As we had no recent history of gundogs in our family, when I set out on my gamekeeping career one of the first things I needed to acquire was a dog. My choice then was driven by an unplanned crossbred coupling of a friend’s spaniel bitch and a labrador dog, and money, of which, at 16 years of age, I had little. It was all quite simple, I needed a dog and Ian, my friend, had a pup which needed a home, so I became the owner of a small, crossbred, black dog, smooth coated, with spaniel-like ears. He was in many ways like a small black lab-rador with the temperament of a springer. He would plough through anything, and go all day, as well as doing exactly what he wanted to most of the time.
He was also lucky, as many litters of that crossbred gundog type in that era were doomed to a watery grave. If they were not Kennel Club-registered they were worthless. It was hard enough finding homes for pure springers or labradors with no papers, but crosses -don’t even ask in most cases.
Whim became a great friend for many years and, as I have told most of the young men who have worked under me, I learnt more from him than he did from me. In truth, my first attempt at dog training was poor, to say the least, but he served me well, warts and all. Many a bird that would have been lost was found, and the exceptional picks still linger in my memory. One such is of the wing-tipped greylag, one of a right-and-left flighting into the loch, downed in the dusk. Good picking-up dogs know when a bird is hit, and he was off into the night. Ten, perhaps 15 minutes later, I heard him coming, blowing hard as he carried the bird through the whins to me. At the time, he was the exception: a crossbred dog, worthless, except for the fact that to me he was priceless as a working dog. And this is the crunch of the debate on crossing pedigree breeds: just what makes a good working dog? Cer-tainly not the fact that it has a pedigree.
My experience has given me a perspective on crosses as working dogs that few have, and it has removed any prejudices about them which may have lingered in my mind. But why have many of the current generation of shooting people turned their backs on the pure strains of gundog and started breeding and working a variety of crossbred dogs when not so long ago these were frowned upon?
I don’t think it is that they want to raise a digit or two at the Kennel Club, although there are many who consider that the organisation has not served them well in some respects, and charges far too much to do a variety of “paper exercises” with puppies and adult dogs. Besides which, there have been problems with some lines of some registered breeds, notably dodgy hips and eyes that give up too soon. We have done these breeds no favours by breeding from individuals that should have been removed from the gene pool.
No, it is almost as if the shooting community has tired of the same old dogs. It may simply be that the rigid structure which society adhered to prior to the Sixties has gone, and so has the need to conform. Many people do not care any more whether their dog is the same as everyone else’s, instead they seem to prefer it not to be.
In my youth, the labrador and springer reigned supreme in the shooting field, with the other breeds a minority. The now-popular cocker had all but died out. However, thanks to a handful of dedicated breeders it not only survived but is now counted in tens of thousands out working on a regular basis. Indeed, cockers are the real success story of the past 20 to 30 years when it comes to pedigree dogs.
And what of the others? There are lots of them but they were seldom seen on shoots. The flatcoat and golden retrievers, the pointer breeds and others were all a talking point when out working, such was their rarity. Were they useful? Most participants, other than the dogs’ owners, would have said not.
So why the crossbred gundogs, and what accounts for their popularity? There is no predominant sire in the crossbreed world, however, one of the most used is the German wirehaired pointer (wiry), put to a variety of dams, from springers to other pointers and labradors. The wiry/labrador cross is a powerful, intelligent dog, with a serious amount of stamina. The latter is a trait of the wiry, which will run any other dog I have seen work into the ground. It also tends to be very clever, which is a characteristic lacking in some other breeds, or certainly some strains.
Of the others, the crossbred labradoodle is perhaps one of the most well-known and expensive, commanding a price well above the pedigree animals it has been bred from, but the fact is that all the various crosses demand a decent fee. David Jukes, the huntsman of the Zetland Hunt in Co Durham, bred a couple of litters of ladradoodles and was not impressed by their working abilities. As his job suggests, David is well versed in bloodlines and breeding. His labrador bitch was an exceptionally good one, from a good working lineage, and he had every right to expect the progeny to be useful. “They had lovely natures and made very good house dogs, but I would not recommend them as workers, not from my experience anyway,” he says. “They were more than happy to lollop along beside you when out shooting and had no interest in hunting. I think the poodles that are around now have lost all the natural hunting traits and game-finding abilities that they once had,” he continues, though he admits that his is a small sample from which to draw conclusions.
The crosbred sprocker has been around for some time, and I know of a lovely English springer spaniel/German wirehaired pointer cross which does an excellent job for a falconer. It seems there are no hard and fast rules regarding what breed is crossed with another.
