So you want to pick up

Written by Joyce Parkes and published with her permission.

First find your local shoot and contact the gamekeeper or shoot captain to enquire if they need extra help on a shoot day. There may be several shoots in your area and it is worth enquiring widely. Contacts made on training days, breeders or other HPR owners in your area may be able to help or advise but people do guard their own territories jealously (they have probably had to work hard to ensure their place!) so there is nothing quite like the direct approach in the end— keep trying.

Then there is your dog. Is it ready for the excitement and undoubted temptations it will meet on the shoot? Whilst no dogs are perfect — or at least very few, and you may find the gamekeepers dog the worst offender (well, when does he have the time for training?!!) you will not be invited back if your dog is out of control, continually running in, switching and dropping birds or View-hallooing into the next drive. If he lies down and crunches a few birds whilst he is out and about, he will have outstayed his welcome. The odd pegged bird might not be so frowned upon as long as it is not in the sight of the guns — well they do expect to pay for birds they have shot. So do your homework and put in the basic training first. It would be wise to ensure your dog is steady to shot and fall and has had experience of warm game, perhaps on training days before being exposed to the full day's work. One trainer I had, invited you in the early days of the dog's training to come and mix with his beaters and pickers up at the beginning of a day's shoot just to experience the atmosphere and other dog trainers will often take out a younger dog for just one drive or work it for an half day only. This may not be an option for you if you have only one dog or are being paid, so if you can go for half a season as unpaid help, you can then tailor what you do to your dog's needs as well as the shoots.

Let us say you have a very biddable dog and are invited on to the team- here are a few hints which may help to ensure a successful day and a long and happy career as a picker up.

Arrive early on the morning of the shoot. This allows the keeper or chief picker up enough time to give any instructions necessary. There may be a friendly lottery to guess the number of birds/shots fired and if care of the game cart is part of your brief, ties to be prepared and lunch etc to be stowed.

Runners should be dispatched humanely, use a priest (weighted stick or crusher obtainable from Gun shops). Game swung round and round is unsightly and can lead to birds without heads which cannot be properly hung.

Dress smartly in country colours (green/brown) and in clothing appropriate to the terrain and weather conditions. Remember whilst waiting for the drive to start, one can get very cold. Treats for you and the dog can help! On a warm day water for the dog is a must.

Find out just prior to the drive starting where you should stand and what areas, if any, should be avoided so that your dog does not disturb ground to be used on later drives. You may be instructed to either stand in line with the guns or to stand well back where it is safe. Once in position stay put — your gun/s need to know where you are too!

It is usual to pick up birds after the drive is finished. However there are times when it is necessary to retrieve a runner whilst shooting is still going on, check on the shoots policy at the start of the day and remember you only do it if it is safe for you and your dog.

As the drive starts try to mark and count birds down, it helps to know how many you hope to pick. If you can mark the fall of birds wing tipped or with a leg down as they soar past you, this can be an aid to putting the dog in the area of the fall. A good gun will give you his mark too. Experience is a great teacher in such observations such things are only learnt on the job. Let the dog use its nose; try not to trample over the area before he has his chance especially in rape and kale.

The game is king - always treat with respect. The landowner, shoot manager and gamekeeper have put time money and effort into raising the game. It is a team effort and if freshly killed game is fit for the table then that is a good outcome. New hygiene laws are in effect and game should never be stuffed in pockets or piled up in heaps. Even game bags are no longer considered the thing as heat is trapped in and may affect the meat. So equip yourself with a game carrier and carry some extra ties in your pocket.

Whilst the above tips are just a guide as to what you might expect and what might be expected of you, all shoots are slightly different and as a newcomer to picking up watching the more experienced hands and listening to what is said can be most helpful. If you have not understood, ask. Much better than receiving the sharp end of someone's tongue because you or your dog are in the wrong place at the wrong time. If you do your job and collect the wounded and dead game that has fallen in cover behind the guns then you are a valuable member of the team and will find you and your dog valued as such. You will be thanked by guns, shoot captain and keeper; you are a necessary part of the days sport. Picking up is a wonderful way to spend a day out with your dog — my dogs love it and are all a quiver as soon as I get started on flask filling and gathering the gear together, if I open a door they are all there wanting to be off even an offer of food won't delay them. As for my old dog Eve, she even looks a different dog on the field, shedding the years and trembling with desire to start retrieving and some of my best memories of my old dogs no longer with me are when we were together on a shoot day — teamwork, there is nothing like it.