The Last of the Great English Waterfowl Market Hunters was a Curly Coated Retriever Fan.
Curly coated retrievers were the preferred breed for many hunters, including market hunters who sold the birds they harvested as a means of making a living.
A tough, hardscrabble life was in store for Snowden Slights, who was born in East Cottingwith, Yorkshire, England, in 1830. He would feed his wife and family by hunting, harvesting, and selling game birds and waterfowl. In the winter he made baskets from willow reeds he planted in the marshes around his home area.
Slights left school at the age of 9 to start his career as a waterfowler. He learned the craft from his father, a schoolmaster. By age 15, Slights began his solo waterfowler career.
The market hunter's life and fortune depended on circumstances out of control of the hunter: weather, bird activity, the ups and downs of commercial markets for game and waterfowl birds.
Market Hunter Snowden Slights in his Punt Boat
Slights hunted in a shallow, narrow boat called a 'punt' or 'sneak' boat. Just 10 inches deep and 34 inches wide, the long boats were designed to be easily pushed through narrow channels and marshes without disturbing birds until the hunter was near enough.
The dog was required to lie underneath the huge gun. One of Slight's punt boat guns weighed 140 pounds and had a 10-foot barrel. A gun that size could kill 10-40 birds at a time and produced a huge, booming sound and plenty of smoke.
The retriever "had to lie perfectly still, with head flat and body extended, under the barrel of the punt gun, sometimes for hours at a stretch and never flinch when the big gun was fired." Dog movement could spook the duck flock.
When commanded, the dog would slip over the gunwale and begin to retrieve the dozens and dozens of birds. Cripple retrieval was extremely important: each duck or goose or shorebird represented precious income for Slights and his family.
...a dog must be quiet of tongue, of body, and absolutely without a trace of gun shyness.
It must retrieve any kind of fur and feather, the latter invariably through water, and, lastly, it must retrieve quickly to hand without any fuss."
Requirements for a retriever working a market hunter's punt boat, according to Snowden Slights.
The Choice of Curly Coated Retrievers for Market Hunting
Market hunter Snowden Slights tried several dog breeds and types for his crucial companion in market hunting but it was the curly-coated retriever he ultimately preferred.
Spaniels were too restless and more difficult to train for punt work. Punt work required a dog "quiet of tongue, of body, and absolutely without a trace of gun shyness."
Market hunters' dogs had to "...retrieve any kind of fur and feather, the latter invariably through water, and, lastly, it must retrieve quickly to hand without any fuss."
Small retrievers, either flat-coated or curly-coated, were Slight's choice of punt boat dog because of their tractable nature. (In the 1800's many curly-coated retrievers males were about 24 inches tall and weighed 60-70 pounds.)
The curly-coated retriever was Slight's favorite because he found it to be more hardy than the flat-coat.
Understanding the importance of a curly to Slight's life is difficult for those of us who enjoy untold riches compared to Slight's life. There were years when he struggled to buy food for his family or pay the rent on his cottage.
Many times the family had to decide whether to eat or pay the cottage rent. Some weeks Slights would spend days out in the boat during winter but get no birds. In some of those weeks, he would return to his home after hunting hours on end "half-dead from lack of food and sleep, wet-to-the-skin and half-frozen."
Slights is buried in the tiny churchyard of St. Mary's in East Cottingwith. His cottage still stands and some of his guns are on display at a museum in Yorkshire. At his death at the age of 83, he was declared the "best of the English waterfowlers."
Information in this article came from various sources including Sydney Smith's book
Snowden Slights, Wildfowler", Country Life magazine, and various newspapers.