by   David Hancock

In the next twenty or thirty years the native dog breeds of Wales could disappear. Sadly, but it is has to be faced, all the Welsh breeds of dog are either extinct, under threat or struggling to emerge. Never listed by the KC were the Welsh Hillman (the longer-legged uplands sheepdog of Wales), the Old Welsh Grey (the bearded sheepdog of Wales) and the Welsh Black and Tan Sheepdog (the shorter-coated ‘valleys’ sheepdog of South Wales). Sometimes I learn of 'throwbacks' to these breeds, cropping up in sheepdog litters as the gene pool rakes up its range of contents. Lost too were the black and the milk-white setters of Wales, the latter sometimes identified as the Llanidloes Setter, and perhaps subsumed by the English Setter (another breed slowly fading, possibly as the use of gundogs changes in style in Britain).

The five Welsh breeds recognised by the Kennel Club are graded either 'vulnerable' or 'at watch' by them; this means that on numbers alone, they are fading fast. If you look at each of these breeds in turn, you find: the Welsh Corgi (Cardiganshire) only had 124 new registrations in 2015 (and is therefore considered vulnerable), the Welsh Corgi (Pembrokeshire) had 166 in 2015 (and is therefore placed at watch), the Sealyham Terrier had 113 in 2015 (vulnerable), the Welsh Terrier had 389 in 2015 (at watch) and the Welsh Springer Spaniel had 363 in 2015 (at watch). There is a group of enthusiasts commendably promoting a Working Sealyham, with a thriving club, but the show dog is fading fast. Some of these breeds do however have clubs overseas but they could never perpetuate the breed without UK bloodlines. There are also admirable enthusiasts working on Wales's pastoral breeds.


For well over a decade the Welsh Sheepdog Society, formed in 1998, has been working to revive a distinct variety of collie based on their traditional form in Wales. They run a register of purebred stock dogs and hold demonstrations. Bigger than Border Collies and often blue merle (in the Plynlimon and Devil’s Bridge area), tri-coloured (black and tan in Tywyn), red-tan (down the Cardigan coast) and white, or a lighter sable and white, Welsh Sheepdogs are ‘loose-eyed’ herders but valued for their stamina and robustness. With powerful shoulder-muscles, folded ears, broad-muzzled faces and big strong feet, they excel in driving the bigger flocks and have a characteristic high tail carriage when working. The initial trawl for suitable breeding stock produced around 200 likely dogs, with 80 selected as foundation stock; over 1,000 are now registered with the society. They were famed as drovers’ dogs, able to get large herds to market; in North Wales a big grey variety was favoured. Bob-tailed dogs are found in SE Wales, but they cannot be registered with the society. In pursuit of a bigger gene-pool enquiries have been made in Patagonia, where Welsh settlers developed the Barboucho from the dogs they took with them. The enterprise of these enthusiasts is heart-warming; the world of the pastoral dog needs such enlightened energy to ensure that old working dog breeds are respected once again.

A wholly new breed is being developed in Wales, called the Welsh Mountain Dog, resembling the old Galway Sheepdog and from a combination of breeds to suit a purpose. This handsome breed, created by Welsh breeder Lyn Kinsey, is a blend of the Bernese Mountain Dog, the Border Collie and the Loughlander, the latter created in Durham by Sue Curle-Lane by blending the blood of the Bernese Mountain Dog with that of the Newfoundland. The new Welsh breed is not as prone to the ailments that afflict many large breeds, has a sunny disposition and sound temperament, very much resembling a big strongly-built Border Collie, an admirable companion in rural areas. The pastoral breeds of Britain may come and go but they form an important part of the worldwide scene both in variety and, especially, in quality.  

The milk-white, curly-coated Llanidloes Setter would have provided a most distinctive element in our list of native setter breeds, had it survived. 'Stonehenge', writing at the end of the 19th century, described them as Welsh Setters, stating that their coats "would resist the wet and cold of the mountains in a marvellous manner." Is there not some proud Welsh patriot-sportsman out there who would be willing to re-create this lost breed? We have English, Irish and Gordon Setters from Scotland, where is the Welsh representative? Laverack mentions another old Welsh strain of setter, similar to the Llanidloes, but jet-black, stating that: "In their own country they cannot be beaten, being exactly what is required for the steep hill-sides." Here in Britain generally, we are favouring gundog breeds from overseas and neglecting our unique and valuable native breeds. Some of the latter have never been formally acknowledged as breeds - with breed recognition long being very much a 'hit-and-miss' affair. There have however been references in the past to Welsh 'mastiffs' with black coats.

