GUNDOGS: COCKER OR SPROCKER? THE HOT TOPIC
Ryan updates us on his trialling season and gives his view on the controversy currently surrounding the issue of supposed sprockers running at cocker trials
My trialling season ended with an eventual win in mid December. Skye managed to take the spoils in an A/V Novice, and with no Open class trials available to enter her in thereafter, that was as far as we could go until next season. Charlie had missed his best chance to qualify again for the Championship a couple of weeks earlier during an Open at the same venue, when his luck ran out during a retrieve towards the end of his second run. But I’m thrilled with Skye, and after all she’s been through, she certainly deserves it. As regular readers may remember, I‘d written about her ordeal after a road accident which occurred at the end of January last year; at just six and a half months old she was hit by a car, breaking five bones in her right hind leg. Yet here she was at the Beeswax Estate in Stubton, Lincolnshire, picking up her sixth award of the season, against some quality springers – and still a very young lass indeed.
Spaniels have been in the news for all the wrong reasons recently. Poor Will Clulee of the famous Poolgreen Kennels had six spaniels stolen from his kennels in Shropshire, and it was all caught on CCTV. At 3pm in the afternoon thieves broke into his property and took five youngsters – dogs that Will was keeping on to train for next season. They returned five minutes later for another dog; this time an award-winning bitch was taken. Just 10 minutes after that, his wife returned home to find the animals missing. It was heartbreaking for Will and his family as they’d experienced this awful feeling before, just a few years earlier, when they’d had two litters of puppies stolen. Will is now having to galvanise his security and I expect a number of gundog owners will review and tighten up theirs. A litter sired by our stud dog, Charlie, was also stolen from a home in North Yorkshire, along with the bitch who had produced them. The owner quickly posted the information on social media and appeared on local radio in an attempt to make the pups too hot to handle, as they say. This seemed to have the desired effect as all the pups, along with mum, were returned a couple of days later, mercifully unharmed.
Cocker or sprocker?
The other subject that has had many folk talking is the matter of supposed sprockers competing in cocker Field Trials. If you’ve been part of the relevant social media groups, this story has been easy to follow, attracting comments from the great and the good. The Royal-owned Mallowdale Diamond, a cocker spaniel bred by the hugely successful Ian Openshaw, has been accused of
being part springer. The Sun has simplified and sensationalised the story, some may say unsurprisingly, with a picture of Her Majesty the Queen holding the pup which was presented to her to commemorate her diamond jubilee. This dog (now a Field Trial Champion) is one of several dogs being described as an English springer/ English cocker cross.
Some owners with the suspected mixed bloodline have chosen to get their cockers DNA tested (using the company Wisdom Panel) to determine the underlying breed, and have subsequently posted the DNA breed analysis results of their tested cockers online for all to see – with the outcomes highlighting some as sprockers. Others have simply said that it’s been obvious for a while, as the shape and true cocker stamp have been somewhat diluted.
But the fact is this: cockers and springers are very close. In fact they share much of the same DNA. So close, in fact, that they are probably genetically closer to each other than a show cocker is to a working cocker. And this is where part of the problem lies: in the DNA breed analysis tests.
Let’s bring show cockers into this… Show cockers and working cockers are simply ‘cockers’, registered by the Kennel Club as one breed and under the same name. Yet they are in fact two populations of what is classed the same breed. Both populations have differences in levels of health problems and the level of bloodlines in common, differing quite markedly with a breed average of around 15% in the working cocker; it is significantly lower amongst the show cockers.
We have in actual fact proved working and show cockers to be quite unrelated in a previous article, with examples of virtual matings crossing dogs from both sides, showing zero percentage of inbreeding. If we also take into account that springers and cockers were once upon a time divided into two categories as pups – with the smaller pups being classed as cockers and the larger going on to be springers – then this muddies the water even further.
So with this knowledge in mind, we need to ask: which dogs have the DNA breed analysis tests been compared to? Where is the benchmark DNA? Did we perhaps line up a dozen top working English cockers and then take samples that would set the baseline of working cocker DNA for the future? No; instead the ‘markers’, so to speak, may be taken from any cocker – the two cocker populations included.
I have been advised by a canine geneticist that because cockers and springers are so close genetically, if a DNA result came back at 30% springer, it could still be classed as a cocker. So the actual DNA breed analysis test is based on a high percentage of probability (only 90% accurate by Wisdom Panel’s own admission), not conclusive beyond doubt. Determining parentage through DNA profiling, though, is a different thing and more accurate. A profile is a single ‘print’ of that animal and the actual parents can be tested to verify their parentage of that particular offspring.
My thoughts are these: the breed and bloodline of working cockers appears strong, and in my opinion there’s no need for springer blood to be introduced to cockers. There are relatively few health problems within the working breed and, yes, by first crossing you can introduce hybrid vigour, but there is also the danger of bringing problems from both breeds together. If anyone is found to be introducing springer blood to cockers and then selling them on as cockers or competing with them, then maybe they should be simply banned as a breeder and as a competitor. However, given the past closeness of the two breeds, the DNA breed analysis test may be too flaky to be used as undisputed evidence. Surely what we should be doing is trying to learn from the current situation and looking at ways in which we can make improvements to future breeding?
DNA profiling could be a route to look at. Increasing the use of compulsory microchip checks could also help determine dogs’ identities and would assist with both of the issues I’ve discussed here. I use several reputable vets and not one of them scans my dog routinely when I bring it into the consultation room, checking the validity of the dog. I could be bringing in stolen pups. Yes, there are flaws within this, but surely the introduction of safeguards has to start somewhere?
On a lighter note, and not to be overshadowed by current speculation, I would like to congratulate Dai Ormand on winning the Cocker Championship, with his bitch Byrbwll Dotty. The winter sun shone for both days on fabulous hunting ground, bringing out the best in all the dogs competing.
Cockers or sprockers? In the shooting field, it is of less importance than in trials
Cockers and springers actually already share much of the same DNA