by Gavin Goldbatt

2008 marked the centenary of the South African Field Trial Club, and was celebrated by a large field trial held in the Verloren Vallei Nature Reserve near Dullstroom.
The inaugral trial was held at Irene Estate, home of Jan Smuts, in 1908. Smuts was later President of South Africa, founder of the League of Nations, and Churchill’s key advisor during WWII – this last ironic as Churchill was held as a prisoner during the Boer War near Irene Estate. Perhaps more important in the long run, Smuts was a keen environmentalist and dedicated conservationist who preserved hundreds of thousands of hectares of natural land. He was a keen setter man, and apparently attended the inaugral trial, but did not take part. The trial took place on his neighbour’s, Bertie van der Bijl’s, land.
A report of the inaugural trial was carried in the Sunday Times on the 9th of August. This included the Judges Report. Fourteen dogs were entered, and John McIlveen’s Llewelyn Setter, Wrapp, trained and handled by Mr. T Egner won first place, with Mr J Ryan’s solid liver pointer Drake taking second. According to the Judge’s Report “The trial was carried out under most trying conditions. With the strong cold wind there was not a bit of scent, and unfortunately but little game. ..As regards the dogs in general, they failed badly in ranging – several would not go twenty yards from their handlers toes.”
The centennial trial was a measure of the progress of the breed and the sport over the past 100 years. 83 dogs were entered, and none, even the youngest derby, hesitated to range well over 200 yards, while most worked over the horizon, cresting rises to check in with their handlers before heading off again. The conditions were warm and windy- but unfortunately there was once again “not a bit of scent”.
Verloren Vallei is a proclaimed nature reserve and a RAMSAR site, predominantly on account of the ornithological diversity – in particular the fact that the reserve is home to breeding populations of all three of the worlds endangered cranes. Entry is by appointment and guided tour only. The SAFTC has a very good relationship with the Mpumalanga Parks and Tourism Authority, and regularly assists with conservation surveys of game bird populations. As a result we were allowed the unique privilege of trialling on the reserve. We were accompanied by the reserve manager much of the way, and by rangers throughout the trial – one of those rangers took the opportunity to put his name down for a pup and hopefully will be competing at future trials.
South Africa is amongst those rare countries where trials are only run on wild birds, and the abundance of wild game birds are partially due to the efforts of the South African Field Club which has been throughout it’s history, and will remain, totally committed to conservation principles. In the sport of field trialling, birds are saluted with a blank black powder charge fired by a shotgun after the bird has flushed, and the birds are not harmed.
The trial headquarters and accommodation were at the Elandskloof Trout Farm, with fly fishing, horse riding and game viewing available for spouses and children.
The trial venue consists of 5891 hectares of low rolling grassy hills interspersed with the occasional cluster of boulders, at an altitude of 2200 metres (1.2 miles) above sea level. The name, Verloren Vallei, means “Lost Valley”, on account of the thick early morning mists, which cleared up by mid morning.
The rolling low hills means that the horizon is close, and the scattered gallery, armed with binoculars and sticking to the high ground, played a valuable role in spotting dogs and calling or radioing locations to judges. The game birds are predominantly redwing francolin, with a few greywing francolins. Redwings normally occur in small coveys of less than five birds and have large territories, feeding in valleys during the day and moving up to their roosts on the rocky ridges, often in close proximity to other coveys, in the late afternoon.
Scenting conditions were extremely poor for the duration of the trial and this, combined with the widely scattered birds meant that for a dog to have any chance of finding birds it needed to cover a lot of ground very rapidly, and have an exceptional nose. Red setters, with their willingness to drop their noses to puzzle out and follow ground scent had a significant advantage over the pointers who on the whole preferred to wind high. Many proven dogs that have won major championships failed to find birds. This was in marked contrast to all other trials this year where birds had been plentiful and scenting conditions good, so speed and manners counted for more than range and nose.
The derby and maiden stakes were run concurrently, as all of the derby dogs were also entered in the maiden. The derby stake is for dogs under two years, the maiden stake is for all age groups and is a qualifying stake for the championship, with only dogs that have placed in a maiden being entitled to run championships. There were 43 dogs entered in the maiden and 28 entered in the derby. Of the maiden dogs eight were from outside South Africa - three were All Age field trialling pointers from the US (two sired by Funseekers Rebel), one was an English Setter from France (whose litter mate and grand-dam have both won the World Championships), and four were Zimbabwean pointers. Initially it was also thought that Martin Eriksen of Sweden was entering a dog, but instead he arrived with a 12-week pup as a surprise gift for the President of the National Field Trial Club! Of the 43 dogs three were red setters, two were English setters, two were GSP’s and 36 were pointers.
