Owning a clumber spaniel is like being a member of an exclusive club, says Rory Knight Bruce as he watches 18 of the breed in action
Clumber spaniels are not often seen on a shooting day. But when they are they make an impression. If you use your clumber spaniel to pick up make sure you read our guide to the etiquette of picking-up on a shoot to prevent embarrassment.
THE CLUMBER SPANIEL
Clumber spaniels stand at a shoot like dowagers in a palanquin, transporting the observer to a sporting print from the 19th century. But, once they get going, they nose their way though bushes and bracken, accompanied by their owners who need little or no voice to urge on their canine companions. Welcome to the serene and sporting world of the clumber spaniel.
The clumber spaniel is a breed of dog that, after the war, was all but extinct. But since the establishment in 1984 of the Working Clumber Spaniel Society there are now a hundred or more clumbers working in the shooting field. Those who own them swear by their ability, particularly on rough-shoots, to find and flush game and to retrieve tenderly to hand.
What is unique – and highly prized in the clumber sporting calendar – is the day on which 18 clumber spaniel gather for a 50-bird day at Lord and Lady Gage’s Firle Place estate on the South Downs of Sussex. “I was first introduced to clumber spaniels 35 years ago by Lady Juliet Townsend, who asked me to walk one round a ring at a dog show in Northamptonshire,” says Lord Gage, who with his wife Alexandra, now has four clumber spaniels, although one belongs to their four-year-old son, Valentine.
“Nicky is a real dog man,” says Lady Gage of her husband, “and they are regarded as people in our family. They offer fascination and calm. In fact, they are sometimes the only thing which is calm around here and they are very clear thinking with certainty and self-possession.”
The clumber spaniel was originally introduced from France by the second Duke of Newcastle at Clumber Park in Nottinghamshire in the late 18th century. They are noted for being able to work steadily in dense undergrowth, they can be strong swimmers and all have pink noses. Although the early history of the clumber spaniel is sketchy, their voice suggests their forebears may have included basset hounds, Alpine spaniels and even St Bernards.
Historically, the clumber spaniel has been favoured by royalty, including Prince Albert, Edward VII and George V. Today they may be found in the homes of the Princess Royal, their society president, who has two at Gatcombe; Lord and Lady Egremont at Petworth; and at Hatfield House, home to the Marquess of Salisbury, so something of their royal and aristocratic attraction remains.
But the guns and beaters assembled at the granary at Firle Place for a four- drive day are bound not by royalty but an unswerving love for the clumber spaniel breed. Still, it is hard to escape the notion that owning a clumber spaniel is like being a member of the Bentley Owners Club or at a gathering of those who have competed
in the Cresta Run.
Graham Tweed, CEO of Kronch dog foods, has come with his one-year-old clumber spaniel , Dexter, who has his own Facebook page with 18,500 friends. “There is something very special about owning a clumber. They are certainly not run of the mill,” says Tweed.
Then there are Debbie and John Zurick, the latter immaculate in his Purdey keeper’s tweed, breeders of clumbers and mainstays of the society (Debbie has been secretary for 17 years) . “In 1997, we got Floss (Newhill Nightin-gale Venaticus), our foundation bitch, and all our lines go back to her,” Debbie explains. “She was a fabulous hunting dog with a superb nose – keen, well muscled, light and athletic.”
For the Zuricks, whose wonderful home and kennels are tucked into the Exmoor coombs near Winsford, the journey to Sussex is something of a homecoming. They knew each other growing up in that county, where Debbie’s much-respected father, Derek Townsend, had owned Townsend’s Guns in Brighton. “Dad wanted a son but got a daughter,” says Debbie. “So, instead he took me shooting all over the country. I was wildfowling and working dogs from an early age. The sound of geese still reminds me of my dad.”
When Townsend was admitted to hospital she took him an article from Country Life about clumber spaniels. “I will get two of those when I get out,” he told her, which he never did. Instead, in pursuit of his wishes, Debbie contacted James Darley, one of the co-founders and driving forces behind the Working Clumber Spaniel Society.
“I don’t know anyone who knows more about working clumbers than James Darley,” says David Kent, formerly a gunmaker with Purdey, Boss and Holland & Holland, who has been trialling spaniels for 20 years. “The thing that struck me instantaneously about the clumber spaniel is their positivity. They are happy, enthusiastic dogs.” Five years ago, Kent went to Birmingham and paid £800 for Tess, who was a “rescue” clumber spaniel, and has never looked back. “No matter what she does, she makes me smile,” he says. “They are the absolute rough-shooting dog for walked-up days, tireless, and I would put their nose before any breed.”
