669 Remembering the English Deerhound

by   David Hancock

  In the Middle Ages, thousands and thousands of  ‘strong greyhounds’, both rough-coated and smooth, were used to course deer in Scotland, Ireland and England. The Scottish version developed into the Deerhound breed of today; the Irish dog contributed to the Irish Wolfhound of today.  The English dog became in type what today we would call a lurcher. Hunting deer with scenthounds became the preferred style and the English deer-hound found a home with the lower order of hunter, the peasant class. But there is plenty of evidence of this hound, in statues, paintings and prints. The surviving British breed of Deerhound, the Scottish hound, retains many of the characteristics of the old native hunting sighthounds and gives us an idea of their capabilities.

 In his ‘The Scottish Deerhound’ of 1892, the authoritative Weston Bell wrote: ‘for the work  this dog had to do, if we take his general appearance at over 30”, he would be almost too heavy and clumsy, but no doubt could hold a stag better than a lighter dog, though he would not have the same staying power that a lighter dog would have. For bitches the height should be from 26 to 27 inches at the shoulder’.  But the Kennel Club’s standard for the Deerhound lays down a minimum desirable height at withers of 30 inches for dogs and 28 inches for bitches.  In 1880 Thomas Morse’s famous bitch Spey was precisely measured at eleven years old, with these dimensions: Weight 73 lbs, height at shoulder 26 inches, girth of neck 15 inches, girth around shoulders 30 inches, girth of loins 21 inches, girth of thigh 16 inches, height at elbow 14 inches, height at loins 26 inches. It is worth noting that the height at shoulder and loin is the same. All these dimensions have value for lurchermen, especially those favouring the staghound lurcher. It is also worth remembering that the early show Deerhounds were often those too big to make a successful hunting dog; size is of no value by itself for dogs expected to function.

  It is easy to overlook the value as well as the prowess of hounds which could hunt red deer successfully before the wide use of long range firearms. The red deer is the largest of Britain’s wild mammals; a mature stag measuring four feet at the shoulder and weighing around 300lbs. In a harsh winter the skill of such a dog could mean the difference between starvation and survival for the primitive hunters. Once this value diminished however, these huge shaggy fast-running hounds fell on hard times, surviving only in some areas through the patronage of the nobility. Pennant recorded, when visiting Scotland in 1769, that he saw at Gordon Castle true Highland greyhounds which had become very scarce. He described these hounds as "of large size, strong, deep-chested, and covered with very long and rough hair", used "in large numbers at the magnificent stag chases by the powerful chieftains."  Lurcher men, keepers and stalkers refer to them as staghounds to this day.

 The Earl de Folcoville had his noted Colonsay strain in the first half of the 19th century. MacNeile, in his chapter on Deerhounds, the first detailed write-up of the breed, in Scrope's book on deerstalking of 1838, described "Buskar", one of the purest specimens, as 28" at the shoulder, with a chest girth of 32", weighing 85lbs, going on to write: "This dog is of pale yellow, and appears to be remarkably pure in his breeding, not only from his shape and colour, but from the strength and wiry elasticity of his hair, which by Highlanders is thought to be a criterion of breeding." MacNeile stated that the grey dogs appeared to be "less lively and did not exhibit such a development of muscle, particularly on the back and loins, and have a tendency to cat hams".

  The classic use of Deerhounds involves a brace coursing their quarry and killing it unaided. Single-handed killing was no mean feat, the famous working Deerhound Bran, in 1844, killed two unwounded stags in about 45 minutes. Such a hunting accomplishment demands not just speed, strength and stamina but superbly constructed dogs, whose limbs and, especially, feet can cope with boulder-strewn terrain at great speed, whose joints can withstand fierce jarring and whose physique combines great power with lightness of build. The first point my eye seeks out in a moving Deerhound, even in a show ring, is a noticeable springiness of step and "daisy-clipping" action in the feet; for me all other points are subordinate to this essential feature. It reveals soundness.  A high leg-lift is tiring for a hunting dog; it is rooted in incorrect hind construction.  It is also ugly movement, detracting from the flowing gait all sporting dogs need. At a championship dog show a couple of years ago, the Deerhound judge’s critique read: “Far too many dogs and bitches are too fine and lacking in substance to enable them to do the job they were bred for. Many of the youngsters had poor fronts, while many older hounds lacked drive from the rear…” Another at a different show  commented  on the unsound movement and  a  lack of fore-chest. This is depressing reading in  an ancient hunting breed.

  In his Encyclopaedia of Rural Sports of 1870, Delabere Blaine records, on deer hunting, that “In feudal times…from five hundred to a thousand  were sometimes slain at one general hunting match…As late as the third century, the Britons who had remained unconquered, and lived beyond Adrian’s wall, were principally  supported by venison…”  The call for hounds must have been remarkable.  The worth of the best hounds would have been considerable, but they were valued for what they could do, not their statuesque appearance, any air of nobility or  aloof grandeur, as flowery breed descriptions of today can hint. Sighthounds specializing in deer-hunting were once very much part of England’s sporting canine scene. Lord Ribblesdale in his book The Queen’s Hounds, wrote that “a breed of deer-hounds were long preserved at Godmersham and Eastwell in Kent, the strain of which went back to Elizabethan days. A good one always pinned the deer by the ear, a criterion of the purity of the strain. They were cream or fawn-coloured, with dusky muzzles, greyhound speed and half-greyhound, half-mastiff like heads.” Some bull-lurchers of today would answer that description. Deer-hounds don’t have to be rough-coated and Scottish!

 In his book The Rifle and Hound in Ceylon (Longman’s, 1890) Sir Samuel Baker wrote of using a cross  between  the Foxhound and the Bloodhound for elk-hunting. The elk is the largest living deer, about the size of a larger horse in the hunting field. (Baker used Deerhound crosses on sambur deer.)  He wrote that  “ The only important drawback to elk-hunting is the constant loss of the dogs. The best is always sure to go. What with deaths by boars, leopards, elk and stray hounds, the pack is with difficulty maintained.”  In pre-war India, sportsmen noted that the local sighthounds, like the Banjara, the Mudhol, the Vaghari and the Rampur, always went for the deer’s hindquarters, whereas the imported  Deerhounds seized by the throat.  One day soon we will have lost all our dogs with hunting instincts like this and who can say they will never be needed again. 

 Who would dare to steal sheep if we still had our shepherds’ mastiffs, living constantly with the flocks? Equivalent pastoral dogs, like the Anatolian Shepherd Dog, are being introduced into African flocks  to protect against marauding  members of the cat family, with measurable effect. Sporting dogs don’t have to be conserved solely by bodies like the Kennel Club, with their major outing being to Crufts, now very appropriately to be sponsored by a sofa manufacturer. But it is individual native enthusiasts who should be stepping forward. The admirably-intentioned Native Dog Breeds Trust has now been wound up through lack of support. No doubt a foreign ‘deer-hound’, with an invented provenance and little merit, is about to be imported. The English deerhound lives on in the lurcher ranks but shame on us for losing such a distinctive type of hound.