I love my hunting dog and I love hunting rabbits with a shotgun. On the one hand, it sounds like a heart-felt line from a country song almost too red of neck for Texas; but on the other hand, hunting small game with a shotgun and a gundog is a pursuit that the moneyed types romanticise as well. I can see why; whether the neck is red or bordered by tweed, there is a sophistication and workmanship that needs to be put into it before it can really pay off, especially (a lot of training) for the dog.
It is very early days for Bugle and me. This is not a post about the hunters that we are, but the hunters we want to be.
The gun itself (a cheap second-hand 12 gauge Akkar Churchill) is fairly new to me and I haven’t often hunted with any shotgun before, so I don’t yet do as well with it as I might with a well-sighted .22. But there is a delightful adaptable opportunism to it. The bunny can be still or on the run and it is easier to line up at night in a spotlight beam than it is with a rifle scope. Getting a little more complicated, using variations in shell (the size and number of the pellets) and choke (little collars at the front of the barrel that affect the spread of the pellets) in the two barrels, you can gear yourself up for a couple of different distance options and choose the appropriate barrel as required (if the gun has selectable barrels). You can also carry shells with different shot sizes and take on anything from a little rabbit to a goat (or bigger if you hunt it), depending on what you come across. Funnily enough, with all that provision for different hunting options, it all also provides very well for the option of barely hunting at all. If there is no particular drive to harvest as much as possible, you can head off for a walk with a shotgun (and a trained pointing dog), think more about the stroll than the hunt and still know that, should one of those rare opportune moments arise, you can take it. It is sod’s law of hunting – when you are driven by the hunt there may be nothing to be found, but then the game has a way of showing up on a sightseeing outing in the same place (we did better scouting rabbit warrens during the day on this trip than we did when we returned with the spotlight at night as an example).
The dog, a six-month old Brittany named Bugle, was more of a hindrance than a help on her first trip. But that was to be expected while she got the opportunity to work out what the whole thing is all about. You can see that she has instincts welling up inside her, scouting out, alert to sight and scent, striking a pointing pose for reasons unknown (to me at least, because it was almost certainly a response to scent rather than sight), but she still has little way of knowing what she should be finding and what she should be pointing for. Shown her first shot rabbit, she is clearly excited, but she is initially keen to do little more than sniff and nudge it with her nose (the scent thing again). Then a little lick. Then finally she picks it up. But then drops it uncertainly and leaves it for a sniff around. Time for an intervention (not against scenting, but to reinforce the fact that the rabbit is what we are interested in and that at this stage we want it retrieved). For the last three months I’ve been teaching her to wait until commanded to fetch a tennis ball. So I reach for the tennis ball, play a couple of fetch games and replace it with the smallest rabbit of the haul. She retrieves the rabbit – and oh the pride! Handfuls of treats and deluges of praise follow as she repeats the task again and again. Then it gets hidden a few times and the game becomes search and fetch and a hunting dog gets closer to being born.
After this first outing, Bugle still didn’t get to search out and find a shot rabbit in the field and I missed a good few shot opportunities and the shots themselves with the shotgun, but we are on the way. You never know, we may even get to the job her breed excels at – pointing, holding still while the game is shot and then doing the retrieving just as an added bonus.