Scenting was exceptionally poor, and redwings have large territories, so despite plentiful scratchings the first day of the stake produced only 3 finds in the first six hours. Then, in the late afternoon, the trial came to an area later called “Slaughter Valley”. This 3 mile long ridge running along the top of a valley appears to be roost to a number of coveys of redwing, all returning home for the evening. The combination of a tail wind, poor scenting, plentiful ground scent, frustrated and over-eager dogs and handlers and running birds was a recipe for chaos, and in a three hour session the field was reduced dramatically, with dogs eliminated for chasing, going through backs, unsteadiness to flush and shot, poor handling of birds, and general mayhem.
By lunch on the second day the judges called up 11 dogs that were still in the running. The majority of these had performed good work, but several had consistently hunted well without having any finds to their credit and the judges felt them worthy of a last chance. In the galleries opinion the leading dogs were Monty, a red setter owned by Mike and Cheryl Galloway and handled by Cheryl, two pointers, Giaa and Sport handled by Jane Mackie, one belonging to her and the other to her husband Charlie, and a pointer, Copper, owned and handled by Bruce Bryant. Mike and Cheryl have a strong trialling background – Mike is a Senior Judge. Charles Mackie is a doyen of field trialling in Zimbabwe, who unfortunately was recently admitted to hospital to have 30 year old shrapnel removed from his stomach, so Jane took over the handling of their dogs on short notice. Bruce comes from a three generation trialling family, and has been a consistent winner of Championships since the early 1970’s. Monty was the only dog with three finds to his credit, while Sport, Giaa and Copper had both had two finds. All had been down in Slaughter Valley, and performed with aplomb and composure.
The very last round of the derby was between two pointer dogs, Ivan Beukes’ Gabriella and my Gusto. Apologies for waxing on regarding my own dog’s performance – I wouldn’t normally do so, but the round was interesting for a number of factors, most notably Ivan’s great sportsmanship, our judging criteria, our requirements that dogs assist one another, prove their own points by relocating and then flushing on command, and the behavior of our birds, so it may be of interest to illustrate how we do things.
Neither dog had any finds to their credit but both had hunted exceptionally, so the judges gave them a last 20 minute chance to prove themselves. Gabriella went on point early in the round, and Gusto flash backed, then as Gabriella relocated he came past at speed to prove the point unproductive. He disappeared over the horizon, and only occasional glimpses were caught of him for the remainder of the round. Gabriella continued to work steadily within 700 yards of her handler. Gabriella went on point seconds before the end of the round. South African rules state that a round cannot be called with a dog on point or working birds, so the round was extended until she had finished her work. Ivan held Gabriella on point to give me a chance to bring Gusto in to get a back and help work out the birds. This was an act of sportsmanship that would normally be expected and therefore pass unnoticed, but in this case, as it seriously jeopardised his own chances in the last seconds of the trial, it was a superb gesture much appreciated by the gallery. Unfortunately Gusto was over the horizon at the time, and did not return on my repeated whistles, so after several minutes the judges asked Ivan to work out the point, which proved unproductive. The Chief Steward then called the round, but before this was radioed to the Chief Judge Gusto was discovered on point, on a large bare rock platform facing out over a cliff. As the judges and handler approached, two greywing francolin were seen breaking from a rock crevice at the dog’s feet, and disappearing over the edge of the cliff, with the dog remaining steady. I gave Ivan time to bring Gabriella in for a back, and then commanded Gusto to prove his point. He relocated 10 yards forward to the very edge of the cliff, and when again commanded to prove his point he leant forward and nudged a francolin off a ledge just below the cliff top. He was steady on flush and shot, and repeated for the second francolin. There was debate amongst the gallery on a number of points: had Gusto broken a back at the beginning of the round; had time officially lapsed when he was discovered on point, and; had he been out of control due to being out of sight for more than 10 minutes and not returning on the whistle. The judges ruled in his favour on all of these matters.
The final derby results were: First Place to Dorset Gusto, and second place to Loagheyre Copper. No dogs were awarded a third place or a Certificate of Merit. The Maiden Results were: First Place: Red Setter Dog Glen Etive Monty; Second Place: Pointer Bitch Monothorium Giaa; Third Place: Pointer Dog Dorset Gusto. Pointer Bitch Stormberg Sport and Red Setter Dog Glen Etive Humphrey received Certificates of Merit.
