by   David Hancock

The coverage of the dogs of the poacher has long been limited by the sheer disinterest of scholars and educated people. Writers on dogs in the 18th and 19th centuries were not very forthcoming on the subject of poachers' dogs, so little had been written about them previously and those who used them in past times were usually illiterate. William Taplin, in his The Sportsman's Cabinet of 1803, wrote: "This is the very race of dogs applicable to the aggregate wants of the poacher...no other breed of the whole species seems so peculiarly calculated for the purpose. They equal, if they do not excell, any other dog in sagacity, and are easily taught any thing that is possible for an animal of this description to acquire by instruction. Some of the best lurchers are but little inferior in speed to many well-formed greyhounds; rabbits they kill to a certainty." Not much detail there! WCL Martin, in his under-rated The History of the Dog of 1845, put some 'flesh on the bones' when he wrote: “With respect to the lurcher…When taken to the warren, it steals along with the utmost caution, creeps upon the rabbits while feeding, and darts upon them in an instant; it waylays them as they return to their burrow, where it is ready to seize them, and then brings its booty to its master. Bewick knew a man who kept a pair of these dogs, and who confessed that at any time he could procure in an evening as many rabbits as he could carry home. This dog is equally expert at taking hares, partly by speed, but more by cunning wiles. It will drive partridges to the net with the utmost circumspection and address; and will even seize and pull down a fallow deer, and, leaving it disabled, return to its master and guide him to the scene of its exploits. The true lurcher is not so often to be seen as formerly; it is essentially a poacher’s dog, so that any person known to possess one becomes a suspected character.” I know of no better summary of lurcher-work.

   It is wrong to think of poachers just as peasants hunting illegally. A great deal of illegal hunting, especially in Tudor times, was conducted by the gentry themselves. In his well-researched book Hunters and Poachers of 1993, Roger Manning writes: “Poaching was becoming a national pastime in Tudor and early Stuart England. Poachers came from a wide variety of backgrounds. Those from the landed and propertied classes – peers, gentlemen, merchants and yeomanry – organized themselves into poaching fraternities.” In Sussex for example, between 1500 and 1640, 15% of all poachers were peers and gentry, despite being only 5% of the total population of that time. Historically, poaching could be conducted on a very large scale. One poaching gang, hunting in the New Forest in the 1620s was over 50 strong. The infamous Russell gang of 1619 ranged over four counties, carrying away 327 red and fallow deer, 1,000 hare, 1,400 rabbits, 5,000 pheasants and 1,000 partridges. In 1640, in Yorkshire, a poaching gang around 40 strong killed over 40 deer in Wortley Park. This is poaching on an industrial scale! Poachers who were caught were often severely punished. William Clark (alias 'Slenderman') was the last man to suffer the death penalty at Lincoln Castle after a local gamekeeper died of injuries sustained during a nightly poaching encounter. Clark’s lurcher is preserved at the castle to this day. 

Despite the violence often used by poaching gangs in past centuries and the defiant illegal hunting of many poachers of the recent past, the humble lurcher now has a place in the nation’s heart. Dogs may nowadays act mainly as companions but we should acknowledge their value as a pot-filler for man in hard times. Many years ago, I used to visit a gypsy encampment a few miles from my boyhood home. They had a talented lurcher renowned as a hunting dog for miles around. This dog would be sent out at last light to collect perching game birds or catch a rabbit, which it would then hide in a hedgerow, to be retrieved unseen during darkness. How hard to catch such a canine poacher, whatever the legality involved. But without a capable dog, the poacher is severely restricted.

There is nothing new or novel about  poachers’ dogs. In his Of English Dogs of 1576, Dr Caius refers to lurchers as Canis Furax, the ‘thievish dog’, to the tumbler, Canis Vertagus, as well as differentiating between the Greyhound (Leporarius) and the gazehound (Agaseus), stressing that the ‘thievish dog’ was also called the ‘Night Cur’, “because he hunteth in the dark”. The wildfowling tumbler lives on, with decoy dogs nowadays being used for legal wildfowling, mainly in Holland. The field tumblers however lost their use with the advent of firearms but the oldest and most famous poacher's dog, the lurcher, has become a legitimate companion dog. Known confusingly as ‘staghounds’ both in Australia and North America, the early colonists there soon valued their pot-filling skills. We may have reduced the need for such a dog, but we have learned to value their wide-ranging skills. They were bred and reared in a hard school and their mere survival deserves our support. Their whole future as a hunting dog of mixed blood can only be kept alive by real countrymen.