They may be manmade creations dating back just a couple of centuries but minority spaniels are, nonetheless, part of our sporting heritage. It would be a shame to lose them, says David Tomlinson
Today you are more likely to see minority spaniels on the showbench than the shooting field, but they are part of our sporting heritage. Radical desicions need to be taken, or we will lose them, warns David Tomlinson.
Discover more about clumber spaniels, and why owning them is like being part of an exclusive club. Read clumber spaniel: the Bentley of gundogs.
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Over the years I’ve had the privilege of shooting over all four breeds of our so-called minority spaniels, namely the Welsh springer, Clumber, Sussex and field spaniel. I’ve listed them in their order of minority, though the Sussex and the field compete annually for the title of our rarest native spaniel. (I’ve excluded the Irish water spaniel, as only in the show ring is it classified as a spaniel.) What all four have in common is rarity and the distinct possibility that they are heading towards extinction.
Whether that would be a disaster depends on your viewpoint. They are part of our sporting heritage but, on the other hand, they are simply manmade creations that have only existed for a couple of centuries at the most. The Clumber is the oldest of the quartet, and the odd one out as it doesn’t appear to share the same ancestry of any of the other spaniels, though its origins are shrouded in mystery. During the past century, Clumbers fell from favour in the shooting field but although they survived in the show ring they became bigger and bigger, eventually earning the description ‘massive’ in their show standard; the word has now been dropped.
Fortunately for the Clumber, a small number of shooting enthusiasts adopted the breed and ensured its survival into the 21st century, with selective breeding allowing
a return to the type of dog depicted by Victorian artists such as John Emms. Today, the Working Clumber Spaniel Society champions the breed and if you fancy a shooting dog that’s a little bit different, then a Clumber isn’t an eccentric choice. It is, however, an expensive one, as Clumber puppies with good working pedigrees are scarce and sell for premium prices.
Numerically, Welsh springers comfortably outnumber Clumbers, based on the Kennel Club’s annual registration figures. In a typical year the Kennel Club registers anything between 300 and 400 Welsh springer puppies, while Clumber registrations average about 200 to 300. Welsh springer spaniels are popular in the show ring, for they are handsome dogs, but they are rarities in the shooting field with just a small number of enthusiasts trying to retain this spaniel as a proper working dog. I’ve met quite a few Welsh springers on shoot days and have seen some competent workers, but I’ve yet to meet one with anything like the drive and determination of a well-bred working English springer.
The field spaniel is a bit of an oddball. At the end of the 19th century many spaniels were described as fields, though few would have come anywhere close to the current breed standard. Most were short-legged and low slung, and it took an influx of English springer blood to rescue the breed from oblivion. Today, a classic field spaniel is typically solid black or liver, and halfway in size between a cocker and a springer. The handsome domed head is the best way to tell one from a cocker. You are also far more likely to see one on a showbench than in the shooting field, though there are a few diehards who try and keep the working tradition going.
Sussex spaniels were bred originally as beating dogs, and with their short legs were required to go under rather than over the cover. They were never expected to retrieve, while unique among all our native gundogs they were allowed to give tongue when working, though ideally only when close to game. These distinctive golden liver-coloured dogs came perilously close to extinction after World War Two, when just 10 registered dogs survived.
Because their numbers are so low, Clumbers, field and Sussex spaniels are regarded as vulnerable native breeds by the Kennel Club, while the Welsh springer is in the ‘at watch’ category. The Kennel Club works with the breed clubs and owners in trying to secure a future for these dogs, but the blunt truth is that unless people want to own them, nothing is going to save them. Quite how you broaden their appeal is a challenge. Why should any shooting person take on a Clumber when they can have a cocker, or a Welsh springer instead of an English springer? Minor spaniels might have rarity appeal but they really need something more if they are to survive. Frustratingly, apart from Clumbers, I’ve seen precious few with genuine drive and ability.
The breed clubs can be their own worst enemies, becoming so obsessed with breed purity that they refuse to consider sensible outcrosses that are desperately needed to bring greater genetic diversity to their dogs. Inbreeding leads to numerous health problems, which is why all these spaniels suffer from more than their fair share of health issues. By far the best working Sussex spaniels I’ve seen were bred as beating dogs by a Welsh gamekeeper, but it transpired that despite their appearance they weren’t pure dogs but a first cross with a cocker spaniel. The Sussex Spaniel Association frowns upon such crosses, but these game little Welsh dogs demonstrated to me brilliantly how fresh blood can invigorate a breed. Perhaps the most surprising thing about the minority spaniels is that they all still exist, despite dire forecasts of imminent extinction. However, unless radical decisions are taken, their future is far from assured.