by   David Hancock

Despite much holidaying there, British sportsmen seem to know little of the hunting dogs of the Mediterranean littoral. You are unlikely to find the blood of say an Ibizan Hound, a Pharaoh Hound, a Portuguese Podengo or a Cretan Hound featuring in the lurcher blends of Britain. This is a loss for these breeds are robust, breed true to type, have superb feet, good noses, lightning reactions to quarry and proven prowess on rabbit, a more difficult catch than many realise. These Mediterranean hounds hunt by sight and scent and cannot be pigeon-holed as either scent or sighthounds. This alone should attract the interest of lurcher men looking beyond outcrosses to pastoral breeds, however clever and biddable the latter may be. But as the range of quarry here is legally limited and rabbit or rat hunting easily-available sport, a look at these allround sporting dogs makes some sense.

At the start of the last century, one enthusiast here imported a Portuguese Warren Hound, one of the Podengo breeds of all-round sporting dogs from Southern Europe. It didn't gain supporters; if it had been imported under its proper title: Portuguese Rabbit Dog, it might have done better, there's a lot to a name. In the last few years, Betty Judge has brought in a number of the small variety of the Portuguese Podengo. They look a little like Cairn Terriers, but are commendably nondescript, with no fancy coats, special heads or breed features for the exaggerators to get excited about. They are alert, robust, keen-eyed and determined little sporting dogs.
When I was in Portugal fairly regularly some thirty years ago, I was impressed by both the medium-sized and the small-sized Portuguese Rabbit Dogs; they were brilliant at hunting rabbits in trying conditions, such as cork farms, where there are dry stone walls and terraces, which provide enormous scope for agile rabbits. Similar podengos can be found all along the Mediterranean littoral. I found a remarkably similar hunting dog in Malta and Gozo half a century ago, where a pack of local hounds, strengthened by a red Whippet and a tan Manchester Terrier, left behind by departing servicemen, provided great hunting. Their agility was hugely impressive.

Years later, I was bemused to find that a British enthusiast had imported some Maltese Rabbit Dogs and persuaded our Kennel Club to name them 'Pharaoh Hounds', with a syllogistic provenance linking them directly with ancient Egyptian hunting dogs. No one makes such a claim for the other breeds of this exact type, found in Crete, Sicily, the Spanish Islands (as the Ibizan Hound demonstrates), Spain or Portugal. The little bobbery pack of Gozoan Hounds which impressed me when hunting rabbit, in terrain demanding great agility and hunting skill, didn't require an invented heritage, they deserved recognition in their own right. I don't know of a single one, of those imported here and subsequently bred from, being used here on rabbit, or indeed in the sporting field at all.

Britons holidaying in the Canaries may under-rate the sporting potential there; but the Podencos Canarios, or hunting dogs, find plenty of sport on rabbit there, even in Lanzarote. This type of sporting dog is found too in Majorca, as well as Ibiza. The rabbits there don't live underground but in crevices, piles of rocks or in crumbling stone walls. As both the late Brian Plummer and Ted Walsh frequently pointed out, catching rabbits above ground is never easy. They may be classed as vermin and sneered at by the more privileged hunter but they can make a good hare-dog look stupid. The Sicilians pride their rabbit-dog, the Cirneco dell'Etna, on its scenting skill just as much as its speed and agility. Dry stone walls and rocky hillsides really test a dog's hunting ability. Volcanic lava really tests a dog's feet. The rabbit is worthy prey; Ibizan Hounds would be better in open ground, Cretan Hounds, Portuguese Podengos and Cirnechi dell'Etna in hedgerows, quarries, deserted mines or abandoned industrial sites.       
Ibizan Hounds have been worked by enthusiasts here to retrieve shot game to saddle; they are adaptable hounds, more intelligent than many sighthound breeds. The Sicilian hounds have their own field trial regulations, covering shooting over game and trials without guns. Around 150 hounds are newly registered there each year. It is worth noting that their field trial regulations stipulate that: Dogs that do not make a tenacious effort in their work; that hesitate on a scent trail; that are distracted and do not cover the ground designated for their turn within the first five minutes will be eliminated. They are used to working with ferrets and at 46 to 50 cms (18 to 20 inches) lack the legginess of the 22 to 29 inch Ibizan Hound. Some have been imported, and registered with the KC, but not so far by sportsmen.

Do we not need formal trials for lurchers? Do we rely far too much on infusions of sheepdog blood in our lurcher blends? Why use pastoral dog characteristics in a hunting dog when there are hounds which can supply the cleverness, response to training and field directions and the alertness desired in a lurcher? The endless debates about the relative merits of Beardie, Border Collie or even Pyrenean Sheepdog blood will endure. But a long look at the Sicilian Hound would be worthwhile. These handy-sized lively biddable clever little hunting dogs deserve more than a passing glance from lurcher-men. There is not much 'genetic junk' in these long-proven robust extremely agile very alert hyper-active hounds, unlike some recently-imported stock. Where they come from, incompetent hunting dogs or sickly mutts just aren't bred from. Breeding for vigour and performance used to be the norm!