."
WOW! was all I could think, I had been over to New Zealand close to 20 years ago and I had fond memories of a very beautiful country. We had covered mostly the North Island and had to beat a retreat from the South Island when a blizzard had been forecast. We caught the commercial ferry back with all the truckers and farm animals rather than wait hours for the passenger ferry. Another exciting aspect of this invite was the trials were to be held on the South Island. The timing was great as well, as the trials would be held in May, a time of the year when I can get away.
I was then informed that the trial would be held on rabbits and could I handle that?
I thought of all my years of rabbit shooting in Wales and shooting some field-trials at Presaddfed for Talbot Radcliffe. I knew all the basics and thought it wouldn't be a problem.
I was then asked for a judging resume and I conjured one up as fast as I could, things were moving along here and the excitement level was still high. One phrase kept spring into my mind: Trip of a Lifetime.
A few days later, I received a reply that I had been approved the trip was on.
Incidentally this all happened last year and, as always, I am slow at putting pen to paper.
The trip of a life time has come and gone and the following will be some of my experiences and observations.
After we had established that it was an all systems go, I started looking into travel arrangements. San Antonio, Los Angeles, Auckland, Christchurch was the route, and it took about a total of 30 hours, door to door. A few people commented on how awful that would be but I thought, heck, in the old days it would have taken you months - and now we can do it in a couple of days.
On my trip many years ago, I remembered that the jet lag was pretty bad. So, when I finally arrived in New Zealand, I was determined to stay awake and try to adapt to the time change as quickly as possible. The previous trip had been a vacation and on this trip I had a job to do. The physical side worried me a little bit, as well, as I was told we would be in the mountains. We don't have many mountains in the Coastal Bend of Texas so I got access to a treadmill and set the incline up and trained for hills that way.
Peter O'Neill was my host in Christchurch and I had met him very briefly in Huntsville Texas when he had been over to experience the American springer. Pete brought his dog with him and ended up qualifying and running in the National Amateur.
The two months before the trip flew by and, before I knew it, I was being picked up by Peter O'Neil at the Christchurch Airport.
That night, I was determined to stay awake as long as I could to try and adapt to the time change. This would have been fine if I hadn't left my phone on and one of my friends in Texas called at 3AM to see if I wanted to go out for lunch! I told him it was out of the question and hung up on him.
On the next day, Peter wanted to go and train his dog, Bobby Dazzler, on the coast and give me a chance to stretch my legs. On the way to the rugged coastline I was pleased to see a covey of Californian quail running down the road. Peter explained that the season would open a week after the trials were over so the trials would be run on wild rabbits.
Upon arrival at the training grounds, which reminded me a little of the coast of Anglesey in Wales except for the herd of red deer in the distance, Peter handed me his gun. It fit like a glove. It was the exact stock measurement that I use, nice and well balanced - an old Belgium Browning I think. Not one single excuse for missing with this gun. I promptly missed six rabbits in a row... and there was a mixed look of amusement and irritation on Peter's face. Peter was also walking at break neck speed everywhere and I was thinking maybe I wouldn't be able to take six days of this. When we left the training grounds, Peter had a smirk on his face and I knew this afternoon was coming back to haunt me.
I was a little worried being thrown in at the deep-end on all this judging. Peter informed me that on the first day of trials I would be the judges steward. I could get to see all the ins and outs and ask any questions that I wanted. Apprentice judging New Zealand style - that was great and I sighed relief. I would hate to make mistakes this far from home.
There was a total of six trials and we would be in three different locations. The first trial was held at a place called Bendigo, about a six-hour drive south from Christchurch. The location was an old sheep farm then had become a shoot at one time, then finally they had planted vines for wine production. I had been to the North Island before and had seen some beautiful places, but nothing could prepare me for the sights I was to see in the next two weeks.
Early on in the first day of the trials, I was stewarding for the judge and there was a particularly animated and flashy dog running. This dog pushed her way into the bush pictured and you could tell immediately that there were one or two rabbits in there. Now if you saw these guys shooting rabbits you wouldn't come out of that bush either. The dog frantically worked inside the bush and it seemed like the rabbit was just circling and refusing to come out.
