Sighthounds have been prized for millennia – for their temperament as much as for their turn of foot, says Sir Johnny Scott
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SIGHTHOUNDS: A VISION OF SPEED AND ELEGANCE
Sighthounds, or gazehounds if you prefer – those that hunt entirely by sight and speed rather than scent – are among the most beautiful and graceful of dogs. With a lineage dating back at least 5,000 years, they are believed to be descended from the primitive running dogs that hunted across the vast, low grasslands of the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East. By selective breeding, the Ancient Egyptians are credited with developing an agile, long-legged sighthound, with massively powerful hindquarters, fast enough to course gazelle, antelope, hare and ostrich.
Sighthounds spread radially across Eurasia and into North Africa as early civilisations came and went and, with each, were the treasured possessions of monarchs and nobles, who celebrated them
in mosaics and murals – indeed, it could be said that no animal in history, apart from the horse, has been more represented in art.
With the passage of time, true sighthounds developed into distinct geographical breeds, including the bare-skinned desert hounds of the Middle East, North Africa and India, and the heavy-coated sighthounds of Afghanistan and Russia. Across Europe, the Celts, who were great hound men and particularly fond of coursing hares, bred a fine greyhound type much admired by the Romans, called the Celtic hound, or the Vertagus.
In 2019, Bonham’s sold two marble statues of Celtic hounds from the 2nd century AD, which, although 2,000 years old, are indistinguishable from the Italian greyhound of today.
The great Celtic tribal chiefs in Britain kept extensive kennels of sighthounds, bred specifically for different quarry species: light vertagri for match-coursing hares and the taller, more robust, rough-coated hounds of Celtic myth for hunting deer, boar and wolf – arguably the ancestors of our modern greyhound, Scottish deerhound and Irish wolfhound.
Since the Hunting Act 2004, the number of sighthounds in Britain has declined, but there are still enough of these magnificent, almost aristocratic dogs to be seen at game fairs, gliding insouciantly through the commonality of other canines, with their flowing, springy gait – elegant, aloof and assured of their own superiority.
Until the early 19th century, when the breed became standardised, these tall, strong-boned and rough-coated sighthounds were known as Highland greyhounds or Scotch staghounds. They were for many centuries the treasured companions of Scottish monarchs and clan chieftains. Specifically bred for coursing red deer – although not as fast as greyhounds – they had the stamina to follow a running deer over rocky ground, with the strength to hold a 300lb stag.
Coursed in couples, deerhounds had specialised tasks: the ‘high dog’ was trained to run wide round the corrie tops to stop a stag crossing the skyline and turn it, while the ‘low dog’ ran straight in after the beast.
By 1810, sheep replaced deer on many Highland estates and the deerhound fell on hard times, with only a handful being bred true by enthusiasts such as the McNeills of Colonsay, the Dukes of Gordon and Glengarry MacDonnells.
There was a resurgence of interest in the breed, driven by the romantic Scottish novels of Sir Walter Scott, who owned a deerhound called Maida, which he described as “a most perfect picture of heaven”. Queen Victoria had another called Hector, one of the many painted by Sir Edwin Landseer.
The Scottish Deerhound Club was founded in 1886 and registered with the Kennel Club in 1901, with a minimum desirable height of 30in for dogs and 28in for bitches. That the breed survived through the 20th century is due to a handful of breeders, such as Marjorie Bell, Norah Hartley, Agnes Linton and Anastasia Noble. Poaching gangs persecuting red deer with lurchers led to a ban on hunting deer in Scotland and, from 1954, coursing meetings under National Coursing Club rules were held on mountain hares, in an attempt to preserve the hunting instinct. Since 2004, these are illegal and deerhounds have become simply family pets and exhibition dogs.
These huge, amiable, shaggy hounds are close cousins to the Scottish deerhound and have a Kennel Club breed standard of a minimum of 31in at the withers for dogs and 28in for bitches. Bred by the Gaels for hunting boar and wolves, they had a reputation for ferocity when aroused. Their popularity spread across Europe and they continued to be used for controlling wolves in Ireland well into the 17th century. The last wolf in Ireland was killed in 1786 and, by then, very few wolfhounds were left, with the breed assumed to be extinct by 1836.
In 1863, Captain George Augustus Graham of Dursley, Gloucestershire, decided to recreate the Irish wolfhound, using the biggest and best available examples of deerhound and Great Dane, breeds he believed to be descended from wolfhounds. Borzoi and rough-coated Tibetan mastiffs were later used as outcrosses and, by 1885, Graham’s creation was breeding true. The Irish Wolfhound Club was formed, the breed standard agreed and, in 1886, accepted by the Kennel Club. In 1902, Graham presented a wolfhound to the newly formed Irish Guards and the breed remains the regimental mascot today.
The magnificent Russian wolfhound, with its deep chest, long head, arched back and silky coat, was developed in the 17th century from a mixture of breeds – among them saluki, Polish greyhound, Scottish deerhound and the Russian Loshaya – to produce a tall, graceful sighthound that became a favourite of the Imperial Family. Many members kept enormous kennels, including Grand Duke Nicholas, who, up until the Revolution, had two packs of 120 foxhound-type scenthounds, 150 borzois and 15 English greyhounds at his Perchino estate. Hunts on a massive scale lasted several days, with armies of beaters driving hares, foxes or wolves on to open ground to be coursed.
