by   David Hancock

 Occasionally, if sadly all too rarely, you can come across a hunting dog that is so impressive that it simply takes your breath away. Over the years I can recall just a few, because, from their superb construction, their mental attitude and their whole ‘hunting intent’, they remain in the mind. Half a century ago, I was a young infantry subaltern commanding an ambush in the Malayan jungle, when through the ambush position, a good five miles from the nearest kampong, strolled a striking-looking Telomian, a local hunting dog, resembling a cross between a Basenji and a Dingo. It was totally committed to its self-set hunting task, completely ignored us and moved on to pursue its own agenda. It was quite beautifully made, muscular, fit and athletically-built, its gait alone just awesome in its economy of movement. Its utter dedication and complete indifference to our heavily-armed presence still makes me smile.

 Years later, outside Nanyuki in Kenya, I watched a brace of Ridgeback-Greyhound crosses, used on gazelle by a local white farmer, a wealthy American. Their golden coats gleamed in the hot sunshine, their hard-muscled frames splendidly symmetrical and superbly-conditioned. It was hard to look away from them; they appealed to everything that drew me to impressive hunting dogs. A year later, I was in the Sperrins in Northern Ireland, watching two brace of locally-bred Deerhound lurchers; their immense desire to hunt was displayed in their eyes, their focus awe-inspiring, their eagerness to hunt simply startling, their demeanour almost majestic, their construction imposing. I have them in my mind whenever I study a lurcher class at a country show, all too often full of lifeless switched-off dogs.

 In his informative book, Lurchers and Longdogs (Standfast Press, 1977), Ted Walsh has written: 'The lurcher must have speed, stamina, brains, courage, nose, soundness and a weatherproof coat. The speed need not be quite that of the Greyhound; indeed, it is the pure speed that tires out the Greyhound so quickly. Stamina is essential to the dog that has to run down his game and repeat the exercise as soon as he has got his tongue in again. Without intelligence the lurcher cannot be trained in obedience; he must have courage to face thorn hedges, wire, rough going and water; he must have sufficient nose to follow up and retrieve wounded game.' He would have loved the performance of those Irish lurchers.

 Once, when on a mountaineering expedition to the Jaegevarre ice glacier in northern Norway, I spent hours listening to a Norwegian hunter who had dedicated his life to studying wolves, especially their hunting prowess against a much larger quarry, the elk. He bred spitz hunting dogs, but was forever mindful of the anatomy of the wolf, allowing scarcely-credible stamina, combined with disconcerting speed. The wolf, like the lurcher, is a versatile canine hunter. Lurcher breeders use a blend of blood in the pursuit of a dog possessing speed, stamina and strong innate hunting instincts. The hunting style of the wolf demonstrates many of the skills essential in a competent lurcher – stealth, pace, determination and speed at the kill. The wolf has benefited from a physique shaped by nature for its role. My illustration here compares the two: wolf and a lurcher-type hunting dog. (This purely physical comparison does not mean that wolf-blood would benefit the lurcher; wolf hybrids would never make biddable lurchers). Even watching a wildlife film of wolves out hunting has me shaking my head out of sheer admiration for their capability.

 This comparison between wolf and dog is significant for a number of different reasons. It shows differences as well as similarities. Nothing about the wolf is exaggerated; compare that to the rear end of today’s German Shepherd Dog! The wolf’s neck and chest dimensions compared to those of dog are strikingly different. The wolf is stronger across the back of the jaw, where bones are crunched and power is based. You might well ask: why then is say a wolfhound like the Borzoi’s skull so long and so narrow? If too the wolf has to grip and seize a much larger prey why doesn’t it have a brachycephalic conformation in its muzzle? We are assured by Bulldog breeders that a flat face and immense muzzle width was vital for seizing bulls in the ancient bull-bait. Yet wolves do it better! African jackals do it better too with even longer muzzles. 

 I have never seen the South African hunting dogs at work but know of their amazing toughness and quite remarkable robustness. To survive centuries of no veterinary care, the most testing terrain, a most unforgiving climate and highly-dangerous quarry is deeply impressive. I have been told of two breeds, continents apart, but similarly remarkable: the Cretan Hound used in the Greek mountain forests and the Brazilian Tracker (Rastreador Brasiliero), the former famous for its agility and tough feet, the latter for its astounding determination on quarry which regularly reduces their numbers. I sometimes see bull-lurchers here that remind me of them, their well-muscled physiques, their strong heads and their frighteningly intense gaze. They bring to mind the remarkable hunting dogs once used abroad by our ancestors.

 The Victorian sportsman, Sir Samuel Baker describes in his book 'The Rifle and the Hound in Ceylon' the use of various dogs in big game hunting. He took a pack of thoroughbred Foxhounds there with him from England, but only one survived a few months hunting in Ceylon. He favoured, for elk-hunting, a cross between the Foxhound and the Bloodhound, using fifteen couple, supported by lurchers. Baker recorded that the great enemy of any pack was the leopard, which would leap down on stray or isolated hounds and kill them. Baker was fond of 'deer-coursing', the pursuit of axis or spotted deer using Greyhound and horse. He used pure Greyhounds, "of great size, wonderful speed and great courage." A buck could weigh 250lbs and would turn and charge its pursuers, unlike the elk that stood at bay. With some sadness he wrote that "the end of nearly every good seizer is being killed by a boar. The better the dog the more likely he is to be killed, as he will be the first to lead the attack, and in thick jungle he has no chance of escaping from a wound." He clearly admired both the ‘great size’ and ‘great courage’ of his outstanding hounds  

 On Dunster Castle lawns more recently, I saw much to admire in the West Country Harriers on parade there. You could see their strength of loin, their well-set shoulders and their well-made muzzles, maintaining jaw-power right to the nose. What a tragedy it would be if we lost such hunting potential, such valuable breeding material, such imposing canine athletes. As urban-dwelling town-thinking activists decide their future, we need to be aware of what we are discarding and on what grounds. The Countryside Alliance fights our corner but what an uphill task striving to persuade the Islington/Notting Hill tribe that ill-informed moral vanity is just that, not animal welfare at a distance. Future generations may never share my joy at seeing startlingly impressive hunting dogs around the world and their lives will be the poorer for that.