Home Mens Interest How to select the best partridge gundog

How to select the best partridge gundog


For wild greys and redlegs, you need a worker that’s keen, thorough and won’t mind the brambles. What is the best gundog to use for partridges and other game birds? Alec Marsh finds out

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How to choose? The best gundogs for partridgesAlec Marsh has asked experts what breeds they like, from spaniels and labradors.

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How to Find the Best GUNDOG for Partridges

Every self-respecting Field reader knows that a dog for Christmas is not a good idea. Instead, it’s for retrieving or pointing out game. It should, at the very least, be able to provide us with company on a walk, or while we shelter from the skies in an old short-wheelbase Land Rover.

As the first of this season’s partridges appear on the sportsman’s horizon, there is a pressing question that needs to be answered: which dog? Which is the gundog of choice, the one that leaves all others panting in shade when Perdix perdix – or, indeed, Alectoris rufa – hove into view?

Nick Zoll is the founder and manager for a syndicate that operates a 2,500 acre shoot at Burnham Thorpe in Norfolk. This area is known as the premier place to hunt wild English partridges. If Zoll doesn’t know the right dog for the partridge, no one will.

He starts by stating that if you were walking up partridges in September over green stubbles as they did before driven games, then the pointer would be your dog of choice. However, since north of 99% all partridges in the United States are shot today with drives, a pointer would be superfluous.

“For me, shooting partridges coming over a hedge, actually the ideal dog for that is a spaniel, either a springer or a cocker, with a cocker having a slight edge only in as much as they tend to be incredibly thorough workers of the ground,” says Zoll. “They’ve got a nose that’s glued to it, more so than a springer, so they don’t miss much. And if you have to send one into a hedge to pick up a bird, it’ll do it with ease. It’ll go under any bramble or thorn that most dogs, including springers, are less inclined to want to do. And they’re just built for it.”

Zoll, who is on his fourth-generation cocker spaniel, also extols the breed’s versatility, nature and pace. “If you have a running bird, you can send your dog back mid-drive before the bird makes the furthest hedge and your dog will bring it to you. They’re incredibly keen to please in a way that I don’t think a labrador or a springer is. So my vote, hands down, goes to a cocker.”

Next in his partridge pecking order comes the springer spaniel, with the labrador – for many of us, surely, the aged waxed Barbour of gundogs – trailing. “I wouldn’t trust a lab to work heavy cover,” sighs Zoll. “I’ve seen so few of them do it. They’re just the wrong shape to be able to work a thorny hedge.”

The shoot at Burnham Thorpe includes several woods including a 20-acre bramble-filled one, making it a challenging retrieve for dogs. “There is no way on earth that you’re getting a labrador to go through that stuff, but a cocker will go through every single block of bramble that you point at and it will still come out the other end looking for more. That’s the charm of the dog. Until you get very late on in a cocker’s life, it will want to please and to hunt more than any other dog I know.”

Zoll’s neighbour in north Norfolk, Jake Fiennes, conservation director on the Earl of Leicester’s Holkham Estate, is another who favours the cocker spaniel for English and redleg partridges alike. “It’s cocker every time,” states Fiennes, who previously managed the Raveningham Estate, in Norfolk, before arriving at Wells-next-the-Sea in 2018. “Sometimes partridges will go 200 or 300 yards and drop down. A well-trained, good cocker will mark each bird. They’re quick, they’re biddable, they’re an all-round dog.”

Fiennes, who says he’s seen an escalation in the number of cockers working on partridge manors at the expense of labradors, puts this down to their character and sheer determination. “A cocker just gets stuck in, once they’ve got the scent and they’re fixated on where to find it. The cockers are going around the dog and bird. Sometimes for a millisecond they point – and then they pounce.”


Do they have better smelling noses than labs or black labs? “It’s more about their character,” says Fiennes, who migrated from black labs to cockers about 10 years ago and is now on his second, Logan (named after the Marvel character, not Brian Cox’s character in Succession). “The cockers that I have had all had very good noses. I have found that cockers will find anything. You used to be able to say that’ve got a bit of spunk about them, but you can’t say that anymore.”

Fiennes says that a cocker will make you look great, even if you are not the best shooter. “A black lab is just a black lab,” he says, “but a cocker… they can be your companion, your workhorse; they can make you look like the number one person in the field because if your dog is exceptional and your shooting is less so, actually everyone is looking at your dog rather than your shooting.”

