It is a pleasure to share the company of a dog when stalking deer, but our four-legged friends are far from nice-to-have accessories, says Rod Greenwood.
As Crufts approaches, MIKE MONTGOMERY looks back on last year’s gundog day at the biggest dog show in the world and gives a flavour of what to expect if you’re thinking of going.
The biggest dog show in the world
Everyone knows Crufts. It’s the biggest dog show in the world and gets generous TV and media coverage.
But if you’ve never actually been, it’s impossible to get an idea of the scale and energy of this classic event. And you don’t have to have a gundog – or any dog – to enjoy the spectacle.
I went to the NEC in Birmingham in March for this year’s show, to see the action on gundog day, when the BASC gundog team run the classes for gamekeepers and working dogs, as they have done for the past 33 years.
It’s a full-on day for the 12-person BASC team, including the judges, stewards and volunteer helpers, from first thing till late evening when the final trophy is presented. And even longer for those in the team who have to set up the gamekeeping rings the previous evening and pack them down at the end.
The gamekeeper rings at Crufts
But for everyone, including the competitors and spectators, the event is a triumph. Entries are up 20 per cent from the previous year at 600 and the atmosphere and hubbub around the gamekeeper rings is busy and friendly. People are chatting, grooming their dogs, and from the first category display at 9am the BASC team works hard to keep things moving. With one class, Labrador bitches, accounting for 66 entries, that’s no mean feat.
Many of the spectators are friends and families of the competitors, but there are a fair few interested observers who come along to see how a working retriever or spaniel should look.
The place to be for any dog lover
And when not competing or spectating, there’s plenty to do at Crufts for any dog lover. The show fills five halls with competition rings, activity displays and trade stands.
In addition to the other gundog breed rings, you can watch agility dogs in competitive action, training displays and a whole section called Discover Dogs in which enthusiasts showcase individual breeds and provide useful advice and information for the interested punter.
And in between, of course, you can browse the scores of trade stands selling everything canine related that you can think of: food, bedding, clothing, supplements, treats, accessories, toys, kennels, cages, grooming products, portraits – even doggy treadmills for the owners who can’t walk their pets.
It was my first time at Crufts, and although I was only there for the gundog day, I was surprised and impressed with the organisation and smooth running of the event. The hundreds of dogs were all well-behaved, despite being corralled close to one another, and the noise (and smells) I was expecting were pleasingly muted.
Food outlets and coffee stalls abounded and the free Wi-Fi was a boon.
The gundog day at Crufts
So why do people come to Gundog Day at Crufts; what do they get out of it? I asked a cross-section of those that I met to sum up their experiences…
This year, BASC’s Alex Farrell was given the task of organising the gamekeeping rings. He said: “This is my seventh year of being directly involved with the organisation of the BASC rings and each year the rings have grown in popularity. There’s a real community feel around the BASC rings during the day; I enjoy catching up with entrants from previous years and finding out how their seasons have been and especially hearing how their dogs have worked.
“Watching the younger entrants progress into the other classes is fantastic, as is seeing the old hands help first-time entrants. Newcomers often appear somewhat bewildered, but they needn’t be, as there are plenty of staff, volunteers and other competitors who can help. As soon as the gundog day ends, the planning starts for next year!”
Making his first appearance as one of the judges of the gamekeeping rings was Brian Twigger, a retired gamekeeper from Devon. He is no stranger to Crufts; he and his wife, dog groomer and breeder Dawn Hall, have won the Northesk Memorial Trophy for overall winner of the BASC gamekeepers’ classes three times with their flat and curly coated retrievers. He said: “I had a great day, it was full-on but I just put my head down and got on with it!
“Having been there from the other side of the fence, I was able to put the competitors at ease and I think everyone enjoyed themselves. It was nice to see so many entries, the condition of the dogs was very good and it was a credit to all who took part. It was especially pleasing to see more gamekeepers in traditional tweeds looking the part and presenting a good image of the profession.
“What’s different about the BASC gamekeepers’ classes is that they are not about breed standards or show dogs, they are about working dogs. I would encourage people to bring along their companion dog who has just finished a season’s work for a good day out.”
Ian McIntyre is a gamekeeper in North Lincolnshire and was at Crufts with his wife Vanessa and their Labradors Daisy and Bailey. It was their third visit to the show and Ian was delighted to win the Liphook Trophy for the gamekeepers’ Labrador bitch class with Daisy.
Ian won the same trophy on his first visit to Crufts and last year the family was awarded the prize for the best dressed gamekeeping team. He said: “Crufts is a great social event now, an opportunity for gundog owners and trainers to meet like-minded people, a place where keepers and underkeepers can catch up at the end of the season. I think it is very important to have events like this where you can show off and be proud of your sport.”
BASC's gamekeeping and working dog advisor
Crufts 2023 was Ged Hunston’s first gig as BASC’s new gundog advisor. Having been an upland gamekeeper for 25 years, gundogs have always been a big part of his life, but he had never been to Crufts before. He said: “It was a very busy day with constant activity, but it seemed to go very quickly. Prior organisation is the key, making sure everything is done in advance so it all slots into place on the day.
“I was impressed by the excitement and enthusiasm; everyone I spoke to enjoyed the day and was already talking about next year’s show.
“From a BASC point of view it was a high-profile event; you are surrounded by people not really in the shooting sector, so it’s great exposure and really important to make a good impression.”