As ot­ters, foxes and deer are no longer hunted with dogs, and ex­otic im­ported breeds pro­lif­er­ate, Rosie Mor­ton finds that many of Scot­land’s na­tive field­sports dog breeds are now in dan­ger of dis­ap­pear­ing

Scottish Field - - CONTENTS -

Why Scot­land's work­ing dogs are a dy­ing breed

In house­holds across the na­tion, we wake up to the sound of paws clam­ber­ing across the kitchen floor and the de­light­ful feel­ing of wet drool kiss­ing our hands as the beloved fam­ily pooch kindly re­minds us that they are ready for break­fast. No mat­ter their shape or size, the mere com­pan­ion­ship of a four-legged friend is en­joyed by count­less fam­i­lies.

The part­ner­ship be­tween man and his hound in the field, how­ever, is rather more crit­i­cal – whether they are used for their speed, stamina, strength or sense of smell, these dogs have long played a cru­cial part in Scot­land’s hunt­ing and shoot­ing scene. Im­me­di­ately, thoughts turn to en­er­getic springers paving their way through dense heather, to cock­ers flush­ing birds from the un­der­growth, or to faith­ful old Labradors tri­umphantly pre­sent­ing a pheas­ant at their mas­ter’s feet. But what of in­dige­nous Scot­tish breeds like Gor­don set­ters and Scot­tish deer­hounds? And what about our dandie din­monts and Skye ter­ri­ers? Though, his­tor­i­cally, these na­tive breeds were highly val­ued for their hunt­ing abil­i­ties, they now find them­selves sit­ting rather un­com­fort­ably on the Ken­nel Club’s ‘vul­ner­a­ble breeds’ list.

Quite un­be­liev­ably, each of these breeds saw less than 300 pup­pies reg­is­tered in the UK last year. With only 40 pup­pies reg­is­tered in 2017, the Skye ter­rier is among the worst af­fected, leav­ing the de­scen­dants of poor old Greyfri­ars Bobby in a vul­ner­a­ble state. The ter­rier’s in­nate de­sire to hunt ot­ters, foxes and other bur­row­ing an­i­mals has been ham­pered by Scot­land’s de­clin­ing hunt­ing in­dus­try.

Much like the ot­ter­hound, the Skye ter­rier suf­fered when their main pur­pose – ot­ter hunt­ing – was out­lawed dur­ing the 1970s and 80s. More re­cent re­stric­tions on fox hunt­ing have also con­trib­uted to their de­clin­ing pop­u­lar­ity in field sports, but they are not alone. The dandie din­mont ter­rier, whose name comes from a char­ac­ter in Sir Wal­ter Scott’s book

Man­ner­ing, and, even more sur­pris­ingly, the Par­son Rus­sell ter­rier, find them­selves in the same pre­car­i­ous po­si­tion.

That said, the prob­lem does not end with Bri­tain’s de­clin­ing sup­port of some coun­try­side pur­suits. To­day, na­tive breeds are fall­ing foul of the rather alarm­ing ‘de­signer dog’ trend. Mike Tay­lor, sec­re­tary of the Skye Ter­rier Club, said: ‘In the time of Greyfri­ars Bobby, vir­tu­ally every house­hold in Ed­in­burgh had a Skye ter­rier. But if you pick up a lo­cal news­pa­per to­day, you’ll see all the ad­verts for labradoo­dles, cock­apoos, and all these other cross-breeds. Peo­ple go for them.’

Se­duced by the fash­ion­able hand­bag dogs of to­day, his­toric breeds are be­ing over­looked. With pooches be­ing bred for their looks as op­posed to their func­tion­al­ity, once-pop­u­lar work­ing breeds like the Skye ter­rier, bearded col­lie, ot­ter­hound and curly coated re­triever are drop­ping off the radar.

As Richard Grif­fiths, chair­man of the Ot­ter­hound Club, said: ‘If you start breed­ing work­ing hounds for looks, they’ll throw prog­eny which are no good for work­ing, and that gene pro­lif­er­ates.’

The Ken­nel Club is deeply con­cerned about this trend. ‘Some peo­ple aren’t look­ing for any­thing other than a labrador, while oth­ers are sim­ply look­ing to celebri­ties to af­fect their choice,’ said Caro­line Kisko, the club’s sec­re­tary. ‘For the most part, though, I think peo­ple have sim­ply for­got­ten about these vul­ner­a­ble breeds. Peo­ple just don’t know they ex­ist.’

This in­evitably cre­ates a knock-on ef­fect, ex­plained Mike Tay­lor of the Skye Ter­rier Club. ‘Be­cause there’s no real de­mand for vul­ner­a­ble dogs, no­body’s breed­ing them,’ he said.