Labrador retrievers are not the best at hunting partridge, even on the Drumlanrig Estate, which is the ancestral home of this breed. This estate belongs to the Duke Buccleuch whose ancestor imported these dogs from Newfoundland as early as 1830. Rab Clark is the Headkeeper at Drumlanrig Estate. He has two cockers, three small springers, and four Labradors. But in his book the cocker is the ideal dog for partridge because they’ll ‘rake’ the landscape, finding birds autonomously thanks to their innate natural ability rather than training. “Cockers are their own wee animal – they’re no looking for help all the time,” Clark tells me. Labradors on the other hand are trained for a particular area. “You see a team of cockers working through a bracken face, there’s nothing getting missed. They’ll all be scooting about in their own wee direction – they’re working like a pack of hounds.”

You can always count on the cocker. “The cocker just turns up with that last partridge that 20 dogs have been looking for,” laughs Clark. “You think it cannae be there and you walk away, and the cocker comes tootling back – you dinnae even know where it’s been – with a dead partridge. I like the natural hunting ability of them.”

And as well as tenacity and being the right size to get through tight spaces, that hunting ability is what sets them apart: “A picker-up dog is a wild dog,” declares Clark. “Natural ability, nothing trained out of them. My pickers-up… just a basic obedience and let them rake. Just let the little fellers go about and find them by themselves. For mass picking you cannae beat the cockers.”

And the Lab?

But it’s not curtains for labs. It’s not over yet. Zoll Clark agree that the Labrador spaniel has a lot more energy and endurance. The labrador has also got longer legs to catch the bird running. “That’s handy,” says Clark. “With a pack of cockers you end up with six cockers in hot pursuit.”

Daniel Bunting is a North Essex farm who uses two to six Labradors for a variety partridge days. He runs a pickers up team and works at about 15 shoots. He does not want to be distracted by the pocket rockets that are the spaniel breed.

“Most partridges are flighted towards a hedge and break over a hedge, which means you will be picking up in the field, rather than in a wood or stream or lake,” notes Bunting, making the point that across open ground labradors are therefore superior. “Also, the labradors have a fantastic capability to mark – and they can mark from a very long way away. They also smell better because they are higher. They cover the ground in a more natural way – they’re not running around the same bit of ground. If you are a picking-up crew, where you are walking through, your dogs are working in a nice, tight pattern and you’re picking up everything that comes through – it’s brilliant.”

Bunting does admit that a spaniel is the best dog for a late-season partridge. The birds may find it in bushes of brambles. “My brother has English spaniels and cockers and they are fantastic at going in a bush. Sometimes I say, ‘Please help me.’ But I think for a partridge dog you can’t beat a labrador.”
In part, that’s down to their physical stamina. “I reckon you need two cockers for one labrador – the reason being the cockers can’t handle the cold weather. When it’s cold, you’ll see the cockers start shaking – whereas with a labrador they’ll work all day long and they’re still in tip-top condition.” (Zoll acknowledges this, too.)

On flushing out birds, Bunting thinks the breeds are “fairly equal” because both will “work quite close to you. Labradors can be trained to retrieve partridges from stubbles, or jacksnipes from a pile of reed. They can also retrieve Canada geese from a reservoir. And that is one dog, not half a dozen.”

Ask Zoll, however, and he’ll tell you he’s seen his sodden cocker haul a pink-footed goose out of the soup after a lengthy retrieve against a building ebb tide. That’s also irrelevant. We’re talking partridges here. And with late-season partridges, he notes, you are reliant 100% on your dog to find game “because cover is thick and birds sit tight – they know what’s coming. You need a dog that’s going to be able to work thoroughly and close to you to do that. I’ve several times come back from a day like that, spending an hour picking thorns out of the face of a cocker who hasn’t made a murmur all day, but has got these half-inch spikes stuck in her head, chest and front legs. And you’re just amazed actually that they can take that.”

If you ask six economists a question, they will all give you seven different answers. My survey is not comprehensive – notwithstanding Drumlanrig and Holkham’s reputation for partridges. The hardy spaniels that have been bred for centuries from the English Land spaniel in order to survive rough terrain at woodcocks should also be the most soft-mouthed partridges. As Helena says to the man she is besotted with in A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

Demetrius, I am your spaniel.
The more I beat you, the more I’ll fawn You are welcome.
Use me but as your spaniel – spurn me, strike me,
Neglect me, lose me. Give me only leave.
You are not worthy of my following.
And as every good schoolchild knows, Helena gets her bird – just as the cocker gets his partridge.

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