GUNDOGS. The very name, and association with blood sport, is enough to make some people shudder.
For others, they are part of a rich, centuries-old tradition of hunting, which uses dogs’ innate abilities to ferret out rabbits, quail, ducks or other prey.
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For Rachel Greaves, the secretary of the Gundog Club of Victoria and breeder of English Springer Spaniels, to watch a gundog in action – nose in the air, body tense, pointing skills at the ready, retrieval instincts on high alert, stealthily flushing out prey – is poetry in motion.
“It’s magic,” says Rachel, who lives in Greendale, central Victoria.
“To see a beautiful Irish Setter running through the paddocks, slam their brakes on and then point, it’s just amazing what they are capable of doing.” Such, she says, are the vast skills of gundogs, her own spaniels have been bred and trained for an amazing array of work.
“I have sent spaniels to Macquarie Island for conservation work for rabbit removal. There are a couple in the Kimberley hunting feral cats,” she says.
“A couple more have been sent to Namibia to hunt cheetah scats so scientists can get their DNA and assess the health and vitality of cheetahs without stressing them.
“And others have been sent to World Wildlife Fund in Germany, where they’re running a pilot scheme to track down illegal rainforest timber smugglers. They train the dogs to identify hardwood timbers that are smuggled through with big supplies of plantation timber.”
Spend time with the 100-odd members of the Gundog Club of Victoria – all of them hunters, many of them farmers – and you develop an appreciation of the pride all owners have in their dogs’ work. Many can be seen throughout the year, stalking and traipsing across properties around rural Victoria, helping farmers eradicate rabbits, or accessing farmers’ land to hunt other prey.
The club, which this year celebrates its 110th birthday, was formed to maintain standards for gundogs.
Throughout the year the club runs events and competitions – breed shows, field trials and retrieving tests – all run voluntarily to ensure dogs remain the elite athletes of the canine world.
There are about 30 breeds of dog that fall under the gundog category, with Labradors and Golden Retrievers among the most popular.
Each breed carries specific instincts that can largely be broken down into several different skill sets: pointing, flushing and retrieving. Spaniels and retrievers can flush and point, for instance, but don’t retrieve.
“Spaniels and retrievers stand back and point – telling their handler there’s a bird in that direction – and then walk up slowly with the handler beside them,” says Rachel, who has been breeding English Springer Spaniels for more than 30 years and grew up in the UK in a hunting family.
Despite their long tradition, Rachel says there was a move about four years ago to change the name of gundogs, due to their association with firearms. “People throw up their hands when they hear the word gundog and say they want nothing to do with guns,” Rachel says.
“When the idea to change the name was suggested there was uproar from breeders, who understand they have been developed for a reason. Gundogs is a name that tells of their heritage. It is rooted in history.”