Once shunned in favour of the ubiquitous black, the fox-red labrador is now becoming increasingly popular, as Giles Catchpole relates

Defining a fox-red labrador isn’t straightforward, but what is certain is that their popularity is on the up, finds Giles Catchpole.

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When I was really quite little – long, long ago – I recall meeting a number of yellow labradors. There was Honey and Treacle and there might have been one called Fudge, too. Those names suggest to me now that they were probably at the richer end of the yellow spectrum. It is also true, come to think of it, that yellow labradors were often referred to as ‘golden’ then, which may have been technically inaccurate but was perhaps a better description of their colour than yellow.

The Kennel Club formally acknowledges only three colours: black, yellow and liver – which has mutated to chocolate and thereby boosted the appeal of the brown version considerably. Black, everyone agrees, is black; yellow, by contrast, embraces shades from the lightest ivory to the richest russet – described as ‘fox-red’ – and all points in between. But all are officially still yellow.

When it comes to the definition of a fox-red labrador, it is not straightforward. It’s fair to say that a uniformly coppery coat – with emphasis on the ‘uniform’, no dilution or fading at the edges – fits the description. Gold is positively yellow; copper is definitely fox-red.

When the Earl of Home, the Earl of Malmesbury and the Duke of Buccleuch famously imported their dogs from Newfoundland in the 1830s, they were referred to as St John’s water dogs and they were black. Neither the yellow nor the liver versions were recorded until the final years of the 19th century; it is thought that this was because their lordships preferred the black version.

Bamboozling ducks

David Hancock, author of Old Working Dogs and a shelf-ful of other useful dog books, describes the duck tolling retriever, which still hails from Yarmouth county in Nova Scotia and it is a very foxy-red dog indeed. It is part retriever – which specific type is uncertain, although there was once a Norfolk retriever that was largely tan –  with some spaniel of indeterminate origin, but there were then and are now all shades of brown, from liver to orange. It is used to bamboozle ducks, in the same way that red ’coy dogs once did in the great commercial decoys of the marshes and fens here. It migrated to Canada with early settlers, presumably from Yarmouth here to Yarmouth there, which would put at least two varieties of fox-red genes in the vicinity of the St John’s dogs long before the Earls’ labradors made the return journey.

Perhaps it was felt among the aristocracy that any associations with the red dogs of the Fen Tigers and the market duckmen were best avoided? Regardless, red dogs are particularly handy for wildfowling, not just for their retrieving and duck-wrangling skills but because they don’t reflect the moonlight like a paler dog does and they don’t create a black outline as a black dog will. They just disappear into the dark, which is a useful feature when flighting geese under a full moon or stalking fowl in a punt before sunrise.

When I remarked on this discovery to a keeper friend, who has kept at least one dark yellow in his kennels for 20 years or more – he’s a stickler for precision and deems the fox-red soubriquet too faddish for his taste – he was unsurprised. “Oh yes, they don’t show up in a pigeon hide, either, when we’re decoying the drillings. They vanish in tall grass the second they stop moving and they are very useful when you are out and about in the dark.”

Despite this marked advantage, it was the black labrador that dominated the breed’s profile during the last quarter of the 20th century.

Chic rustique

By the turn of the millennium, the black labrador had progressed beyond being standard issue for the sporting household and had become a stereotype that was teetering on the brink of caricature. Flat hat, green wellies, plus fours with a black lab at foot and you were good to go. The last word in chic rustique. There were so many about that Guns were tying ribbons to them in order to take the right one home after a day’s shooting.

At the same time, yellows diminished to the point where there was genuine concern for their future. Thankfully, game shooting now is much less bound by conformity than it was then. Today, people not only dare to be different, they want to be different. And having a fox-red dog is different.

Not that the rise of the fox-red labrador has been an overnight sensation, exactly.
Charlie Thorburn at Mordor Gundogs in Perthshire points to the success of Craighorn Bracken at the 2001 IGL Championship in Windsor Park as a date when the pushback began. Bracken was not red but contemporary reports characterised him as a ‘deep yellow’.

