A good friend of mine asked me to join him for a day’s walk-up rough shooting, I accepted without hesitation.
The day was organized by the owner of Ballyvonaire House, a beautiful 18th century estate standing on over twelve hundred acres of mixed farm land on the southern foot of the Ballyhoura Mountains in North Cork and rising high to the Ballyhoura Way. This day was to celebrate the host’s birthday, his age – well his shooting days are far from over, much like my own.
The day started like any other with choosing the dogs for the day, so three springers were boxed up for the 25 minute journey from the Bride Valley crossing the Blackwater Valley onto the Ballyhouras. A neither perfect day, no hardness on the ground nor was the sun too high, the meet was at 09.30 and nobody was late. A total of ten guns were invited and introductions got underway by the host and hostess over a pot of coffee and some oatmeal flapjacks. This was followed by the party photograph on the front steps of this great house which, by the way, was where the award winning film “The Wind that Shakes the Barley” was filmed with Brendan Cunningham the main star- bet you wish you were here.
Out of the ten invited gun, all were present but one man choose to leave the gun and concentrate on working his team of five springers. I had no doubt that these springers were at the top of their game, especially when they were owned, trained and shot over by the renowned Dog Trainer and Breeder, Mr. Frank Mansell from Camp in Co. Kerry. The next Dog Handler was by good friend and comrade, Capt. Will O’Meara with his four year old Springer dog (Grouse). I completed the line up with my own sprinters who were well up for the job- a four year old dog (Buster) who is a litter brother to “Grouse”, a three year old bitch (Briar) bread by Frank Mansell and a fifteen month old dog pup (Max) bread by me from a litter of “Briar”. Our Host laid down the rules: – no hen pheasants or hares.
The three Handlers with our own guns were on the walk up shoot (our orders were simple – anything that went back was ours, the rest were for the guns up front. The orders for line were one liner high birds only).
I tried to pick out the top gun from the seven on the line, judging by the guns and clothing, one over-and-under and six side-by-sides, one of which was a 16 bore, handled by the only lady on the line. Now that all formalities were over and everybody was ready to go, the guns on the line were off to take up their positions. The first drive was from the house heading east to the duck pond which I had no doubt been well surrounded. As we were about to let a pair of sprinters off, a folly of shots rang out at the top end of the pond and looking up, we noticed five Mallard duck heading south – “the lucky ones”. Now, we were off down the laurel flanked drive with mature hardwood trees and fern covered he ground. With dogs working well, a pair of hens were flushed out half way to the pond and with close quartering, the dogs were breaking ferns, when out from the left, I heard a flutter and the crowing from a cock pheasant, he headed off high in the direction of the guns which were only about 50 yards ahead. Both dogs dropped to the wind and we all waited for the shot which cam as a pair (was it from two guns or one, time will tell). We worked it out to the end but no more birds. Walking up to the line, we were asked to do some retrieving from lands and water. Frank headed to the pond and got his young Springer bitch to retrieve two Mallard duck. Will casted his dog to the near bank and picked a Mallard drake, next was a pheasant out 30 yards in a grass filed. With the pressure mounting as the Breeder was watching, I sent my three year old spinger bitch (Briar) straight out and with ten or so yards to go she sighted the bird, picked him up at speed and returned with delight and handed him up. Turning to the line, I held up this fine cock pheasant for someone to claim. I had top gun picked out but I couldn’t have been more wrong- lady luck was in, the only lady in the ling came forward and took him. The Mallard were claimed too, one gun has a left and right, the other was a singles.
Drive number two was on a river bank. Taking both sides up, cover was thick and Woodcock were plentiful. Four were bagged; a brace of pheasant went forward but no shots. Number three drive was the final one before lunch- still early, I was wondering why this was the largest and most profitable of all. I worked the right hand side leading up to the Ballyhouras which was a mixture of open mature hardwood trees and laurel bushes surrounded by high wild grass and bushes. It didn’t take long before shots were fired by the guns on the line. Will and Frank were both meeting game. I had two dogs working and one walking to heal, both dog’s working close through the trees and then out to open wild grass, good scent, twenty yards out and up with a cock pheasant off to the right taking to the hills. I pulled with the right barrel number seven cartridge in and he dropped about sixty or so yards out. My springer bitch dropped to wing but the pup, just 15 months old, was a bit giddy till the shot. As a reward for dropping to shot, I gave him the retrieve as he had him well sighted, so off he went, pulled up a bit soon but he took his time and before I could send him on, he got scent and took a line straight to where the bird lay. Having the perfect mouth, he took good hold and with great delight retrieved straight to hand. Working on, we sent two cock pheasants and four hens forward and more shots rang out. Woodcock were plentiful, going left and forward, no shot for me, more laurels to shake up, two more hens and a woodcock going back. I took aim and pulled, down he went 40 yards out, the dog at heal (buster) got this one. With no shortage of game or shots, I bagged another pheasant and two more Woodcock. With the bag getting heavy, it was lunchtime. Thanks to our Hostess, it was lunch in the filed which consisted of homemade soup, salad sandwiches followed by tea and rock buns and plenty of talk about the ones that got away. In total, 7 pheasants and 9 woodcock were bagged, a very good morning’s drive. We were sitting on the perfect earth bank, facing south; our Host informed us that the bank we were sitting on was in fact the three yard firing point on a rifle range built by the English army at the turn of the century.
