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Champions . . . Nicola Johns and Fern with their trophy haul. Photo: Supplied

By ROBYN BRISTOW

Nicola Johns and Fern were doubtful starters at the New Zealand Gundog Field Trial championships.

Nicola had concussion and was not allowed to drive.

But the Canterbury Gundog Retriever ‘‘mob’’ rallied to ensure Nicola and Fern (First Lady of
Iceypeak), got to the start line in Invercargill.

And the North Canterbury pair came home New Zealand champions.

They are believed to be one of the youngest pairs to carry off the top trophy with Nicola just 32, and Fern only two-and-a-half-years-old.

They gained top honours in the Retriever class, and won the Shadow Cup for gaining the highest aggregate score in the New Zealand, North and South Island championships.

The pair were back in the winners circle to be awarded Novice Walkup Dog of the Year and the Levenghyl Pirate Memorial Trophy, which was also based on performance during the
year.

‘‘I am so incredibly excited and proud she is a New Zealand champion. I don’t believe it has sunk in yet,’’ says

On target . . . Nicola Johns, and her New Zealand champion retriever Fern, in action at the New Zealand Championships near Invercargill hosted by the Southland Gundog Club. PHOTO: SUPPLIED

Nicola who had set two goals this year – to win the Levenghyl Pirate Memorial Trophy and gain her first Field Trial challenge point of the six required to win the NZ Gundog of the Year Trophy.

Instead of gaining one point toward her goal, she was awarded three for Fern’s efforts. Fern had also performed well at the South Island championships the week previous, but Nicola had no expectations of her becoming top retriever at the nationals.

‘‘It feels like just the other day we won our first puppy trophy, and now to win a New Zealand championship with Fern is just the most wonderful experience and I am so incredibly excited for our future ahead.’’ Gundog trialling is not just for keen hunters.

However you do handle a shotgun under supervision, are taught firearms safety, but you only fire blank shots.

Nicola puts much of her success and passion for the sport down to her apprenticeship with her dad, Graeme, and the bloodlines of his dog King, Peacehaven Candy Man, Fern’s sire.

“I have been gundog trialling for pretty much my whole life, starting off in dad’s back pack.

“Our holidays were travelling around to various events,” Nicola says.

“Winning the championship is very cool, and I feel very privileged for Fern to carry on King’s bloodlines. Fern is a special bitch and the beginning of Iceypeak Labradors.”

Nicola is addicted to the sport, and loves her two dogs, which includes Fern’s mum Ice a wee bit of trialling when Nicola was a shepherd.

Shepherding did not allow for much time off the job. However, an ankle injury brought that to a halt, and Nicola took up a position in Cheviot as a vet nurse.

Today she is the senior animal health representative for North Canterbury Vets, who have been “incredibly supportive” of Nicola’s passion for her sport.

“The dogs are my family. I wouldn’t have my life without them.

“They pretty much come everywhere with me,” she says.

But behind the scenes there is another family which includes Graham Palmer and Sonya Tamblyn, two ardent supporters of Nicola, Fern and the sport.

Graham is the Canterbury Gundog Club’s vice-president and says gundog trialling is not a lot different from sheep dog trialling, except gundogs are in a simulated hunting environment.

“Dogs are tested to do what they do in the real world of hunting,” he says.

This includes on land and water , for marked and unmarked target birds, which require different commands for dogs to find and retrieve. It is a technical sport, and if a dog goes off line, it becomes a control exercise too, to get them back on track.

Graeme says it normally takes two or three dogs before a national championship comes your way, but Nicola was able to do it with her first dog.

“We are all pretty proud of her. It is not a discipline or a sport that you can take lightly. It takes an awful lot of time and effort,’ he says.

Nicola is a very good student, Graeme says. When a fault is pointed out, she comes back the next week with it all ironed out.

“In a world where time is precious and there are lots of distractions, for a young person to put in the time and effort, and get rewarded like this is pretty fantastic,” he says.

“It is all about training and problem solving,” Graeme says.

And the mob can take a lot of the credit for Nicola’s success too, several of whom did “pretty well” at the nationals also.