334 Who Runs Gundogs

by   David Hancock

 When the Kennel Club was formed over a hundred years ago, the Jockey Club was its inspiration and a number of real gundog men was among its founders. It arose out of a need to regularise exhibitions of pure-bred dogs, to authenticate the breeding of such dogs and out of a desire to promote pedigree dogs. Much is made by dog show historians of the so-called 'first' recorded dog shows held at Newcastle and Birmingham in 1859, both restricted to "sporting dogs" but featuring only gundogs. The original exhibiting of sporting dogs such as hounds however came out of the early livestock shows or District Fairs of the 1770s, with Masters of Hounds such as John Warde at his seat at Squeirres in Kent, having a private hound show there every summer.

 Nearly twenty years ago, the Daily Express was reporting: "The Kennel Club, which for years has kept the canine world on a tight leash, is facing a dog lovers' revolution. Thousands of owners and breeders of working gundogs now want to form a break-away association...The powerful gundog fraternity say that the Kennel Club is inefficient with the registration of new dogs, expensive and biased towards the showdog world and shows scant regard for working dogs." The so-called "powerful gundog fraternity" has done precious little in the ensuing years to protect the best interests of our world-famous gundog breeds. Is the working gundog fraternity frightened of a fight, totally leaderless or just pathetic ? 

 One consistently critical gundog man, Bill Rasbridge, who did so much to eradicate PRA in Irish setters, often stood alone in urging change on the KC. He argued for several decades on the need for the Social Club to be separated from the Official Department of the KC and for what he termed 'cash-crop' breeders of doubtful pedigree stock to be curbed. But of course a social club dependent on registration fees is hardly likely to warm to his view. So we still have a finance-led, show-dominated social club telling working gundog men how to breed their functional animals to a purely cosmetic design, how to run their field trials, appointing judges and regularly increasing their fees for the same registration service - to subsidise their social life in an expensive part of London.  How can any shooting man with any 'bottle' tolerate such a club appointing itself as the custodian of his precious dogs?

 Nearly twenty years ago I tried hard to stir the consciences of the gundog fraternity in an article in a sporting magazine entitled "Do we need the Kennel Club?", pointing out the value of the International Sheepdog Society to the working sheepdog, the National Greyhound Racing Club to the racing greyhound and the Associations of Masters to packhounds, despite their disassociation from the KC. I was inundated with letters of support and the editor's "Letters" page vastly oversubscribed. But the support of such notables as Peter Moxon, Derry Argue and Diana Bovill was not reinforced by the field sports' organisations, to my deep regret.

 Diana Bovill, in her letter to the editor, wrote: "Having for about 20 years watched and studied the Kennel Club in relation to field trials, I do not think one can easily overestimate the evils which spring from autocracy and privilege." In the late 1920s, a gundog breakaway was planned and only averted at the last moment by the clever intervention of the Earl of Chesterfield and by taking the rebel's general, the redoubtable Lady Howe, on to the field trial committee, the first and only woman to serve on any KC committee for more than forty years. Are Diana Bovill's words that wrong?

 Subsequently I wrote another  piece for the same sporting magazine, pointing out that in Canada, the monopoly of their Kennel Club has now been broken - by law. Sadly, in this country three separate ministries, the Home Office, the Department of the Environment and the Ministry of Agriculture, none of them noted for their vision, seem to dabble in the welfare of the domestic dog, unlike the Canadian situation. But the welfare of our gundogs - the control of psychopathic dogs, the eradication of inheritable diseases, the restriction of back-street breeders and the promotion of well-bred, physically-sound, functional, working dogs to support us in the field is the business of all of us who have had the privilege of working such dogs. Master breeders of the last century passed these revered sporting breeds into our hands during our lifetime, in the belief that we too would carry their torch and then perpetuate these splendid animals for the benefit of those who come after us. We are betraying that trust.

 After the publication of that second article, several gundog society secretaries wrote to me expressing support for a gundog breakaway from the KC. I asked them to write to the BASC; perhaps I was wrong. But all of us who admire field prowess in gundogs have to accept the crisis to be faced. The destiny of our gundog breds, as breeds, must be recaptured by those who use them as functional animals. Let the show fraternity, under the patronage (and with the high costs this brings) of the Kennel Club, carry on with their high-stepping pointers, waddling Labradors, over-furnished golden retrievers, basset-eared cockers and setter-like springers. Each to his own - and with it the freedom to proceed according to separate need.

 If we did have a separate working gundog studbook, perhaps then we could work to eliminate entropian in Clumbers, inherited canine cataracts in Labradors, hip dysplasia in golden retrievers, central progressive atrophy in Chesapeakes and PRA in all too many gundog breeds. The stud book can play a leading role in such work - if we are determined, that is, to work towards the reduction rather the lame acceptance of such flawed stock. We would no longer need 44 words to describe the tail of the Labrador and could work to restore true type and the correct temperament in our gundog breeds. We might even find genuinely yellow Labradors and truly golden retrievers being bred again! And, after all, do the American shooting men allow the showdog people over there to run their sport ?

 We now have to raise our level of thinking, act responsibly towards dependent creatures which exist to serve us, keep faith with breed-creators like Llewellin, Laverack, Boughey, Phillips, Tweedmouth, Lloyd and McCarthy and obey our consciences. Can any caring person sleep well when 600 unwanted pedigree gundogs end up in Battersea Dogs' Home alone each year? But more and more dogs means more and more money coming into the registration department of the KC to be passed on to support its social activties - and working gundog men actually go on paying up!

 Look at the early photographs of our gundog breeds and then ask yourself: "Have our gundog breeds gained anything at all from KC patronage ?" Then think of the ease which the desktop computer has given us to record, register and co-relate the statistics we feed into it. A working gundog register/studbook could be established by any enterprising gundog society secretary, but how much better it would be if BASC or BFSS took on the task - with the fees being used for the benefit of our countrysports as a whole. We have experienced over 100 years of KC rule and seen nothing but ever-increasing costs, deteriorating breeds and show ring bias.

Only apathy is preventing working gundog men from running their own ship. There is no practical reason why they should not do so without further delay. Failing to take such an initiative might give the less ethical and the apathetic few sleepless nights, but who is going to safeguard the future of our precious gundogs? My recurring nightmare is waking to find myself in the year 2020 AD and witness a Rottweiler-headed, white-coated, hard-eyed, hound-like Labrador retriever, with clicking hips and poor eyesight, (but KC-registered and with "an excellent pedigree") winning a field trial, not on merit, but because the other entrants were even worse! Come on, you allegedly hard-headed gundog men, wake up and do your duty!