For those who don’t already know me my name is Sophie, I am the owner of Highpowley Labradors and the brand new Head Of Gundogs with The Country Girls UK. I am based in a beautiful part of the country just outside the Lake District. 

My gundog journey began 9 years when ago when I became an under keeper on an estate near home. I was going in completely blind knowing nothing but I like a challenge and I had the best boss and colleagues! Taking this job found me needing my own gundog, so along came Bella. My tiny little best friend who never left my side! We saw two and a half seasons together on the estate and then it was time to move on. I was lucky enough to still be involved with another fantastic shoot where I was picking up and beating in my spare time. Fast forward a good few years and I bred my two little angels Dora and Winnie from Bella. There were actually eight in the litter but I couldn’t keep them all (I think mum would have killed me). Winnie is actually supposed to be mum’s dog but since moving back home she has decided she is mine! 

So my team consists of Bella (my queen) an eight-year-old red Labrador, Dora a 20-month-old black Labrador and Winnie a 20-month-old yellow Labrador. Also in my team, I am lucky enough to have Lexi, a pup I bred in 2019 who belongs to my best friend Lee. Lee and Lexi come as a package on a shoot day and I love having them with me! I also have the pleasure of working with two fantastic dogs from close friends Edenrose Spaniels, Belle a 4-year-old Yellow Labrador and Skid (yes a questionable name for a lady) who is a 5-year-old black Cocker Spaniel (yes a spaniel). I didn’t think I would ever see the day but if her owner would sell her I would buy her in a heartbeat!  

My prep for a shoot day starts the night before when I load my car (I drive a polo which is not an ideal dog car but you have to work with what you have) I always have a basket on my back seat for all my kit starting with dog leads -I always lose dog leads so always pack extra! Game carriers (i swear by the twice-brewed game carriers they are so light and easy to carry when not in use and you can get so many birds on them) I also pack my boots, gators, coat, leggings, first aid kit, dog towels, dog coats and water all go in the box.

I am usually stressed on a shoot morning as I am not a very good morning person! I let all the dogs out and decide who I’m taking. Bella doesn’t do as much anymore as she suffers with quite bad arthritis following surgery in 2021 so she doesn’t always come with us. Once the dogs have been out it’s straight to the kettle!! The Yeti flask full of coffee is a necessity. Then we load up and off to collect Lee and Lexi then to pick up Belle and Skid. It is a bit of a squeeze but they don’t mind! 

Once we get to the shoot we are told what order we are doing drives and given a plan for who’s going where on the first drive as it does change as to what drive we are doing first. I usually have the furthest away stands as I’m the youngest (but have the shortest legs) We get our radios then get set off. I always like to give the dogs a little run before we head over to the drive for them to have a bit of a play and a toilet stop before I ask them to buckle up and concentrate (no one can concentrate when you need a wee). Depending on which drive we are on depends on which dogs I work first. If we are on a flat grass field I tend to have one of the younger dogs next to me and leave the others sat back. I do this as I want the younger ones to get more confident and let them pick marked birds without asking too much of them I often push them a little now we are further into the season sending them on to memories, this is also good steadiness work for them learning not to run in as we all know it can be very exciting. 

Once the drive has finished (sounded by a horn) I send all the dogs out to sweep the area, once I’m happy we have cleared the full area I check on the radio if anyone else needs any help before heading back to the vehicles. This is where the basket on my back seat plays a part as if the gun bus isn’t handy my birds get put in the basket until we get caught up. This is pretty much how the rest of the drives go throughout the day. I try and alternate through the day which dog I am running at one time so they all get their fair share. I have to pick and choose carefully the drives to push the younger two on as they are still very novice! However these last few weeks Dora has kicked up another gear and is proving to be a very strong member of the team (anyone who follows us will understand how hard I have worked with Dora) and if I am honest Winnie hasn’t had the work she should have as I was putting everything into Dora but I guess that’s just dogs and the joys of having two the same age! 

At the end of the day we all make our way back to the bothy. I always get the dogs a drink, dry them off and check them for any injuries (not all injuries are obvious) they also get their jackets on (I hate the thought of them sitting wet and cold) then we all go for soup and a chin wag to reflect on the day – we all know a shoot day doesn’t always go to plan! Wind, rain and even the sun can play a huge part in how the birds fly, whether it be they are wet and heavy or the wind going the wrong way and as for the sun well we all love a nice sunny shoot day but birds do NOT like flying into the sun. 

We all help tie the birds and then load them up to go to the larder. Once we have all been paid and said our goodbyes we start making our way home. Quite often we call via McDonald’s on the way home as we are usually starving (unhealthy I know, don’t tell my PT) then I drop Skid and Belle off first and usually have a catch-up with Steph and Conah on how they have worked. Then I drop Lee and Lexi off usually sitting outside his house putting the world to rights for ages, then home. The girls always get a little extra tea on a shoot day as a thank-you for working hard and a chilled night on the sofa.

Me and my Queen Bella

My top 4 shoot-day tips are:

1. Make sure you have a few people’s numbers you are working with including the keepers in case you get stuck, lost or need help as radios aren’t always reliable.

2. First Aid kit and water for your dogs. You may be hours away from a vet and could have anything to deal with, with your or someone else’s dogs. I always say if you have one you won’t need it! Pressure bandages are the one thing I say pack if nothing else. Applying pressure to a wound could be the difference between life and death. Water is so important not only to drink but to also clean wounds. It is so important to keep your dogs hydrated as they are working hard and can dehydrate fast! 

3. Let the guns work their dogs before you work yours. Guns are paying a lot of money for their peg so if they have their dog the chances are they are going to want to work it! It may often be frustrating as they aren’t always the best-trained dogs and often pull silly tricks spitting birds or pinching birds but smile and just be polite and wait until they move on then sweep the area afterwards.

4. Always be prepared to learn, you will come across some very talented dog handlers on shoot days from fellow pickers-up, beaters, guns and everyone in between. I love talking to other handlers and taking this and comparing methods. I have worked my dog alongside some fantastic handlers who I have a lot of respect for, and these are the sort of people that will help you with your gundog journey

If you have any questions on picking up or how to get started, feel free to message me at [email protected]

Written by Sophie Mair