I was lucky enough to spend my childhood and youth in the very heart of the English countryside, where great quantities of pheasants roamed and the landed gentry slaughtered them twice a week on their magnificent estates. We on the fringe managed to find a way to enjoy the sport of kings without all the expense.
This we called "rough shooting" and our able assistants were springer spaniels because, as they say, when the going gets rough, the rough get going.
"Many a beaming squire took possession of downed birds from these canines, amid bucolic surroundings befitting a Gainsborough painting - oblivious to the racial connotation of the dog’s name."
The landowners usually had Labradors. This breed is better suited to the lifestyle of well-tailored gents in tweeds who, perched on shooting sticks clutching their Purdeys and Holland and Hollands, could usually hit towering birds driven into flight by the local villagers called "beaters". These labs, usually black, amply fulfilled their allotted task: simply retrieving. Many a beaming squire took possession of downed birds from these canines, amid bucolic surroundings befitting a Gainsborough painting - oblivious to the racial connotation of the dog’s name.
The beaters were very much more likely to have springers. Flushing is their forte but putting up with their irrepressible enthusiasm didn’t quite fit into the lifestyle of the manor. Labs, if allowed into the drawing rooms of the wealthy, might tip over the odd sherry glass with their tails, but in general the breed had good manners. But a springer in a living room can’t settle down until he knows there isn’t any game there. And he only knows one way to find out.
Every now and again, if they were short of beaters, we’d be invited to help at a shoot. For a pittance and a brace of pheasants to take home afterwards, we’d join in the fun. For the more serious of us who were training our dogs with the prospect of running in field trials, this was an opportunity to teach our impetuous charges some control. Pheasants were plentiful during the drives and if restraint could be taught here, the more likely one could do well when encountering the unanticipated temptations that are the bane of handlers during trials.
In any event, at the end of the day, guns (and their labs) and the beaters (and their springers) would join in the task of rounding up any un-retrieved downed birds. "Cleaning up" they’d call it and most of these birds had, naturally, found sanctuary in the very thickest bramble bush that they could find. I well recall hanging back a bit to allow the labs to show their stuff. Often we’d know very well a bird was in the cover but the lab would show no indication of its presence. You could readily imagine what was going on in the dog's mind because the slightest indication of the quarry's presence would trigger a command to plunge into a very dense and prickly environment that neither his inclination or coat had prepared him for.
The look in the animal's eyes told the whole story and the gullible owner was as likely as not to take the dog’s word for the situation. "Let's move on" was the message.
That’s where we came in. The springers would usually disgrace their black cousins by plunging straight into the undergrowth and emerge with the wounded birds. The lab owners would pretend not to notice.
This provided excellent experience for our dogs who readily learned to read pheasant's minds and, in my opinion is one reason why the North American springer spaniel community periodically refreshes and enhances the breed here by introducing fresh blood from the "Old Country" carefully nurtured and selectively bred in this environment.
My fondest recollections though are of the rough shooting on the countryside that surrounded these estates. The squire’s birds soon learned that the smell of aniseed in planted grain meant food. We could draw them upwind off his domain and into the hedgerows and copses of local properties we had permission to shoot on. Our springers surely knew what we were up to but they never let on. No self-respecting springer would. Labradors? Now that's a different story.