(Editor’s note: Republished from December 20, 1998.)
Whatever the Americans’ image of Queen Elizabeth II of England, it is not for a woman driving her Land Rover in a muddy field to pass a day in the rain, watching riders and hare sprout from fields of beets and ferns.
However, such a scene is not uncommon on this 21,000-acre estate, where the royal family was photographed for more than a century.
A few days ago, in a thick forest, amid heavy rain worthy of an English winter, the Queen watched intently as Tony Parnell sent his black Labrador to retrieve it with difficulty.
Completely indifferent to the elements, the Queen wore a silk scarf, a waterproof coat with a hood, and rubber boots. In her hand, as always in the field, was a walking stick.
The occasion was the 1998 British Retriever Championship, which the Queen hosts at Sandringham, usually every five years.
The Queen, a fancier, raises about 25 Labrador’s in Sandringham, where she also stables her purebreds. These are in addition to the Welsh terriers favored by domestic dogs, and a lot of Hispanic aspirins they kept on the estate to push riders and other game towards “guns” or shooters on the “drive” in which 200 or more birds might be killed.
Sandringham is large enough to host not only a Retriever Championship, but almost a concert as well to accommodate a photo op by Prince Charles, who will be joined by the King of Norway and other friends in a day or so.
But for now, there was a matter of falling into a forest that Parnell and his dog Blackharn Aaron had to retrieve.
The bird appeared—perhaps half the size of a comparable American specimen—from the thick fern to the right of Parnell. A shot from an antique double barrel hit the bird and it started spinning counterattack like a helicopter and landed about 80 yards away.
Parnell and his dog were walking in line through cover with an assortment of judges, rifles, and batters.
The beating charge was to get the toy out of the casing, and at times hit the ferns with walking sticks in order to push rabbits, hares, and birds in front of the cannons, at which point they were shot — or shot.
All of this was done in near silence, as fitness is an important part of the mission.
The civility behind the Retriever Trial, in which most men wear matching and breezy wool coats, tattered shirts, and actor or ascot ties, is in large part a reflection of British society.
However, there is utilitarianism at work here as well. Unlike in America, where the sale of wild game is illegal, in England game is sold to different markets. In the case of Sandringham, this might be a restaurant in nearby King’s Lynn, or perhaps a butcher shop in London, a 3½ hour drive to the south.
To maximize harvesting efficiency – to ensure game doesn’t fall out of range – rifles, rackets, dogs and dog handlers quietly advance through the shooting fields.
So, when the shot knocked down the wood, it was bracketed by a human voice, except perhaps for the crack of a walking stick on the fern.
James Mitchell, one of the tournament’s four judges, acknowledged the bird’s fall by pointing to it with a walking stick, pointing to Parnell’s approximate location in the woods. Then Mitchell said, “16”—the number assigned to Parnell at trial—at which point Parnell released Aaron, the 5-year-old Lab he had given birth to on whom he pinned his hopes of winning his first National title.
Watching with interest in heavy cover was a small group comprising – in addition to Parnell, the pistol, and the judges – the Queen and her lieutenant, who in somewhat less formal places might be called a bodyguard. There was also a lady friend of the Queen, as well as a writer from a British sports magazine, and me.
Parnell is no stranger to Minnesota. Every summer he visits the Twin Cities to appear at Game Fair, an outdoor festival that takes place in Anoka. At the show, he and one or two other British field trialists accompanying him demonstrated their retriever training methods.
Parnell is a highly respected British retriever and field trial coach who has judged the retriever championship in that nation. But this would not be his day, because the woodcutter somehow fell into a spot that Aaron could not find, despite all his wanderings in the area where the bird fell.
In the American Retriever experience, if the dog cannot find a bird, the dog is disqualified, and retested, or “chained,” as it is often called, until the next dog can run under identical or nearly identical conditions.
In England, when a dog cannot find a bird, another is sent, and if necessary, another is sent.
So John Halstead, a multiple-time winner of the British National Retriever Championship, was watching a Parnell dog work with laser-like focus. He knew that if Arron could not find the lumberjack, he might be directed by the judges to send his dog.
Rain hit the runners and charged them. In all, four dogs were sent to the lumberjack by four handlers.
When each animal was summoned by the rulers and another dispatched, the Queen’s attention grew more than ever. She herself had been “picked up” with her dogs in this fern, retrieving birds, rabbits, and rabbits that Prince Philip or her husband had called, or other muskets invited to the estate.
She knew firsthand how difficult the waist-length cover was sometimes on a hound, and now seemed to want to see how the best stock in Great Britain fared in that tougher cover.
When the fourth and final dog was called, and the bird stayed away, the judges waived for a moment.
Parnell will likely be dropped from the competition. Perhaps the sent dogs will also be expelled later. Or they might be given what were in fact defects that could only be balanced by exceptional work later in the trial.