Every trial seems to produce one moment of humour that enters into trialling folklore. In this trial it arose when Bruce Bryant’s Derby Pointer Dog Loagheyre Fred was put down with Stefano Marussi’s Mea. The dogs were cast off on top of the highest hill in the vicinity, with a tail wind. Both ran in a straight line neck and neck until they came to a small stream at the bottom of a valley, around 500 yards from where they were cast off, when Mea turned and started working back into the wind. Fred kept going. He disappeared over the next hill, and several minutes later was spotted, with the aid of binoculars, disappearing over the far horizon – still in a straight line and without having slowed down. Two judges and the gallery waited with Bruce, all scanning the horizon with binoculars. After several minutes Bruce’s phone rang. He answered, then turned to the judges and said “It’s Fred. He’s on birds and would like you to join him.”
The Brace Stake was run on Wednesday 25th of June. Seven braces were entered. Braces are in many ways the most challenging stakes, as they require each of the dogs to perform to a sufficient standard, and also for the two dogs as a team to cover the ground effectively without duplication or trailing, but coming in to help one another produce birds when one dog hits scent. The judges decided that none of these braces were worthy of a place. A bold decision to have a no result for a centenary event, but it is important to maintain standards, and none of the braces performed to the standard one would expect from a championship winner.
The Championship Stake was run on the 26th, 27th and 28th of June. 42 Dogs competed in this stake. One of these was a US All Age GSP dog, the rest were South African. Five of the contestants were Red Setters, four were GSP’s and the remainder were all pointers. Initial expectations were that the trial would be a shoot-out between Jim Immink’s Gambi and Orca and Luke Bell’s Ranger and Pepper. Jim is the most successful field trialler in the history of the sport, having won 17 Championships and at the age of 69 is till going strong. Luke is the young challenger with Pepper and Ranger having 5 Championship wins between them over the last two years.
Scenting conditions remained very poor, and by lunchtime on the final day half of the dogs had failed to find birds despite over an hour of running spread over three days. The judges then narrowed the field to thirteen dogs – two red setters and eleven pointers. The judges matched up these dogs in head-to-head rounds, to see who performed the best under identical situations. Both Gambi and Orca were there, but Pepper and Ranger had both failed to produce finds.
The gallery favourite’s were Neill Scott’s Baron, Paul Richard’s Foxy Lady and Johnny Morgan’s Northwell Reno (Fly). Baron had dominated throughout the trial – normally a dog that carries his head high and proud he had quickly adapted and alternated rapidly between wind and ground scent for the length of the trial. This served him in good stead as he had three very good finds to his credit. Foxy and Fly had also adapted to working the ground scent and both had two good finds to their credit. All three are “galloping courageous dogs that find in slashing confident style”, which has been the crucial measure of a dog’s performance in South African Field Trials since 1916.
The run off’s did not make matters easy for the judges. Fly ran first, and produced a large covey which he worked perfectly. Baron then had a marvellous long range find on a single bird. In her brace Foxy went back to cover ground unsuccessfully worked by a previous brace and picked up three running birds which she drew on for a good 300 yards before producing for Paul. In all three cases their brace mates failed to find birds.
The final results were: First Place, Irish Setter Dog Glen Etive’s Red Baron; Second Place, Pointer Bitch Thendele Foxy Lady; Third Place, Pointer Dog Northwell Reno (Fly). This marked the first win of the South African Field Trial by a setter in 20 years, and only the sixteenth ever (the seventh for an Irish Setter). A fantastic achievement by a dog that dominated in every round he ran, and a fitting one as the first winner ever, 100 years ago, was a setter. And a credit for the Scott family, who over a considerable time period have bred and improved a line that produced it’s first win in 1927 and is now stronger then ever. And of course this is also the centenary year of the first Irish Setter Association in the UK.
After the completion of the trials, a plaque commemorating 100 years of field trialling in South Africa was unveiled. The plaque was set into a rock at the top of the tallest hill in Verloren Vallei. Barry Kraut and Tim Snow, playing bagpipes, led Jim Immink (the oldest current field trialler and the most successful ever) and a collection of the children of trialists to the top of the hill, followed by a large gallery of spectators. Frank Poretti, long time President of the SAFTC, then proposed two toasts – to those who had gone before and bequeathed us the marvellous dogs we hold in trust, and to those who will come after us and carry the sport and the breed to new heights. Jim Immink then proposed two toasts – to our best friends, our dogs; and to the birds, whose welfare is vital to our sport, and which we have a duty to conserve for future generations. The plaque was then unveiled by the two youngest children present.
At the prize giving dinner Martin Eriksen from Sweden presented a magnificent large oil painting of a setter on point and backed by a pointer, donated as a gift by the Swedish Association, to the winner of the Championship. Deon Jordaan presented all judges with a gift - signed first edition copies of the book “The Ninth Pup” written by Tom Word of the USA, and donated by Tom to the Club to mark the centenary.
   Click  here for photographs by Rowan Stretton