549 Vulnerable Breeds

by   David Hancock

Nearly twenty years ago, I wrote a book, The Heritage of the Dog, with a final chapter entitled Do You Remember the British Dog'? The last line of this chapter read: "...but who is going to protect our native breeds of dog as human whim determines their demise'? They too are part of our heritage." In 2003, the Kennel Club undertook to identify and confirm those breeds of British dog which could be considered 'vulnerable' through declining numbers. Although the KC claims nowadays to speak for all dogs, the subsequent list of vulnerable British breeds only included breeds recognised by them. Their list comprised a dozen terrier breeds, seven gundog breeds, four hound breeds, three pastoral and two from the Toy breeds. This is but a start on a most valuable campaign. But what about those native breeds of dog, which are just as vulnerable, but not recognised by the KC?

Because a British breed is either not recognised or no longer recognised by them could mean it is even more vulnerable. Who is going, as I put it nearly twenty years ago, to protect them as human whim determines their demise'? We have lost so many old British breeds, some like the English White Terrier and the English Water Spaniel were once recognised by the KC. Why did they not act to prevent their demise'? It took them a century to recognise Parson Russell's terrier but only a few years to recognise an artificially-created foreign breed, the Eurasier and a recently-created breed, the Russian Black Terrier. But there are more Plummer Terriers in Britain than these two breeds put together; why no moves to claim them even if only to list them as vulnerable or emergent'?

Those involved in the world of hounds used for hunting need support if these precious packs are to be conserved. We have already lost the distinctive and highly efficient Dumfriesshire pack of black and tan Foxhounds. This alone represents a considerable loss of unique irreplaceable genes from the packhound pool. We need to give thought to the long-term future of our harriers, staghounds, English Bassets and that valuable breeding outsource: the Welsh Foxhound. No doubt the ever active Welsh Assembly has the latter firmly in its sights but not with conservation in mind. With the new emphasis on 'Britishness' perhaps the hunting dogs of Britain will receive some much- needed interest from the public. The public try to care about conservation but have long been badly informed by the popular press about hunting with hounds. The Otterhound alone has reached the Kennel Club rings, one form of conservation. It is worth a look at how this former packhound is faring there.

Amiable and boisterous, with the inquisitiveness of a Basset Hound, the perseverance of a Bloodhound, yet without the obstinacy of either, the Otterhound is becoming increasingly rated as a companion dog, around 50 being newly registered with the Kennel Club each year. Having lost their role, the future of the breed, despite their use in minkhound packs, needs care. Twenty years ago, I wrote of my worries about their becoming in time, over-coated, featuring giant ears, of a standard colour and no longer prized as a sporting scenthound breed in the field. From their long and mixed ancestry, it would be a tragedy if their appearance became increasingly exaggerated, as so often happens with longer coated and longer eared breeds.

What are the show ring judges saying about the breed? In 2004, an Otterhound judge wrote: "...Since I judged Crufts two years ago, I find the same problems I highlighted at that time. ..I again found it necessary to withhold some awards, but this time in the higher bitch classes, which I found very disappointing." A few years before, judges had reported tied-in fronts, a lack of curve of rib perilously close to slab-sidedness, a horror at the number of yellow eyes and some 'Briard' heads. The Crufts judge in 1996 found upright shoulders, over-long loins and a lack of musculature in the hams, but did find a very good standard at all ages. It helps a breed when an honest perceptive judge identifies faults. I see some good hounds in these rings, some which the packs would be proud of.

Rightly, in these times, the otter is no longer hunted. But it is easy to overlook the enormous damage inflicted on fish stocks by otters in past times, when fish was a far more important source of human food. The ancient fish ponds represented the freezers of today and were often 'holding' pools for fish caught elsewhere but not needed immediately for the table. Wild creatures raiding these stocks like the cormorant, the heron and the otter were regarded as vermin - a threat to the well-being of humans. The otter was subsequently hunted for sport but the kill ratio, relative to that of other country sports, was low. Parson Jack Russell, of eponymous terrier fame, stated that he had hunted over two thousand miles before encountering his first otter, even though the ground was being hunted for them throughout this distance. The otter's lifestyle did not make hunting easy. Nowadays the mink, even with a different modus vivendi from the otter, is similarly difficult to catch.

This means that hounds used to hunt mink have to be every bit as determined as those formerly used to hunt otter. They also need the anatomy to succeed in the hunting field. The standard of mouths, dentition especially, can deteriorate away from the packs; strong teeth, even teeth, and a scissor bite are all important in a hound. Variation in shoulder height is not a bad fault in scent hounds, where packs are bred to suit country, as long as the hound is balanced, free-moving, vigorous in action and not clumsily cumbersome through being too rangy. A fault to be penalised in any scent hound is when depth of rib does not reach back the whole length of the ribcage; lung room is vital. Dumfriesshire Cypher at Trevereux is a good example of a balanced well-proportioned Otterhound. It is pleasing that the breed standard permits all recognised hound colours, which must mean scent hound colours; liver and white is not permissible in the breed but is found in Whippets and Greyhounds away from the show stock.

