How a set of spaniels from Lancashire became gun dog champions

PUBLISHED: 00:00 26 July 2018

Tilly doing what comes naturally - retrieving a dummy 'bird'

Tilly doing what comes naturally - retrieving a dummy 'bird'

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A Lancashire plumber and his special spaniels have made a huge impact on the world of gundog championships. Irene Rothery reports.

Lee with his champion gundog TillyLee with his champion gundog Tilly

Lee Barlow admits that nine years ago he knew nothing about gun dogs. Life changed however when he got Kia and within a relatively short time became one of Britain’s best.

Both dog and handler were on a steep learning curve but with the help of Lee’s good friend and mentor, Chris Holden, just a year later they won the prestigious 2012 Chudley’s Gundog Championship.

‘Chris, who came from Blackburn, is sadly no longer with us but he was an excellent teacher and I learned a lot quickly and that led to Kia’s success,’ says Lee, who is a plumber.

Although still a working dog, Kia has retired from the world of competition making way for Tilly, a six-year-old springer. Tilly came to Lee as a pup and has also proved to be a worthy winner as the pair went on to claim the championship in 2016 and 2017.

Tilly has speed and staminaTilly has speed and stamina

The Chudley Championship is regarded as the pinnacle of gun dog competitions. Qualifying events are held throughout the year at fairs across the country, including Cumbria’s Lowther Castle. Competition is fierce and in 2016 there were 5,000 entered into the qualifying events. Lee and Tilly were hailed as the worthy winners, beating 38 others in the final. ‘Tilly was with me all the way,’ says Lee, with more than a hint of pride.

The competitions take the form of scrurries, fast and furious races which test the mettle of gundogs in speed and awareness in retrieving. ‘It’s really a race against the clock and the dogs need to be well trained to ignore the many distractions when they are in the arena.’

These races, with intriguing names such as Duck Distraction, Long Retrieve and Pick’n’Mix, simulate conditions in the field.

On the day we meet, Tilly and Lee, who lives in Oswaldtwistle, demonstrate their impressive skills in woodland at Blackburn’s Pleasington Park. Lee’s meteoric success is clearly due to his infinite patience and calm, methodical approach.

Tilly hangs on her master's commandsTilly hangs on her master's commands

‘I’d always wanted a springer spaniel but worked for a season as a beater on my own so I could observe the dogs and decide which one would suit me,’ he says. Tilly’s strengths soon become apparent – a winning combination of speed and stamina.

‘She does have a mind of her own and could be quite stubborn when I was first training her but when the penny dropped she was away. She won’t give up and has a good memory.’

Tilly is quick off the mark when the signal is given to start the search for a hidden canvas dummy, as she would for a bird on a shoot. She watches her master’s every move and responds instantly to whistle commands and hand gestures. She’s as keen as mustard and with sharp awareness soon finds the hidden quarry.

Lee also puts his secrets of success down to the fact that his dogs enjoy creature comforts at their home in Oswaldtwistle. ‘Many gun dogs live in kennels but mine live in the house. They are very much pets as well as working dogs and are never any trouble because they get so much stimulation.’ Lee also gives them raw food, including good old Lancashire tripe, to keep them in top condition.

Ready to start workReady to start work

Lee’s other three springers look out at us from the back of his pick-up van. Ever mindful of their needs, Lee smiles: ‘It’s a bit unusual, but I pump warm air into the back for them in the winter so they are always warm and relaxed when they start work.

‘I always let my dogs just be puppies at first and then at about six to eight months I’ll do a little bit of training with walking to heel and retrieving before starting the gundog training, although I get them used to loud noises early on with banging doors or by dropping their dishes.

‘When they first come out in the field to clay shoots I will keep them in their cage where they feel comfortable. They get used to a starter pistol and at about 12 months they are then ready to come to shoots. There’s a lot for them to take in with overwhelming scent and noise.’

Working so intensively has created a deep bond and understanding. ‘I became self-employed so I could spend more time with my dogs. We train most weekends and three or four times a week. Fortunately my wife, Anne Marie, who also has a cocker spaniel called Harry, backs me all the way. In fact, the gundog events have become our breaks – our passports ran out long ago.’

Prizes won at the Chudley event prove quite lucrative, including a Mitsubishi ASX Crossover SUV as his first championship prize. He won’t be competing in the championship this year as he has been approached to be their ambassador. ‘It means I will help to run the Countryman’s Fairs and set up the scurries and if I can give other people advice, I will. It’s a dream come true.’

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