Writer, zoologist and gundog enthusiast, Pippa blogs on life in the countryside

Steadiness around the Ex Layers

Walking the pens is great practice for young gundogs.  We introduce our young dogs to game this way,  on a lead at first,  then simply at heel off-lead.  It gives you a chance to gauge their level of interest,  to assess how distracting they find the birds.   You can get them to sit if a bird takes off,  or gets a bit lively,  every now and then I just stop,  and wait,  and let the birds and the dog relax before walking quietly on.    The ex-layers pen is better for this,  as the little poults are still very nervous

We have one pen each year with ex-layers in.  As their name implies ‘ex-layers’ are breeding birds that were used to produce this year’s poults.  When they have finished laying their eggs,  they are sold to shoots.  

There are pros and cons to buying ex layers compared with poults.   They arrive earlier in the year,  so it means a longer commitment to their care and protection.   They are less vulnerable to the smaller flying predators,  sparrowhawks and tawny owls for the most part  leave them alone.  Buzzards can be a problem if they get a taste for pheasants,  and we have several pairs of buzzards living on the farm.    

Hanging plastic sacks all around the pens does not look pretty,  but it helps to dissuade the large predators from entering.

Once we have the dogs nice and steady to the birds outside the pens,  and the birds are used to them,  they are allowed into the pens  where they sit and wait whilst we refill hoppers,  clean out drinkers etc.    Eventually we can throw a few dummy retrieves quite close to the birds and the dogs learn to run out and pick up the dummies whilst ignoring the live birds.

This kind of practice is invaluable and if you have a young gundog,  it is well worth offering to help out your local shoot in exchange for being allowed to get your dog accustomed to being around the birds.   If you can make sure that they are calm around domestic poultry or rabbits first,  so much the better.  We keep chickens and rabbits at home in our garden so that the dogs grow up learning to ignore them.

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