A puppy is the latest addition to my household, a black Labrador male called Odin. He is coming up for ten weeks old and is adorable even if there is a certain amount of clearing up behind him! It is many years since I was responsible for a puppy and, even then, there were other family members to share the burden. Ideally he would have arrived six months ago at the start of lockdown but there was a huge demand for puppies as so many people were isolating at home. It was reported that some unscrupulous breeders doubled their prices, perhaps £3,000 for a Labrador.
I have been reading books on training and my thoughts turned to domestic animals bred for different tasks. For millennia, we have been breeding and training dogs, horses and many others to perform numerous tasks to help with our daily life. From the days when man was a hunter/gatherer, dogs have aided in the hunt and still do today. There are breeds of hounds to find and chase deer, hares, foxes and mink, now used primarily to follow a trail since the Hunting Act 2004, although it is still legal to use them to flush foxes to guns.
There are numerous breeds used for shooting but the two most popular are Labradors and spaniels. Before the huge expansion of driven shooting, pointers were widely used for walked up or rough shooting. Walking through the cover, the dog identifies the quarry, perhaps grouse in heather, and stands stock still, one front paw raised to alert the guns. This was important in the days of muzzle loaders as it took time to prepare to take a shot. When the guns are ready, the dog is asked to flush the bird from the cover for the guns to shoot at.
There are two main tasks for dogs in driven shooting, flushing the birds and retrieving the shot game. Dogs in the beating line have to be well controlled or they may run ahead flushing the game over the guns in large numbers so that only a small proportion can be shot at. Spaniels are the most popular choice for this role.
Once the guns have hit a bird, dogs help to retrieve them with Labradors the preferred choice. Some guns may have a dog, sitting patiently beside him or her on the peg watching the drive unfold, not moving until its owner asks it to pick up a bird, usually at the end of the drive. One of my dogs in the past used to sit facing away from the drive as most shot birds fall behind the line of the guns and she could watch them fall and mark them for retrieval. On one drive a few years ago, my current dog, Bracken, picked up the two birds I had shot and brought them to me. He then picked up a bird my neighbour had shot and returned it to him! I suspect it was accidental but it certainly impressed all who witnessed it!
Then, behind the line of guns are the pickers-up, often with several dogs. Their role is to retrieve any game that has been wounded or that has landed some distance behind the gun line. Theirs is perhaps the most important role of all as all quarry must be respected and injured birds must be found and despatched humanely.
It never ceases to amaze me how much the dogs love their activity. Bracken gets very excited whenever he sees me wearing breeks or getting my gun from the cabinet. He stands at the peg, tail wagging furiously, barely able to contain himself. Dogs have been bred and trained for centuries and are happiest when performing the tasks for which they have been prepared. The same applies to other domestic animals.
There was a recent report of the closure of a business that has been carrying day passengers on a horse-drawn barge on the River Wey in Surrey for 33 years. Unable to run during the current restrictions, the closure is partly due to the towpath becoming overgrown making it difficult for the horse to pass pedestrians and cyclists but partly due to the extreme reaction of some who complain that the role of the horse is cruel and that its welfare is being compromised.
There is another similar operation much closer to home run by Steve Butler on the Kennet and Avon Canal from Kintbury. As I walk the towpath with Bracken, I have regularly seen him with one of his two horses, Monty and Drummer, pulling his barge full of passengers thoroughly enjoying their trip. I came across Steve a few days ago coming from his horses in a field and he told me that they have really missed their role in the business this summer, the exercise and the adulation of the passengers.
Animals thoroughly enjoy the natural tasks that they have been bred and trained for generations to perform, assuming that their owners treat them with respect and care for them. Dogs as well as other animals such as horses, render great service to mankind, for example as sniffer dogs or guide dogs for the blind. In due course, I shall train Odin as a gundog and, when Bracken retires, he and I will enjoy happy hours together in the field. Far from exploiting these wonderful animals, the true cruelty is to deprive them of the opportunity to satisfy their natural instincts.