It was time to meet Darley himself, an upright, quietly spoken man who has devoted 40 years to the restoration of the working clumber. “We have modelled the working type on their Victorian and Edwardian forebears,” he told me.“ There has been so much to overcome we have to congratulate ourselves, really,” he continued. “We have improved upon size, type, temperament and hips and the working qualities of the clumber have progressed out of all proportion. Diversity is to be treasured and they now again represent a genuine sporting alternative to springers and cockers.”
Other guns and beaters had come from as far away as Yorkshire and Kent and included a builder, a policeman and a tree surgeon.
Driving winds the night before shooting had calmed by breakfast and the day opened with a grey sky, a cold wind and a touch of rain. The first drive, Wicklands, was a ditch and hedgerow with walking and standing guns. The pheasants here will nestle in the ditches and immediately it is apparent that the pace of the clumber suits this terrain. “We call them bramble bashers as if there is a bird in a thick place they will find it,” Ian Wagstaff, who had travelled from Doncaster to shoot and work his dog, told me.
Sure enough, a steady trickle of about 10 birds emerged, the first two falling to the guns of Lord Gage and Graham Tweed. It was a moment for me to walk with Bill Young, Lord Gage’s retired keeper, who has been at Firle since 1973 and still comes out most days to assist “new” keeper Tim Fenner. Shooting changes happen slowly at Firle, he told me; in Lord Gage’s private syndicate are a father and son who have been shooting here for 60 years.
The second drive, Poke Hill Shaw, saw a combination of walking and standing guns with the dogs drawing down another hedge line and several guns being well placed behind hedges. This drive produced some decent curling birds and, again, it was done at an un-rushed pace. Standing with Debbie Zurick, I asked her about her love of clumbers and the immense amount of work she does for the society. “They are more than a passion, they are my purpose in life,” she said. “I like to think I am following in my father’s footsteps and clumber spaniels just got under my skin.”
The third drive, Stamford Buildings, in which the dogs drew outlying hedgerows, game crops and a large stick pile, again produced good birds undisturbed by the shoot’s main drives. Nigel and Sharon Stone, who came from Gatwick to beat with two clumbers, explained how they got into the breed. “We went on a shoot in Sussex and were just taken with the breed and have no regrets,” they told me. “They are a nice, steady working dog.” The Stones first got their bitch Asheni and then travelled from the Borders to Cornwall to find her a mate, producing Dusty, now two. “They also make excellent pack dogs,” says Nigel.
With what can be described as three “rough day” drives under their belts, guns and beaters were led to River Shaw, a one-acre strip of open woodland with wonderful views to the neighbouring Glynde Place es-tate. “We have not shot this recently so we shall just have to see how it does,” was Fenner’s philosophical approach. The guns more than repaid their host’s generosity by shooting a succession of well-timed and well-flighted birds of very decent height.
“I just like to tickle the dogs along,” said Fenner. “If a dog is getting ahead I will just stop the line until it comes back.” What followed were birds that flew out in single figures over the guns allowing them to take the good birds in sporting fashion. With the clumbers working steadily and methodically, it was a drive reminiscent of 1973, perhaps even 1873.
Tweed, who shoots every day he can and has an estate in Dumfriesshire, took 14 birds in as many shots and then rested his gun. Dexter made his first retrieve on a hen runner, which should delight his Facebook friends. Next door, Chris Raper and Guy Patterson also shot well. “I hadn’t raised my gun all season so I was delighted with that,” Raper told me. Equally delighted was James Darley, who shot a hen pheasant which travelled on over the Glynde Reach, a fast-running river in flood, perhaps 50ft wide. His dog, six-year-old homebred Boris (Venaticus Hercules), swam strongly and executed a blind retrieve. Young described it as the retrieve of the season.
With a bag of 43, the guns returned to lunch with Lord and Lady Gage in the Firle Place tearooms. Ever organised, Debbie Zurick gave words of thanks and gifts to the hosts. Selfless throughout the day had been Heidrun Humphries, a friend and neighbour of the Zuricks and a clumber owner. She had given up her beating day to take the photographs.
“It is a luxury to have a host who is himself the owner of working clumbers,” said Darley. “He is a great supporter of the breed.” On an earlier visit, Lord and Lady Gage had suggested the clumbers be photographed next to a family portrait by Van Dyke. “We were a bit worried about ‘leg-cocking’,” said Debbie Zurick. But Lord and Lady Gage know where their priorities lie. While one Van Dyke now hangs in the National Gallery, another remains in the Great Hall. And the clumber spaniels rejoice in the run of the house.