And now, a Welsh enthusiast, Gareth Williams of Bishopston, Swansea, with his wife Claire, is promoting his line of black Mastiff, which he considers is a descendant of the Welsh holding dog or gafaelgi, used by butchers to seize wayward bulls and before that to pull down big game. Douglas Oliff in his The Mastiff and Bullmastiff Handbook of 1988, mentions two fifteenth century references which translate from Welsh as, 'what good are greyhounds, two hundred of them, without a gafaelgi' and 'the gafaelgi takes fierce hold of the stag's throat, and is black in colour'. Note the coat colour. In his The Bullmastiff Handbook of 1957, Clifford 'Doggie' Hubbard, who knew a thing or two about Welsh dogs, recorded: 'As far as I know, the Mastiff (in Welsh, Cystawcci) was of two kinds, the Cadgi (or battle dog) and the Gafaelgi (or holding dog). The fact that the holding or gripping dog was included under the heading of Mastiff instead of Hound does not necessarily preclude his use in hunting, of course, but it does suggest early work as a guard and keeper's watchdog.'

The holding or gripping dog, docga in Old English, dogue in French, dogge in German, perro de presa in Spanish, fila in Portuguese, was used all over Europe as a hunting mastiff on wild bulls, stag, bear, boar and even aurochs. They had to be agile to survive. They were strong-headed, powerfully-built, hunting dogs, never prized purely for their shoulder height or their weight. Gareth Williams's Mastiffs are not vast, lumbering, heavy-boned unathletic specimens, like the show ring exhibits, but strongly-built, muscular canine athletes, just as the true Mastiff should be. He deserves support. Bertrand de Guesclin, a 14th century French soldier, who fought for Charles V against the English during the One Hundred Years War and one of the finest leaders in battle of his time, was so respected by his English opponents that they called him 'The Black Mastiff'. But in the Kennel Club's rings you will never see a black one.

odern breed, according to its KC standard, can only be apricot-fawn, silver-fawn, fawn, brindle or 'non-standard', whatever that means. But Bewick, Buffon and Gilpin depicted Mastiffs two centuries ago that were black and white or mainly white. Foreign mastiff breeds like the Broholmer, the Neapolitan, the Fila Brasileiro, the Tosa, the Cane Corso and the Great Dane can feature a black coat. Gareth Williams's Mastiffs are around 26 inches at the shoulder and weigh 110lbs; he does not restrict his breeding to blacks, accepting any solid colour, but not favouring brindles or whites. So you can have a Welsh, German, Italian, Brazilian, Danish, Tibetan and Japanese black mastiff but not a black English one. You can however have a near-black English Mastiff in darkest brindle. Where is the rationale behind that? Black has been lost in Boxers and isn't favoured in show Bulldogs. In the famous 'Philo-Kuon' Bulldog breed standard of 1865 however, it stated that 'black was formerly considered a good colour...' Why not now? How many quality Bulldog whelps down the years have been consigned to the bucket purely on account of their coat colour? This is not wise breeding; it's colour prejudice.       

In Leighton's The New Book of the Dog (1912), WK Taunton, who kept a large kennel of Mastiffs for over forty years, wrote: "It has occurred that Mastiffs bred from rich dark brindles have been whelped of a blue or slate colour. In course of time the stripes of the brindle appear, but puppies of this colour, which are very rare, generally retain a blue mask, and have light eyes. Many such puppies have been destroyed; but this  practice is a mistake...some of the best Mastiffs have been bred through dogs or bitches of this shade." Campaigns by breeders to restrict the gene pool by obliterating the rarer colours do harm to a breed. Surreptitious outcrossing also has to be concealed when coat colours betray the traditional coat colours in a litter.