In frustration, there was a very muffled yip. It almost sounded like the dog had its head down a hole. This was good. I wanted to see how the judge handled this situation. The judge said nothing and the sound was so muffled I wondered if he had heard it. A minute later and the rabbit is still giving the dog the run around in the bush, another muffled yip was heard. The judge had the dog called in and the dog was excused for noise. The handler seemed to accept it with no problems and we carried on.
WOW! In a US trial, we could eliminate 50% of the field for noise.
I thought to myself how strange things evolve. In the states, if a dog even hesitates for a milli-second on a flush he is branded a pointer for life... yet dogs can run around yipping and it is largely ignored.
Guess what? Noisy dogs produce noisy dogs. Maybe there is a reason we have to keep importing dogs from the UK.
As a judge in US trials, I have become Americanized in my thinking and I rarely penalize a dog for a yip but if it happens more than once it's on my radar screen and I note it accordingly. For my New Zealand judging I would adopt the local no tolerance rule.
I have been a big fan of long legged springer for years ever since I set eyes on the Saighton springers in 1975. After moving to Texas in 1981, I continued to favor this type of dog. For one thing, I was running on Coastal Prairie and, in American trials, typically run in open grassy fields.
Pictured left to right are Bob with a cocker and Chris with a very nice springer
However after a couple of days judging rabbit trials in New Zealand, it didn't take a rocket scientist to realize that tall, leggy springers were at a severe disadvantage in rabbit trials. Springers and cockers are both allowed to run in these trials and smaller compact dogs did extremely well.
There was a very talented tall springer in the trials. But he was at a disadvantage; he just seemed to cover too much ground and left holes everywhere. The cover had to be worked very thoroughly so as not to pass any rabbits.
I was a little worried before I started the trials at the prospect of climbing the mountains for five days and how I would hold up, however the pace at which we moved and covered the ground helped out a lot and I didn't have a problem, but after seven or eight hours, I was still a tired puppy at the end of the day.
I cannot see any problem with allowing cockers to run in springer trials in this country. It's done in Canada and we did it in the last National Shooting Dog Championship with no problems, whatsoever. Paul McGagh has proven that cockers can run with the big dogs by winning the Canadian Nationals a few years back.
The format of the New Zealand trials was that we ran braces then both judges got together and decided who they would like to look at again. In the case of one of the trials, we had an absolute winner after two series. We put that dog on ice and had a run off for the other placements. I thought that was an interesting twist. In the first and second series, we ran the dogs for about 20 minutes trying to get two finds, flushes and retrieves. We could go as long as 30 minutes, if we so desired. It all depended on the dog and how much you liked him. Think about it. You have already seen the dog run for between 40-60 minutes in the first two series, which means the third series in NZ was a runoff between the top dogs. So, in this instance we had our winner but had a runoff for 2nd, 3rd and 4th places. This dog was shelved and we ran the rest.
As in all field trials, there was luck involved but still the cream usually rose to the top. There were enough rabbits to give everyone a fair shake of the stick. It was funny to sometimes watch waves of rabbits moving ahead of you, we were only finding the ones that tucked in.
Everywhere you looked on the south island was a picture postcard and I was enjoying every minute of it.
What I am remembering now, after a year, are the absolute highlights of my trip and one of the highlights is what I would like to try and relate to you now. I think I judged my first field trial in the states in the mid 80s. So here I was in NZ with over 25 years of judging under my belt.
We had just finished an arduous day of trialing and had all retired to the sheep-shearers hut for food and placements. I think it was about the third day of trials. The placements were given out and, as I do in the US trials, I went into defensive mode. You know how it is... in the US, only the placing people are happy everyone else is in lynch the judge mode. However, after these placements everyone seemed so happy, everyone was congratulating everyone else. People were coming over to me and thanking me for all my hard work. I thought how wonderful this was... the losers and the winners were all having the best time. WOW, we should all take a leaf out of this book. To this day I think of how incredibly nice this was after nearly 30 years of whining, bitching, moaning US trials. This is the way it should be, but I could never see it happening in the states.
As I commented to Dave Lorenze Sr., in my early days of US field trialing, "Hey Dave, there are only four people happy at these field trials: 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th."
