Having access to rabbit shooting ground has played a huge part in making up many a Springer and Cocker field triallers dog to Field Trial Champion. Many of the top triallers spend weeks putting polish on their spaniels before field trials in this manner and are convinced this is the way to do it.
Not everyone, it has to be said, has the same view. I have heard that some believe a good spaniel should attempt to hit anything and not need the added stimulus of game to get it going.
I have to be honest and say that I personally like to get spaniels onto ‘the rabbits’, as we say, before any other quarry for the following reasons. Firstly, I use rabbits as the next stage in our training, a progression from the rabbit pen sessions, where the spaniels are taught to hunt, flush, be steady to flush, shot and then retrieve only on command cold rabbits we have placed out in the pen.
I go to the North Yorkshire Moors for my rabbit training whereby we start off hunting the young dogs on the areas of rashes and white grass. I find this allows me to keep an eye on proceedings and make sure the youngster is going how I would expect at this stage.
In addition this allows me to see everything and I can get to and correct the dog, should it need reminding of its previously taught lessons. They often can commit minor offences, if you like, when under ‘battle stations’ for the first time.
Once I am happy, we then move onto the heather or harder cover for the spaniel to deal with; giving them short runs to keep them tight and fit, fast and keen! I think this helps to achieve a more polished methodical hunting spaniel.
Having spent many hours shooting rabbits over spaniels I believe it to be an excellent sport and a benefit not only to training but, in general, the landowner; they should be pleased you’re keeping the numbers down. I always laugh when I hear the quote; “A bad shot will never have a good spaniel.” I reckon it must have been a lucky rabbit that wrote this? I’m sure some of you will agree it takes a few flushes to get your eye in when shooting; I bet one or two of you are nodding your heads in agreement, if you’re honest.
The benefits for a young dog and handler are huge; it allows you really to see the style and temperament of your youngster. Does it get too hot or, your worst nightmare, does it make a noise , squeak or damage the rabbit when retrieving it?
On a positive side it should give you a hard hunting, polished spaniel that is steady to flush and shot, and will handle and retrieve. It teaches the youngster to take a line and put its nose down. After all, a spaniel without style in its hunting is like an empty bottle of Scotch whisky – no good to me!
Of course, you don’t have to be a field trialler to enjoy shooting rabbits with spaniels. With the financial implications these days affecting most pockets this, in my opinion, is a great sport at minimal costs.
One important thing about shooting rabbits, as with all shooting, is safety. Due to the bolting quarry most shots have to be quick; almost instinctive. Just make sure there is not a young spaniel on the end of the rabbit’s tail or your day could end in disaster.
If you are lucky enough to have rabbit ground and a few basically trained spaniels, why not give it a go? I bet you enjoy it as much as the spaniels do, and what a difference it will make to you both. Enjoy your dogs.