Behind the whistle – Darren Kirk
Inspirational trainer Darren Kirk of Kirkbourne Spaniels is once again set to deliver all the gundog content at the Northern Shooting Show this May – but up until 2008 his life and health were on a strikingly different path. From crowd-pulling demos to dynamic working tests, we meet him at home to hear what’s in store for this year’s visitors and learn about the best decision he ever made.
Fifteen years ago, at the age of 36, Darren Kirk decided to swap his highly successful career managing a recycling and landfill site to follow his dream of training gundogs and their handlers full-time.
“During the week my days were stressful, filled with endless environmental legislation and fraught planning permission applications,” Darren says.
“My time there had run its course and I felt I needed a complete gear change. I was also 10 stone overweight which I needed to address. Turning my lifelong passion for training gundogs into my profession was the obvious next chapter for me. When I quit the waste industry it raised a few eyebrows, but my gamble seems to have paid off.”
Based in Lincolnshire, Darren soon lost the excess weight and became well established as a professional gundog trainer as demand for his one-to-one and group lessons grew to the extent that he launched Kirkbourne Spaniels, now the largest privately-owned gundog club in the UK.
With more than 1,000 active, paid-up members and six members of staff, the club has been a runaway success, offering exclusive training sessions at locations across the north of England as well as access to its Train to Win programme. Earlier this year, Darren’s hard work was recognised as he was named Gundog Trainer of the Year 2023 in The Great British Shooting Awards at a ceremony in Birmingham.
“I have been training gundogs since I was a child,” says Darren. “To make a good trainer, the key is being able to communicate with both dogs and humans. People seem to like the way I explain things, which enables them to achieve results with their own dogs. I can see patterns in behaviour and figure out the root cause. I get a huge buzz from helping people achieve their goals.”
A few years ago, Darren also branched out into selling gundog gear including producing his own line of slip leads. “I was frustrated that I could not find a slip lead that fitted my specific needs, so I decided to start making my own. I wanted a very short lead to aid heel work so I created one from 6mm polypropylene rope and it transformed training young dogs to walk to heel.
“Without the extra, unnecessary length in the slip lead the dog was able to understand what I was wanting much quicker. I made a few extras and decided to sell them at shows and via my website. I am not lying when I say that I now sell thousands of them every year. I make them all by hand myself so it is quite time-consuming.
“I sometimes have to remind myself that I quit my job in waste to live at a slower pace, so when lead sales get too frenetic, I just stop. I am not money orientated and have a much better work-life balance now.”
This spring Darren will take centre stage at the Northern Shooting Show once again, which is being held in Harrogate on Saturday 6th and Sunday 7th May. This is the second year he will have headed up the gundog content at the two-day show along with his team. Last year more than 200 dogs entered the competitions, which included everything from an entry level long retrieve to the extremely competitive working test which attracted the top dogs from all over the country.
For 2023, the gundog area has been extended. Darren will be giving three 40-minute demos in the main arena on both days – one in the morning, one at lunchtime and one in the afternoon.
The format also includes the usual suite of competitions for visitors wanting to pit their skills against each other. For novice handlers there will be a working test with water work, marked retrieves and
There will also be a nail-biting advanced working test which will have marked retrieves, water work and blind retrieves for the dogs. The scoring system used for this will be based on points rather than a timed event and makes a superb spectator sport. Of course, visitors can also have a go at the ever-popular scurry, sponsored by BASC, where speed is the name of the game as the dogs race to retrieve three marked dummies with lots of distractions such as pigeon whirlies and geese decoys.
There will be a long retrieve, aimed at all dogs regardless of breed, where a marked retrieve is thrown at the end of a retrieving lane fenced off either side with a small obstacle in the middle.
Darren says: “More than anything I want to convey how inclusive the gundog events are at the Northern Shooting Show. They are open to all levels. They are designed for every ability and run by my team of friendly, approachable trainers, so if you struggle with an element, we will offer advice and help.
“Making novice handlers feel welcome and supported is at the heart of what we are offering. In particular the scurry and long retrieve is super relaxed. It is the ideal environment to venture into the world of competing for the first time. But be warned – it is addictive!”
Photographs: Andrew Cavanagh