Sealyham terriers are excellent for ferreting, rabbit catching and will even climb vines to chase recalcitrant rodents in hiding. We salute this dogged breed.
We want a sealyham terrier. Who doesn’t? These small, white ratters are full of pep, but when ratting with terriers, which terrier is top? The sealyham is definitely in with a shot. Or do you prefer teckels: the wire-haired dachshund as your companion at foot?
THE SEALYHAM TERRIER
Of all the terrier breeds, it is perhaps the small, white, sealyham terrier, named after the estate in Pembrokeshire where it was first bred in the mid 1800s by Captain John Tucker-Edwardes, that has suffered the greatest mixture of fortunes. In the Twenties, The Kennel Club registered more than 2,000 sealyham terrier puppies annually but in recent years that number has dwindled; there were 68 registrations in 2013. This figure has put the sealyham terrier on The Kennel Club’s Vulnerable Native Breeds list, although, in 2009, a sealyham called Charmin won Crufts. Today, the world of the sealyham terrier is divided into those dogs bred as pets and for show – there is little doubt that they make excellent pets, loyalty, character and cheerfulness being typical traits – and as working dogs. As pets, they have been owned by Princess Margaret, Alfred Hitchcock, Cecil Aldin and Elizabeth Taylor, among others. In 1959, the Ephraim Hardcastle column in the Sunday Express reported: “A notice has been posted in Clarence House and Windsor Castle giving explicit instructions that when Princess Margaret has breakfast in bed, her two sealyham terriers [Johnnie and Pippin] must be brought to the room along with her breakfast tray.”
It is hard to imagine that the sealyham terrier was once bred for its tenacity against badger and fox. Since the establishment of the Working Sealyham Terrier Club in 2008 by Harry Parsons, their main foes have been mink and rats. Of the 200 to 300 sealyham terriers in Britain today, perhaps just 20 are working dogs. Much credit for the working and breeding of the sealyham must go to Parsons and his partner, Gail Wescott. From their home in Devon they tour country shows, extolling the virtues of the breed, talking to other owners and vetting prospective owners. Occasionally, they are invited to bring their pack of sealyham terriers to address a specific rat problem, which, as I was to witness, they do with élan. It was not, however, at some rat-infested chicken shed that 40 of us assembled one August day but on the thousand-acre Gloucestershire estate of renowned polo player Alexander Ebeid and his wife, Jacquie, near Andoversford.
Here, the landscape and rural inhabitants occupy a position just as important as in the days of Laurie Lee, the centenary of whose birth was celebrated in 2014. The honey-stoned cottages of steep villages tumble next to each other like Christmas coins and there is a soporific stillness to the air. It would be hard to imagine rats dwelling on Pegglesworth Home Farm, a Jacobean manor house with immaculately tended polo paddocks and stabling for 52 horses. But the menagerie includes turkeys, peacocks, ducks and chickens in the garden and a successful three-day-a-week high-bird pheasant-shoot, all of them a magnet to brown rats. “I welcome you with open arms,” Alexander Ebeid said to me as we met the day before ratting. This was not because his estate has a significant rat problem but, as a family, the Ebeids are tremendous aficionados of the working sealyham terrier and wish to see the breed flourish and prosper.
Four years ago, Jacquie Ebeid’s nephew, Giles Clark, who lives nearby, met Harry Parsons at a country fair at Althorp and asked about getting a sealyham terrier for his children. Archie, now four, duly arrived. “I cried when Daddy picked me up and said look in the back of the car,” Allegra Clark recalls. “Archie has been everything we hoped for and more.” “Archie is not the top of the class as a ratter, rather more like I was in Latin lessons,” Clark told me as we assembled with Parsons’ sealyham pack to draw the sheds, ponds and menagerie of Pegglesworth in sunshine. “I just thought it would be nice to keep the breed going.” Parsons is ably assisted by two whippers-in, Nigel Mex, who is terrierman to the Axe Vale Harriers, and Mark Warnett, whose mother, Alison Hawkes, is a Devon vet; she looks after the well-being of the terriers. All are proper “hound men” and alert to proceedings at all times. Tizzie Craggs, who had travelled from Suffolk with her two three-year-old sealyhams, Tanner and Arfur Crown, has been a lifelong fan of the breed. Last year, she did a sponsored parachute jump to raise money for the Working Sealyham Terrier Club from an aerodrome near Beccles, raising £3,000. “I don’t even like heights,” she told me.
As with otter-hunting of old, amazing conversations can happen while wandering along and ratting with sealyhams. Enjoying the proceedings from her motorised wheelchair was Alice Beale, a former breeder of field-trial champion springer spaniels and pugs. When she felt pugs were getting too inbred she took to breeding schipperkes. “They are much in demand as Belgian barge dogs as they are excellent rat killers,” she told me.