Half a century ago, two leading Mastiff breeders also kept Newfoundlands; in the 1960s one winning Mastiff carried a distinct Newfie head. I just wonder how many black Mastiff pups were found, and never admitted, in litters over the years. Our distant ancestors bred good dog to good dog and handed down superlative dogs to us as a direct result. It is absurd when a black Greyhound whelp is welcomed but a black Mastiff pup is destroyed entirely because of its coat colour. A really fit black Greyhound with the sun shining on its gleaming coat is a sight for sore eyes. There aren't many solid-black short-coated breeds and a majestic black Mastiff would be quite impressive. In past times, richly-coloured, near-black brindles like the Marquess of Hertford's Pluto (1830) and EG Banbury's Wolsey (1890) were strikingly good-looking dogs.

Another famous Mastiff breeder, James Wiggesworth Thompson, of Southowram, Yorkshire, who started breeding Mastiffs in the early 1830s once wrote: 'I have seen mastiffs of exceptional character with more or less white on them, and think any judge ignoring a dog simply for this reason, would display fastidiousness to a fault.'  It is this 'fastidiousness to a fault' which imposes quite artificial and historically incorrect limitations on coat colour in more than one distinguished breed. The black Mastiffs of the Williamses will receive nothing but suspicion, scorn and opposition from the KC Mastiff breed fanciers of today. But it will be opposition not based on knowledge of the history of the breed but on show-ring thinking, contemporary within-the-breed prejudice.

The latter with its closed mind and unthinking perpetuation of past folly can harm a breed. Any honest genuine breed fancier would honour its breed's past, respect the great breeders of the past and their wiser philosophy, so often intentionally overlooked in the blind following of mistaken contemporary dogma. Many a bright future has come from a dark past. And our Mastiff clubs and kennel clubs from around the world must now respect the Mastiff's origins and extended gene pool and themselves emerge from their 'dark past'.    

In his informative and valuable Practical Genetics for Dog Breeders, leading geneticist Malcolm Willis has written: "If a colour is associated with a specific problem (as with MM) (i.e. the merle gene, DH) then there is good justification for avoiding or banning the colour. Where no such biological excuse exists bans are less justifiable...Those breeders whose breed allows any colour are advantaged and should preserve such advantages." Some colour prejudices come from quite primitive beliefs; Italian shepherds once regarded white pups as the only pure ones; Portuguese shepherds once believed that harlequin ones were pure; Turkish shepherds used to consider fawn with a black mask as a sign of purity. Having a very human preference for one colour is understandable; but, in a closed gene pool, it is unwise to ban a colour which once featured in that gene pool. Black Mastiffs are historically correct.

Emergent breeds, such as the Welsh Mastiff and a revived Hillman, are often much more virile and robust than many long-established breeds, probably benefiting from hybrid vigour. Far too many pure bred dogs suffer from man-imposed limitations which lessen the variety, especially within a closed gene pool. Restrictions on colour reduce the size of a breed's genepool and increase the perils of too-close breeding. A griege Weimaraner, a bay Hanover Scenthound or a sorrel Ridgeback look distinctive but such one-colour breeds come from a small base. The Mastiff does not and any restrictions on its breed livery are wholly whimsical. Mastiff expert, Wynn, was writing, over a century ago: 'Formerly the mastiff ran all colours, and were mostly pied with white...the question of colour looked at impartially, will at once be seen to be anything but a characteristic, all colours being admissable...for myown part I prefer the all-black, or the stone, or smokey fawn, with intense black ears and muzzle...' He was the best informed Mastiff breeder of his day. The Williamses have their backers in dog history if not at the KC!

s Just as valuable and still very much alive is the Welsh Foxhound, with its rough-haired ‘griffon’ coat, although the distinctive foxhound in Wales was once the Curre pack from Chepstow - with its kennel-identifying white coat. The blood of the Welsh Foxhound is used regularly to improve the coat-quality and the scenting skills of foxhound packs both in England and America. The Welsh Terrier perpetuates the blood of the Old English Black and Tan Terrier and offers valuable breeding material. The Welsh Springer Spaniel is for me the most handsome of the spaniel breeds and its loss would be an enormous shame. The two Corgi breeds are seen, in some eyes, to have been 'bred to death', with their legs more bent and far shorter than in their ancestors. The show Sealyham Terrier is now far too heavily-boned and long-coated for today's pet owners - or the working terrier fraternity. Native breeds don't disappear purely out of a lack of patriotism; they go sometimes because they are bred away from their classic mould. But whatever the reason, the loss is very much a blow to a nation's heritage and one to be avoided whenever possible. Come on, Welshmen, save your breeds!