Wolves were the optimum quarry and, when sighted, a brace of borzois would be slipped, trained to seize the wolf by either side of the neck and hold it until a mounted huntsman arrived. Apart from the sport, these hunts were a test of prowess and only the fastest, bravest and most intelligent borzois were kept for breeding.
Queen Victoria was the first person to own a borzoi in Britain, when she received one as a gift from Czar Nicholas I in 1847. Interest in these spectacular hounds spread here and across Europe, with the Duchess of Newcastle establishing her Nottinghamshire kennel and founding the Borzoi Club in March 1892. Borzois were registered with the Kennel Club in May of the same year and the breed standard set at a minimum height of 29in at the withers for dogs and 27in for bitches.
The great kennels of the Imperial Family were lost in the orgy of destruction during the Russian Revolution, but, by then, the best bloodlines were safe in the West.
These dignified, striking sighthounds of the Middle East, with narrow bodies, silky coats and feathering on the ears and hindquarters, appear almost fragile on their long, delicate legs and disproportionately large pads. They can achieve speeds of more than 40mph and have remarkable stamina for long distances over rough ground, those heavily padded feet absorbing the impact. Their incredibly ancient pedigree dates back to the Pharaohs. Later, they were highly prized by the sheikhs of the nomadic tribes of the Middle East for hunting hare, fox and gazelle, in conjunction with a falcon trained to distract the quarry by attacking its head.
Salukis were rare in Britain until the end of the 19th century, when the Hon Florence Amherst started her kennel at Foulden Hall, near Thetford, Norfolk. She had seen salukis in the Nile Delta when accompanying her father, the Egyptologist Lord Amherst, and acquired a pair in 1895 from the kennel of Prince Abdullah of Jordan. There was an influx of salukis after World War I, brought back by officers returning from the Middle East; one of them, Brigadier-General F Lance, joined Amherst in forming the Saluki or Gazelle Hound Club in 1923, with the breed and standard accepted by the Kennel Club at 23in to 28in at the shoulder for dogs and proportionately smaller for bitches.
There had been different sizes of greyhounds for hundreds of years before Edward of Norwich, Duke of York described the advantages of small, medium and large greyhounds for different quarry in The Master of Game, his treatise on medieval hunting, written between 1406 and 1413. Standing around 20in at the withers, whippets fall between the little Italian greyhounds at 15in and a true greyhound at between 27in and 30in.
Whippets are superb ratting and rabbiting dogs, but really became popular during the 19th and mid-20th centuries at walked-up competition hare-coursing meetings and for organised racing. They were known as the ‘poor man’s racehorse’ and whippet racing to the ‘rag’ – where the dogs raced towards their owner, who was waving a cloth – was phenomenally popular, particularly in the north. They were recognised by the Kennel Club in 1891 and, despite the decline in whippet racing, this enchanting, sporting little breed remains sought after.
Thousands of years of selective breeding went into creating a dog fast enough to match the speed of a brown hare, the fastest European land mammal, capable of reaching a speed of 45mph. Owning such a sighthound was the ultimate status symbol and match coursing – the challenge between a brace of sighthounds and a hare – was the obvious progression. From the very beginning, the object was never to kill the hare, as historian Arrian explained as early as the 2nd century AD: “For coursers, such are at least true sportsman, do not take their dogs out for the sake of catching a hare, but for the contest and sport of coursing, and are glad if the hare meet with an escape.”
Greyhounds were so highly regarded during the Middle Ages, that Edward III adopted the image of one for his great seal and, subsequently, a white greyhound became one of the heraldic supporters in the royal coat of arms of Tudor kings.
Popularity of coursing grew exponentially, to the extent that Queen Elizabeth I instructed her Earl Marshal, the Duke of Norfolk, to produce a formal code of conduct. The Laws of the Leash established the distance of the head start a hare was given before the brace of greyhounds were slipped and a complicated method of scoring points for each time the hare was turned by either dog. As ever, the object was not to kill, but to enjoy a test of skill and agility.
In 1776, the Earl of Orford created the ‘perfect’ greyhound, from which the modern breed descends, by crossing greyhounds with deerhounds, Italian greyhounds and even bulldogs. The 19th century was the golden age of coursing and greyhound breeding, with coursing clubs springing up all over the country. The emergent rail network fuelled meeting attendance and, in the Victorian heyday, more than 10,000 people flocked to the bare marshes north of Liverpool for the annual three-day Waterloo Cup. Such was the national interest that in 1871, the winning greyhound was summoned to Windsor Castle by Royal Command, to be presented to Queen Victoria.
In 1858, the National Coursing Club (NCC) was formed, which controlled coursing in the same way the Jockey Club controls racing and, in 1882, the NCC created the original Greyhound Stud Book. The intense competition of Victorian coursing produced a remarkable creature with classic looks, incredible speed, stamina and courage, and all dogs running on the coursing field and, later, on the track, had to be registered in the Stud Book. The lineage of greyhounds running on track and field in Britain, Ireland, the US and Australia today is directly traceable to past winners of the Waterloo Cup.
The last Waterloo Cup was run in February 2005 and it is a paradox that the Hunting Act 2004, that monument to ignorance and prejudice, not only destroyed centuries of culture and sporting heritage, but stopped the one fieldsport where the object was not to kill the quarry.