Then I met Jann Parry, who was staying with the Ebeids. Former dance critic of the Observer and biographer of choreographer Sir Kenneth MacMillan, who was brought up in the former Rhodesia. She can remember
her grandparents being summoned to Government House in Salisbury in full morning dress on the death of King George VI in 1952. They took with them their two sealyham terriers, Roddy and Mascot. “It is lovely to see a sealyham terrier again,” said Parry. “It reminds me of my childhood.” Parry was just back from her first return trip to Zimbabwe, where she was playing Rosaline in Love’s Labour’s Lost, and confided that she also has a voluntary role looking after abandoned cats at Battersea Dogs & Cats Home. When the terriers found a rat on a pond she gestured, as if lifting a placard, and whispered to me, “Save the rat.” In fact, the rat went up a drainpipe, thwarting these most enthusiastic terriers, who then attempted to pursue a moorhen; they are ardent swimmers and persevere in their work. “Steady to feather,” commanded Dave Simms from Warwickshire, owner of three-year-old Winnie, and they desisted.
This is the fourth visit Harry Parsons has made to Pegglesworth with his sealyhams. It being August, there were no rats at home in the first barn that, later on, will be full of pheasant food. “We killed 30 here last November,” Parsons told me. Headkeeper Stephen Malley was delighted. “The rats can live out on the chalk banks quite happily in the summer,” explained Charlie Llewellen Palmer, who farms nearby and whose great-uncle kept a pack of sealyhams in Wiltshire during the Twenties. “There is plenty of water for them underground.” One of the coverts on the historic Pegglesworth map is called Ratshill Banks. Having spotted only two rats in the morning, it was time to repair to the Pegglesworth threshing barn for lunch. This enormous building, which would not be out of place in Thomas Hardy’s The Woodlanders, was a ruin when Alexander Ebeid, then playing polo at Cirencester Park, was first told that the estate was for sale 40 years ago. While ratting repasts during my childhood involved a crust of bread and a rind of cheese, here we were met with a souk of culinary splendour. The enormous doors of the threshing barn were thrown wide, candles were lit and open fires burned in the enormous grates.
“That’s the wonderful thing – we are all hunting people here,” Parsons marvelled. “We love entertaining,” Jacquie Ebeid told me and, with much appreciation, we took her at her word. Traditional hunting terminology is used when working the sealyhams. So the afternoon “draw”, with a reduced “pack”, was put into the menagerie near the manor where a rat was soon located under a small chicken house. Mex was charged with firing up the smoke machine to try and bolt our quarry. After an hour of manful digging a single rat did escape. It was, for me, a moment to talk to Dave Simms about how he got into sealyhams. “I had owned Jack Russells and a Plummer for 15 years but when I saw Harry parade his sealyhams at Ragley I had to go and talk to him,” he recalls. “I stalked him for three years before he agreed to let me have one. “When I was younger, I was looking for the quick kill,” continued Simms. “But with my sealyham terrier I can fully appreciate her hunting skills.” Winnie the sealyham terrier, he says, is excellent for ferreting, for rat or rabbit, will retrieve and even put a bird up walking before him and is steady to deer. “It is their sheer versatility out hunting and temperament; they will switch off in the evening and become a family pet again.” Drawing into the rhododendrons near the house, Mex spotted a disused rodent box and, crawling underneath, he tapped it and out shot a rat (they will make nests in these boxes if they are not regularly topped up with poison). Parsons brought on the pack of perhaps eight dogs and the rat, cunning as ever, shot up into a small hedge of cotoneaster.
With the sealyham terriers “winding” the rat, it fell to an outstretched Parsons to topple it on to the ground whereupon a proper rat hunt ensued, the spoils going to Tizzie Craggs’ Arfur Crown. All this took place under the watchful eye of an appreciative Alexander Ebeid and, after all the hard work, a few “woohoops” were not out of place. Five minutes later, the terriers scented a second rat under some vines, which then climbed the branches (making it necessary for a member of the Pegglesworth staff to rush into the house to close a bathroom window as a precaution). This rat then made a bolt for a small culvert of water and was “given best” at 4.40pm. “There is nowhere in the world I would rather be than here today,” Parsons said over tea in the Ebeid’s glorious rose garden. “It’s been quite a journey from my childhood in the East End of London, when we would take our little black-and-white terrier, Judy, rabbiting on the Hackney Marshes.”
No one who was present on this day and witnessed his passion for his beloved working sealyhams and the devotion he and the Working Sealyham Terrier Club have for the practical working of the breed would regard it as anything but a journey worthwhile. We champion the Sealyham Terrier.