Dave thought for a second then said, "No, you're wrong. There is only one person happy... who won first place, because the other three all think they should have won."
After a hard day on the mountains and then the the interesting placement experience, someone handed me a glass of wine and I settled in a chair with a windburned face. I was a happy camper. This was life at its best.
The areas for the New Zealand trials were scouted out beforehand. A good trial ground one year may be void of rabbits the next as when the rabbit population gets to epidemic proportions they are poisoned. So, lots of traveling and scouting was done before.
I just got back from a wonderful trial in Kansas where the course was about two miles long. A few of the competitors were complaining it was too long. I absolutely loved it.
In New Zealand, the courses were miles long and all the competitors followed behind with their dogs. Some dogs walked behind for hours. Sometimes, because of the terrain, you became separated from your bracemate, but at the earliest chance you meandered back together.
In some areas, you could see droves of rabbits moving ahead and we were only catching up with the ones that tucked into the heavy cover. The cover reminded me of gorse back in Wales, thick and spikey with little pop holes that the rabbits used for entry and escape. Some of the rabbits seemed to know that if they popped out it was all over so in effect the dog was actually chasing it around inside the bush. When the rabbit broke cover with a single pip of the whistle, it was expected to hup. Most of them did hup but a few didn't and some exciting rabbit coursing then took place with some colorful NZ commentary. One dog was named "a little wanker" after a good chase.
As previously stated, the dogs were medium sized to small by American standards and I saw a dog this weekend about 60-lbs. He would have been absolutely lost in the NZ cover. Horses for courses I guess.
Back at the sheep shearer's hut one evening, with a couple of glasses of wine taken care of, I was asked if the American dogs could do what the New Zealand dogs did? As I prepared my answer, because I had been forming comparisons and comments all week, I noticed nearly everyone in the room had gone quiet and was waiting for my answer. I said absolutely not - and everyone listening grinned from ear to ear. They were really a great group of diverse people.
The only frown I got was when I asked if it was the sheep shagger's hut we were in and I was put right on that one very quickly.
The food and wine was flowing and everyone was having a great time. In Britain, all swans are owned by the queen and so they are kind of sacred. In the hut, I was handed some strips of meat and they tasted just wonderful. I was later informed that it was swan. Apparently, black swans had been introduced from Australia and were considered to be a pest. They sure tasted good.
One of the more amazing things in New Zealand, as in Britain also, was the requirement for the dog to produce the game for a shot but not catch it. Imagine being in a bush with a circling rabbit and knowing you are not allowed to catch it. As much emphasis is put on not catching as is put on catching and spectacular flushing in US trials. I have always been curious as to how in the US it evolved into
catching game was ok. I have heard many reasons for this... i.e. are wild birds require more aggressive flushes to we use pen-raised birds.
In Britain, as a gamekeeper, I severely chastised dogs for catching birds. Jess Sekey always tells a funny story of when he was in Britain and witnessed one of my dogs, Seeker, catch a bird in a fence. When I appeared, Jess said the dog spit the bird out and sat back with a look of I didn't do it on his face. Only problem was he had a mouthful of feathers. In Britain, a bird caught was a bird not produced for the guns. The New Zealanders were following the same rules
This was an unusual part of the New Zealand trials. At the end of the day after the placements were given out, the judges would go through each dog that ran and offer advice and criticism. The fact that these trials were limited to about 14 dogs, allowed them to do this - as well as the overall good nature of the competitors. I hate to say it, but I can't see this critiquing going down very well in US trials.
In a heartbeat, my two weeks in paradise were over. It was all too much to take in at one time, like going to a huge museum. I should note that I left cold temps in New Zealand, and after about 30 hours traveling, arrived back in San Antonio, Texas at midnight in May. The airport was under construction and I had to walk about half a mile to my vehicle. It was 90 degrees at midnight! I knew that I was home. I'm looking forward to going back one day.
I would like to give a big thanks to Howard Halliday for setting the whole ball in motion and my wonderful hosts, Peter and Robyn. The whole New Zealand spaniel crowd were a pleasure to be around and I thank each and every one of them for making my trip so enjoyable. They were a group of people who were enjoying their dogs, taking advice and criticism in their stride, always with a big smile.