Thorburn had fallen for the fox-red in 2000, largely on the basis that it was different, and is now a committed advocate who keeps a map in his office that tracks the pups from his kennels. It is a world map and there are pins from Alaska to Auckland. He thinks that their growing popularity reflects the desire among potential owners for something a little outside the norm.  “Red dogs are no different to the rest of the breed,” he says, “in terms of trainability or temperament.” He also recognises that there is a range of conformations among the red community, before admitting his own preference for athletic dogs that are neither too big to clear a gate nor too fine to manage a goose with confidence.

Allie Hogsbjerg agrees that the 2001 win was an important milestone. She runs Rufriver Gundogs in Norfolk and also succumbed to the charms of the fox-red dog more than two decades gone. She began trialling around the millennium and her first true red, Rufus, qualified for the IGL championship in 2002. Her current dog, Ralphie (Quarnford Grouse of Rufriver), has a raft of trial and test successes and qualified for the 2016 IGL but, significantly in Hogsbjerg’s view, he also won the Field Trial Class at Crufts in the same year. “I am not a regular show-class competitor,” she says, “but I thought it was important to demonstrate that the red dogs conform to the breed standard at the highest level as well as performing in the field.”

Her point is a good one, because the first thing anybody notices about a fox-red labrador is the colour. That coppery sheen is striking. On closer inspection, the conformation of the reds is what might be called traditional. The look of the labrador is distinctive and the fox-red version has it in spades; at least to my subjective eye. There will always be arguments between the heft of the show bench and the athleticism that is often preferred in the field, and the range of the black cohort between the black bear model to pocket-rocket versions is well documented; but I’d say the reds seem to be right on the money. Broad head, deep chest, otter tail. Plenty of energy but not massive.

Mixed blood?

And yet people still ask, “Is it a labrador?” Or, in these days of spannerdors, ’poos and ’doodles, “What is it crossed with?”

Having established that they are indeed a true labrador, the next question is, “Do they work?” To which the answer is, “Of course they do.” They’re labradors after all. They live to work. And their achievements in trials and tests attest to that. There hasn’t yet been a fox-red superstar that has flattened the competition, snaffled the silverware and routinely rescued small children from ponds while dousing fires and putting the kettle on, but legends do not emerge overnight. It is a work in progress.

The reds’ eye-catching hue was certainly a draw for Andrew Riddington, who farms on the edge of the Fens and shoots with friends, mostly in East Anglia. He has run red labradors for 30 years, which makes him something of an early adopter – his third fox-red, Jacket, is 13 now and he also has a youngster, Wedge, coming on. Riddington trains his own dogs and confirms that colour has no bearing upon performance, although he admits that you do have to concentrate when working reds. “It’s all right on plough,” he says, “but if they pull up in bracken or stubble, they just vanish.”

More importantly for those of us whose dogs do not compete beyond ‘Dog Most Like Its Owner’ at the village fête or a daring scurry at a country show, can a fox-red be relied upon to bring back the leg-down pheasant that glided behind the copse yonder or the partridge that is legging it through the sugar beet?

Andy Delf runs a team of three fox-reds and his dogs caught my eye on an estate in Suffolk where he was picking up. Having noticed them and watched them working, they nailed both of those retrieves and more besides. Delf picks up on several estates in the vicinity and shoots regularly, too. He had his first red labrador 10 years ago from Julian Mutimer at Blyvalley kennels near Lowestoft, who has also kept, trained, trialled and judged them for two decades or more and is another committed supporter, though largely retired now.

“They’re just lovely dogs,” Delf says. “You see them from a way off and you think, ‘That’s interesting,’ because they do stand out a bit when they’re working. And when you get up close you think, ‘That’s handsome,’ because they are; and the richer colour really suits their look, I think. And then you watch them work and before you know what’s happening you’re asking about puppies and reaching for your wallet.

“They’re no different to train than any dog. They mark where the dead birds fall and they hunt out the runners,” he adds, looking fondly at Ted, Rusty and Otto sitting about him in an orderly semicircle. “You do have to train them right though, because everyone will know whose they are.” “No pressure then,” I reply, lightly. And he just smiles, as he and his dogs watch me trying to suppress a mounting urge to ask about puppies. And worrying about my wallet.