‘And when peo­ple are told they have to wait six or seven months to get a Skye ter­rier, they go off and find some other breed in­stead. But no one in their right mind is go­ing to breed a lit­ter when they’re go­ing to be left with half of it on their hands.’ What’s more, with fewer lit­ters comes fewer blood­lines, mak­ing it dif­fi­cult to avoid in­breed­ing.

There is also the ques­tion of prac­ti­cal­ity. The Scot­tish deer­hound, ‘a most per­fect cre­ation of heaven’ ac­cord­ing to Sir Wal­ter Scott, was his­tor­i­cally used for its speed and en­durance to hunt red deer.

The breed strug­gled through­out the 19th and 20th cen­turies, and with the tech­nol­ogy for breech-load­ing ri­fles ad­vanc­ing, deer­hounds quickly be­came ob­so­lete. The two World Wars – in which food was ra­tioned and these rav­en­ous dogs were a lux­ury few could af­ford – were the fi­nal straw.

Anas­ta­sia Noble, de­scended from the an­cient Scot­tish fam­ily at Ard­kin­glas, devoted 70 years to sav­ing these el­e­gant hounds. She bred 135 lit­ters and pro­duced 24 cham­pi­ons, be­com­ing one of the world’s renowned Scot­tish deer­hound breed­ers. And yet to­day, not ev­ery­one takes to the idea of an

over­sized dog cud­dling up on their sofa. Last year saw only 266 deer­hound pup­pies reg­is­tered with the Ken­nel Club, al­though that was a mar­ginal in­crease from 2016.

In hunt­ing and shoot­ing house­holds, though, hav­ing a large, hairy crea­ture in your midst is not un­usual. So why are num­bers of breeds like the Gor­don set­ter – man­age­able in size and highly skilled in bird hunt­ing – now dwin­dling?

Vari­a­tions of the breed were around as early as the 17th cen­tury, but it was Alexan­der, the fourth Duke of Gor­don (1743-1827), who bred gen­er­a­tions of work­ing ‘black and fal­low’ set­ters at his cas­tle in Fochabers.

Last year, how­ever, just 255 pups were reg­is­tered, and their use in hunts and shoots con­tin­ues to fall. Why? The an­swer, says Char­lie Thor­burn of Mor­dor Gun­dogs, one of the world’s lead­ing gun­dog train­ers, is dis­arm­ingly sim­ple. ‘They aren’t that good at work­ing,’ he says. ‘Peo­ple are find­ing that other breeds do the same job bet­ter. The labrador, for ex­am­ple, is a rel­a­tively mod­ern breed – but they’re just bet­ter at the job. These other breeds have been re­placed.’

Nor is it just well-en­trenched field­sports dogs such as labradors and re­triev­ers which are dis­plac­ing tra­di­tional Scot­tish breeds. As peo­ple try to show their in­di­vid­u­al­ity by buy­ing ever-more ob­scure breeds, once ex­otic hunt­ing dogs such as the Hun­gar­ian vi­zla, weimari­nar, Bavar­ian moun­tain hound and the leon­berger are now com­mon­place.

Mean­while, hunt­ing dogs such as the Slo­vakian rough­haired pointer, Swedish vall­hund, Nova Sco­tia duck tolling re­triever, Por­tuguese pointer, Span­ish wa­ter dog, Cata­lan sheep­dog and Por­tuguese wa­ter dog are all breeds whose num­bers are grow­ing rapidly.

With dog own­er­ship be­ing ba­si­cally a zero-sum game, the ar­rival of these im­mi­grants has been at the ex­pense of na­tive breeds. Yet what­ever their pur­pose – re­triev­ing, dig­ging, chas­ing in the field, or just rais­ing a smile in the fam­ily home by drib­bling down your trousers at the din­ner ta­ble – our vul­ner­a­ble dog breeds form part of our coun­try’s his­tory.

And there are still stal­warts de­ter­mined to keep the flame of these en­dan­gered hunt­ing breeds alight.

‘In the Cale­do­nian Club, we all look at our­selves as cus­to­di­ans of the breed,’ says Keith Mar­shall, sec­re­tary of the Cale­do­nian Dandie Din­mont Ter­rier Club. ‘They have been around for such a long time, we feel it’s our re­spon­si­bil­ity to keep them go­ing.’

Granted, these na­tive breeds are no longer the hunter’s first choice, but let­ting them dis­ap­pear from our streets al­to­gether would surely be a trav­esty.

“Se­duced by the fash­ion­able hand­bag dogs of to­day, his­toric breeds are be­ing over­looked


Above: A Gor­don set­ter has a mo­ment’s rest.

Be­low: Char­lie Thor­burn work­ing hard to re­store or­der.

Above: A pack of deer­hounds en­joy a coun­try walk with their owner.

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