In his 'Rural Sports' of 1870, Delabere Blaine records, on the subject of otter-hunting: "Dogs of every variety were also employed, and the whole rather resembled a conspiracy than a hunt...it is but seldom that we meet with an organised and in- and-in bred pack. ..Dwarf foxhounds, crossed either with the water spaniel, or with the rough wire-haired terrier, are used; but the best otter-dog, in our opinion, is that bred between the old southern harrier and the rough crisp-coated water spaniel, with a slight cross of the bull breed to give ferocity and hardihood." That informative account reveals at once the mixed blood behind today's Otterhound, as well as a disregard for pedigree, the sacred cow of the last century.

Sir John Buchanan-Jardine, in his 'Hounds of the World' of 1937, states that there was really no true breed of Otterhound before 1880. There were of course precious few true breeds of dog at that time by the judgement of today's five generation pedigree. I suggest that Otterhounds (named as a function not a breed) were dogs bred mainly from scenthound and water-dog blood and then perpetuated as the type we recognise today. The word otterhound once described any type of hound employed in that sport rather than a distinct breed. As a breed, the Otterhound is only still here today because of the vision, dedication and enterprise of a relatively small number of devotees. It is their work which has saved a distinctive British sporting breed from extinction.

It is not the job of the Masters of Minkhounds to conserve the purebred Otterhound; it is their job to control the menace of mink wherever that considerable threat to wildlife exists. If they happen to use some purebred Otterhounds for this purpose so much the better. The fate of the breed of Otterhound now rests with show ring breeders. It is a challenge and a considerable responsibility. Otters no longer pose a threat to our larders and are rightly conserved. So too must be the hounds which once hunted them, they are an important part of our sporting heritage. If we do not respect their sporting past and only breed them for their coats, the 'uniqueness' of their ears, a 'very loose and shambling 'gait and 'exceptional' stride, as their breed standard demands, then we will be betraying the work of past breeders, like Captain Bell-Irving with his renowned Dumfriesshire pack. May Otterhounds whether in minkhound packs or in the show ring go from strength to strength, a distinctive hound well worth saving. But so too are the other packhounds.

Why favour a scenthound from Sweden, like the Hamiltonstovare, when we have superlative and very similar hounds here like the Studbook and West Country Harriers? Why import a Grand Griffon Vendeen when we have the highly rated Welsh Foxhound available, of comparable type? Why, if you fancy the Basset hound, not go for the delightful little scent hounds developed as the English or Hunting Basset? What are the advantages of the Grand Bleu de Gascogne over our steadfast and long-proven Staghound? And have those now bringing in the Segugio Italiano ever seen a Trailhound in Cumbria, they really are something special. They race rather than hunt, they run freely rather than as a pack, but their genes are so valuable. They have Pointer blood in them; their breeders sought performance from superb hounds, not pure-blooded fading stock, losing virility, yet still bred in a closed gene pool for 'old times sake' !

What must our neglected undervalued breeds of British dog think of us! They could be excused for thinking; 'you humans bred us almost ruthlessly, over two or more centuries, to be the most effective hunting dogs in the world only to change your mind about our use and despatch us from your plans. Thanks a lot!' Do we as a nation really not give a damn about our native breeds of dog, especially those not recognised by the KC? The Foxhound is now recognised by them; the Harrier once was, but no longer is. Shouldn't that be put right?

Perhaps the best way of ensuring that there is a future for our distinguished varieties of sporting dog is for show and field enthusiasts to work together at the top level. The gundog breed clubs should for example be linked with the BASC. But it is the packhounds that we stand the chance of losing. And it is emerging native breeds, like the Plummer, Fell and Sporting Lucas Terriers, the Victorian and Dorset Bulldogs and the Welsh Black Mastiff, which need perceptive patronage. If the KC truly claims to be representing all dogs, why isn't it striving to ensure the conservation of every British breed, whether recognised by them or not?

When the Kennel Club was set up, it was largely the work of sportsmen. In every sporting breed making its way to the show scene at the end of the 19th century there were sportsmen, both aristocratic and artisan, involved. Now there is a huge gap; but there are lessons to be learned over perpetuating vulnerable breeds from experienced packhound breeders. Any breed with a closed gene pool, created from a small genetic base, could benefit from studying Foxhound breeding. The reason that these hounds are so effective, so sound physically and so virile is that 'racial fatigue' has never been allowed to creep in. Outcrosses to other packs, to French hounds, American hounds, Fell Hounds, Harriers and Welsh Foxhounds has recharged their batteries. And, it must be stressed, this has been achieved with no loss of type. Today's Foxhound looks just like its ancestors. Some of our native pedigree breeds on the vulnerable list don't look like theirs.

I applaud all the worthy efforts being made to safeguard precious native breeds under threat from declining numbers. But if we save a number of valued pedigree KC-recognised breeds but lose others, merely because they are not on the KC register, that would be sad indeed. As the Hunting With Dogs Act takes its toll, as it surely will in some instances, we need to put in place measures to conserve our sporting breeds; these are the best bred, best physically-equipped and most robust dogs in Britain, we cannot just forget about them. Any British breed of dog, however recognised or registered, deserves our support. The emergent British breeds urgently need to be recognised.