Lunch over, and it was back to the drive. The next drive was a young evergreen plantation of about 60 acres, heavy going with thick briars and deep drains, birds were scarce and low flying so shots were few. We then beat out eight acres of bog flanked by stubble fields and good pickings, birds were plentiful here and high flying, a good test for the line. Three cock pheasants were bagged with as many more crowing and going off to the hills in the distance and hens to match. We then quartered out a field of down turned kale caused by the heavy frost. Dozens of wood pigeons rose in flocks with the 20 acre field sparsely surrounded by the 7 guns. They still shot 4 pigeons at a good height and speed. Now that we were as far west as we could go, we then beat the boundary ditch with a pair of Springer’s while the guns from the line moved ahead to get into position. I watched the master at work putting a young Springer through her paces. Not a word spoken or whistle blown, just guided by the hand and the odd click of the fingers. It didn’t take long when a lovely dark colored cock pheasant was flushed out to Will. A keen shot with his over-and-under, a good lead was given and with one shot the bird was down. Frank’s young bitch was sitting after dropping to wing and shot but she didn’t get this retrieve. Will sent his dog (Grouse) out the 75 or so yards and being the powerful dog that he is, he made light work of this retrieve. Carrying on with Frank’s young bitch at the near side and Will’s dog at the far, working a well covered drain, a pair of hens rose. Dogs sent on again and the next bird out was a woodcock. Frank, having chosen to leave his gun behind, the shot was mine. The bird was flying right to left so I pulled off the left barrel on my Harrier Deluxe, A lovely gun which I am using since my father gave it to me some 25 years ago when I first started shooting. Down it went, 60 yards out in a field of wild grass and the odd clump of bog reeds. A good test for the young bitch and Frank’s guidance, off she was sent sailing over the first lot of reeds and taking a line slightly to the right, Frank gave a short blow of his 210 ½ whistle stopping this novice bitch and with a wave of his left hand, he set her back on line. After 20 yards, Frank called “steady” and his young bitch slowed and started working the ground, checking out every tuff of grass. She soon picked her game and as fast as she went out, she came back every faster, skidding to a halt, she had her chest firmly against Frank’s knee, as cool as only Frank could be, he received the game and praised his young hunter. We worked the rest of the boundary ditch but no more game and now we were at the start of the next drive.
This beat was hunted west to east in the direction of Ballyvonaire House. The orders were to do it in two drives due to the length and width of it. Something similar to the first drive in the morning, old mature hardwood, good ground cover with hard briars and I have the scratches to prove it. Flanked by a stubble field to the left and a field of kale 50 yards to the right, with a grass paddock between, it was now 3.30pm and birds were probably thinking of going to roost as dusk was about 5.00pm these evenings. Frank worked the right hand side; Will took the middle and myself to the left. Will worked his dog through the thick briars in the middle in the hope of some woodcock. He was still working well despite having only a break a lunchtime and short time out between drives. Frank was working a keen young bitch, liver and white, half sister to the previous bitch that he had just worked. There was one gun to Frank’s right, watching the dog and handler at work more than looking out for the game. I was working my bitch, Briar, who doesn’t ever seem to tire with the two dogs, Buster and Max walking to heal. No problems keeping them there as they were both tired. There was also a gun flanking me on the left. Scent was good and birds were running but patience paid off by working the dogs tight. Birds were rising on the right, the calls were coming: “Gone back, hen, watch up”. The odd shot was fired up front then a double, never a good sign. Game was scarce on my side probably because they headed for the south side of the cover to get the last bit of sunlight before sunset. Half way down, Briar took a check and worked around a felled tree covered with ivy and brambles. She pushed a hen out, dropped to wing but didn’t want to stay so I sent her on again to the right. Still very anxious, she crossed to Will’s beat. I brought her back to the left again and on the way, she pushed out another hen which flew out to the left to the stubbles. After another 20 yards working right to left, she put out a cock pheasant, heading in the direction of the stubbles but my flank gun pulled and dropped the bird with one shot. This brightened up my two dogs at heal but this was Briar’s. I waved my left hand and sent her off. She had a good mark, picked the bird with ease and started on her return with caution as the gunman was standing between dog and master. This sharp shooter was eager to claim his prize but he had to wait another bit as Briar passed him as if he wasn’t there and handed the bird to me with pride in her eyes. I think I was as proud with that display, so needless to say she was praised. Now we were at the end of the first half with three pheasants bagged.
The second half yielded only one pheasant which the guns on the line shot. The day was nearly done with just one field of kale left before the farmyard. Again, burnt from the hard winter, good picking for all especially for wood pigeons. Will, Frank and I stayed back as the 7 guns walked in a skirmish line in the hope of raising some wood pigeons. Many were shot at but only three were bagged. Back to the house and the day’s game was laid out. A good day for all with every gun bagging game. The guns put away and the dogs looked after, we enter the great house for an evening cup of tea and fresh apple tart. Praises all round for guns and dogs but more so for the dogs which we soaked up with pride and we, the handlers, got our few words in, thanking the Hosts and guns for their safety and accuracy throughout the day. The day’s shoot was fully rehashed, Frank and myself made our excuses, thanked the Host and Hostess, Will for our invite and headed for home. I left my day’s game with the Hosts, two pheasants and three woodcock, a good day’s gaming at any measure. Back in the Bridge Valley with all the dogs fed and bedded down for the night, gun cleaned and put away, this day will stand out with a difference.
Author Michael O’Donovan