However, if the judges find the same bird upon inspection, all dogs sent to retrieve it will be dropped.
So disquieting was the concern that Parnell, Halstead, and the other dealers watched the judges walk into Woodcock’s death zone—and return a short time later with the bird in hand.
For these four men and their dogs – out of only 39 to qualify for the tournament – the year of preparation and competition that preceded the big trial is over.
Feeling their disappointment, and understanding this, Queen Elizabeth in the cold rain gave a gentle smile.
A certain efficacy in the field, whether mastery of dogs, horses, or guns – often all three – has always been the hallmark of the royal family.
Prince Philip, for example, is a crack shot, and so is his son, Prince Charles. Princes William and Henry, sons of Charles and the late Princess Diana, are also good at shooting, with William, the eldest, reportedly being a natural with a rifle.
In generations past, particularly in the last century, extravagant royal shootings were held at Sandringham.
Tradition often requires that Sandringham guests, whether royalty from the Continent or elsewhere, be weighed on their arrival and departure.
The difference between the two measurements—often significant—was not indicative of the quality of the shot, but rather the amount of food and drink consumed.
One of the stories says that long ago the king of Prussia was invited to Sandringham for a photo shoot.
Arriving early, he asked if he could walk the floor with a gun in search of the game. Permission has been granted.
When he returned, he stated that he had shot “peasants”.
The reply came “you mean two riders”.
He said, “No, peasants.” “They were rude.”
On the second evening of the tournament, just a few hours after the deaths of Parnell, Halstead and the other contestants, the Queen hosted a party for field applicants and other invited guests.
On the two previous occasions I have attended this event, it has been held at Sandringham House, a massive building that is a testament to the rich history of what was once the most powerful country in the world.
This year, because Prince Charles was in residence, the ceremony was held in a building across the road.
Parnell and I have been friends for over ten years. On his visits to the Twin Cities, he also made many friends, some of whom had accompanied me to England a few weeks earlier.
These included Joel and Connie Bennett of Sunfish Lake, Chuck and Loral I Delaney of Anoka (owners of Game Fair), Terry and Mary Arnesen of Stillwater, Jeff Shea of White Bear Town, Nick Wusica of White Bear Lake and my wife Jean.
Every one in one way or another is a dog lover.
None of us asked how he did it, but somehow Parnell argued the invitations to the Queen’s party for our entire group.
Which opened up the opportunity for all, or almost all, of us to talk to the Queen – in some cases about horses, in other cases about dogs.
An interesting – and caring – woman well versed in American retrievers and the experiences of American retrievers, the Queen, as it happens, has animal problems of her own.
Her search for a new, purebred lover, for example, was problematic. She said a Japanese businessman had recently bid on such a horse.
“It’s hard to buy some of these horses,” she said.
Which we mostly nodded, as if I was bothered by the same dilemma.
On the third and final day of the tournament, the sun, hitherto quite a stranger, rose over the Sandringham County Lowlands.
With only a dozen dogs left in competition, the trial promised to be over by noon or shortly thereafter.
Initially, there would be a rally similar to the one held the first two days, with dogs and handlers joining riflemen, judges and strikers in a row about 125 yards long.
When the game was cleared and shot in heavy cover on one end of the line, the dogs were sent to retrieve it from the other end.
The game results the runners showed off this morning were exceptional, with some dogs tracking the injured birds up to 50 yards through thick cover before pounce on them and take them back to their handlers.
One of these recoveries was made by a 4-year-old black Labrador, Garendon Captain. The same dog similarly distinguished itself in the first two days of the trial, and now, late in the morning of the third day, the captain seemed to lead the contest, with only a final test—a paid shootout—between him and the championship.
Motive photography began after the Queen and her party organized themselves on one side of the guns, and the exhibition organized itself on the other side.
On cue, the Queen’s strikers and their spaniers pushed through a long stretch of woods, sending the riders up into the air.
On a small ridge overlooking the swamp, the remaining dogs, their handlers and judges were aligned. Behind the dogs, in the swamp, stood the cannons.
As the birds flew over the dogs, and then the guns, many of them were shot.
When the journey was over, the dogs were sent sequentially down the hills, across a stream, across the swamp into a plowed field, which was then scattered with dead birds.
Each dog performed well, but none better than the captain.
Soon, in a field littered with vehicles, people, and dogs, Queen Elizabeth II climbed onto a makeshift platform, around which the contestants and the showrunner had gathered at the tournament.
The organizers of the experiment thanked the Queen for the use of her land, and her support for Qatari sports, including the Retriever Championship.
That’s why the Queen smiled heartily and nodded.
A moment later, she smiled even warmer as she awarded the championship trophy to the exceptional Steve Jolly and Labrador.
Then, almost as quickly as this happened, she disappeared into her Land Rover.
#Holidays #possession #Majesty