A gamekeeper whose early days were similar to mine is Martin Edwards of Hurstbourne Park in Hampshire. When he was an 18-year-old trainee his first dog was a crossbred gundog, a sprocker. It cost £50 – two weeks’ wages – but the result, from an accidental mating, was “fantastic”, he says. “Bonnie, the bitch I trained up, turned out to be the catalyst to all my sprocker breeding. I found that the combination of the two breeds of spaniel provided me with the best of both worlds. They are strong hunting dogs, excellent retrievers, good water dogs, and have exceptional stamina for long days in the field.”
Martin has moved on to another first crossbred gundog, this time between a springer spaniel and a working collie. She has also turned out to be a winner. He says his sprollie, Smudge, “is a brilliant dogging-in tool and will run all day if needed while doing that, face the fiercest of bramble bushes, retrieve every game species, including Canada geese, from land or water, kill and retrieve stoats, but be soft-mouthed with game when retrieving it”.Considering he paid only £100 for her she has been very good value for money when compared to the overdraft one might have to take out to purchase many pedigree pups.
One rule of breeding, though, is to stick to first crossbred gundogs as, the more complicated the cross, the greater the risk of the mating going wrong from the standpoint of producing intelligent working dogs. This has been reiterated by a number of breeders I have spoken to. I would liken the first cross to that of many sheep breeds; the Cheviot ram put over most of the hill ewes will produce offspring that all look very similar. That same principle carries over to the dog world in that the pups may be remarkably consistent in looks, and often, although not always, working ability. The colour may vary, especially in some breeds which have a multitude of variations anyway, and in this respect the cocker immediately springs to mind.
Crossing crossbred gundogs, though, is rather akin to putting your ingredients into a blender; you never quite know how they are going to settle out. Genes are complicated.
Peter Fawcett, headkeeper on Bollihope, the notable Durham grouse moor, has a wiry crossbred labrador and really rates it. The dog was bred by Mark, his son, headkeeper on the Leadhills moor in Scotland. These excellent crosses are “all rounders”, according to Peter. “Equally at home picking-up on a shoot day or doing the rounds with you when checking traps; they are very good vermin dogs, with a nose for anything unsavoury, from stoats to foxes. They also have an unmatched amount of stamina, and will go all day, day after day.” Those attributes, prized by Peter, have been seized upon by many working keepers, which is why that particular cross is now one of the most common in grouse country and becoming more popular season by season, with demand outstripping supply.
My own wiry, Bully, is the proud father of a litter of pups to a vizsla bitch, and they have turned out to be exceptionally good dogs, quite lightly built but with an unbelievably good nose, and the expected stamina. One of my beatkeepers, Will, has two of them, and it is one of my regrets I did not get a pup for myself as at the time my kennels were rather full. The opportunity to acquire one of the same breeding has not come again. Will loves his two and they are seldom beaten when it comes to a tricky retrieve on a grouse except, perhaps, by their father.
When wirehaired pointers were not a common sight, Ken Smith became the owner of an imported bitch way back in 1990. That bitch, when put to another imported dog – this time from Scandinavia – founded a long, long line of pointers and crosses, which Ken has worked during the course of his employment as a headkeeper. Although his stud dogs were used a lot on labradors, one of the best workers he has seen was to a greyhound/wiry bitch cross. “Those dogs would do anything”, says Ken. “One – which went to the north of Scotland -would retrieve wildfowl from the sea, an excellent all-round animal. They were large, very powerful dogs with a huge heart.”
So the time has gone when the team turned out at the start of a shoot day and springers and labradors dominated the canine workforce. These days the pack may well resemble something one would see abroad: a mixture of sizes, shapes and colours, but oh, what a mix, more character and vitality than for many a year, all raring to go.
It is easy to see why those who work in the shooting field have opted to use the crossbreeds. Intelligence coupled with the ability to do everything is something the breeder strives for, and more often than not fails to obtain. Not so with the crosses, though. In fact, the opposite is the case as they have a habit of turning out exceptionally well.
On those rather bumpy trips in gun trailers from drive to drive on formal driven days as well as in the equally if not more uncomfort-able beaters’ trailers, there is already a surprising number of crosses to be seen, and if I am not wrong, there will be many more in the years ahead.
Only the other week I spied a small labrador-type dog in such a trailer and instantly I saw a mirror image of my very first little cross, owned as it happened by a trainee keeper, just as mine was all those years ago. Chatting to him it was obvious he was getting as much pleasure from his little dog as I did from mine. It was a good one, his companion, and that was all that mattered to him.
It is remarkable that in my lifetime I have witnessed a transformation in the manner in which crosses are viewed and valued. The shooting world has come full circle, from when dogs of every shape, size and colour were acceptable, to a standard rigid regime which would tolerate nothing that deviated from the letter of the law, and back to a rather more relaxed attitude to what constitutes a good or at least acceptable dog in the field.
This is nothing less than a revolution, a peaceful one, and one which I believe is actually to the benefit of those who participate in the sport as well as making shooting life far more interesting.