The Welsh foxhound has long been celebrated for its nose, voice and drive - qualities that progressive breeders seized upon to reinvigorate its English counterpart

For many hunting enthusiasts a visit to the Wales & Border Counties Hound Show at the Royal Welsh Showground on the last Thursday in June is a highlight of summer. There are several rings for different hound breeds at the spectacular setting within a natural bowl of the mountains at Builth Wells, where the Brecon & Talybont, Golden Valley, Irfon & Towy, Radnor & West Hereford and Teme Valley foxhounds all converge. But the most important ring of all is the one run by the Welsh Hound Association, founded in 1922 under the presidency of Sir Edward Curre “for the purpose of preserving and promoting the Welsh foxhound as a specific British breed”. A dedicated stud book has been maintained ever since, and each year registered hounds compete for championships just as prestigious to Welsh hunts as Peterborough is to their English counterparts a month later.

Pure-bred Welsh hounds are not shown off the lead in the English style but exhibited by their huntsman kneeling down to support the hound’s chin and stern with each hand, possibly to compensate for the breed’s aversion to anything as pretentious as showing. Every hunting aficionado knows that a thick, broken coat is the hallmark of a Welsh foxhound, but the breed is also distinguished by a dome head and ears long enough to meet in front of the nose. Close observation of the Welsh ring at Builth Wells will reveal huntsmen gently tugging the ears of their charges to demonstrate purity of Welsh blood. Once the serious business of the day is complete there is a raucous singsong in the livestock sheds to look forward to, perhaps followed by a visit to the Barley Mow pub nearby, where the former landlord used to host Meets on six consecutive mornings during the Builth Wells hunting festival in November.

Welsh hounds’ woolly coats

The Welsh hounds on display at Builth Wells owe their woolly coats to an ancient Celtic breed that was infused with French blood after the Abbey of Saint-Hubert in the Ardennes donated some of their hounds to the monks at Margam Abbey in Glamorganshire. Following the Abbey’s closure in 1536 during King Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries, the black and tan hounds were moved to Gelli Farm in the Afan valley close to Port Talbot, where they were looked after by the Jenkins family for the next 200-odd years. While kennelled at Gelli hounds evolved into a light-coloured pack, but the dark colouring has never been vanquished and reappears regularly in the modern Welsh hound.

A Welsh hound gazes straight into the lens

A thick, broken coat is the hallmark of Welsh hounds

At the turn of the 19th century descendants of the Margam Abbey hounds formed the Glôg hunt in Glamorganshire, a pack that was to give the hunting world one of the most influential foxhound sires of the 20th century in Glôg Nimrod ’04. Welsh blood radiated outwards from the Glôg’s epicentre near Pontypridd as numerous privately maintained hunts were established among the surrounding valleys. By the late 20th century there were so many packs that up until the Hunting Act 2004 and the inevitable disbandment of many small hunts, waste food from hotels and pubs on which hounds were fed was a type of currency among the valleys of southern Wales. 

The showcase of Welsh hounds

Builth Wells is an opportunity to showcase the physical attributes of the Welsh hound, but the breed’s nose, voice and determination in the hunting field have been cherished for centuries by men and women for whom the Welsh hound is as much a symbol of their country as daffodils in spring. The hunting qualities of individual hounds have been celebrated in song since medieval times, and during the reign of Hywel Dda (942-949/950AD) an entered hound was considered twice as valuable as a sound packhorse. It could only be a matter of time before Welsh blood became sought after east of Offa’s Dyke, and in 1894 the performance of a mysterious bitch on loan to the famous Pytchley hunt was applauded in verse after Dimple – for that was her name – impressed with her drive, stamina and voice at the head of the famous Shires pack for a few glorious weeks in December.

Described by this magazine’s hunting correspondent, Brooksby, as “a mysterious yellow bitch that led us all day”, it was not until Dimple was sent back to Major Lort- Phillips’ Pembrokeshire hunt in Wales that the Pytchley huntsman, Will Goodall, revealed her sire as Langibby Danger. The huntsman’s observation that “before long we English hound men will have to come back to this sort of nose and tongue” was prophetic indeed, for after World War I progressive hound breeders were looking west for blood to correct the prevailing trend in leading English kennels for heavy, straight-shouldered hounds that lacked the agility and stamina to catch foxes in style. Hounds from what their detractors christened the Shorthorn Era were typically black and tan, “standing woodenly on legs like bedposts terminating in round club feet and shoulders so straight that they were perpendicular to the ground”. Such defects were especially evident at the fashionable Belvoir kennels where the Duke of Rutland’s hounds were transformed from being athletic, light coloured and wiry during Thomas Goosey’s reign as huntsman (1816-1842) to specimens so cumbersome that their ability to hunt the fox was severely compromised.

Welsh hounds lighting up the hunting shires of England

Shortly after Dimple had lit up the hunting shires of England, Edward Curre (later Sir Edward) purchased 26 couple from the Master of the recently disbanded Chepstow hunt and began developing a pack of predominantly white hounds at Itton Court in Monmouthshire. His pack were infused with blood from the Llangibby, Glôg and Llanharan to such good effect that in 1910 they attracted the attention of the American MFH Ikey Bell, who was at that time hunting the Kilkenny in Ireland. Bell was so impressed by the Curre’s performance out hunting that he immediately sent a bitch over to be lined with Curre Fiddler ’09. By 1914 Curre’s hounds were starting to appear in the Foxhound Kennel Stud Book (FKSB), and after World War I Masters and huntsmen such Sir Peter Farquhar, Bill Scott and George Evans began beating a path to Wales.

A black and white photograph of Welsh hounds returning from cubbing

The Gelligaer hounds returning from a Meet in 1937

With Bell’s help, they selected stallion hounds from the Brecon, Curre, David Davies and Carmarthen hunts, whose influence on the modern foxhound is still evident today. At the end of the 1926-27 season the Hampshire hunt’s (HH) Master and huntsman, George Evans, wrote in his diary, ‘Killed 47 foxes and ran 65 to ground. I like the Welsh cross very much indeed.’ By 1932 Curre Workman ’26 was the sire of 18 couple at Ropley, and the introduction of Welsh blood was such a success that a year later their breeder was quoted in Country Life as stating that he could have killed another 20 brace a season before the War with his current Welshimbued pack. When the HH won the 1935 bitch championship at Peterborough with Rarity ’33, who had lines to both the Curre and Ystrad, it was the first time a hound with Welsh heritage had captured a championship at the world’s premier hound show.

Foreign blood

The supreme athlete that is the modern English foxhound owes much to the vision of these enlightened hound breeders of a century ago, for they saw beyond the shaggy coats so despised by traditionalists to hounds with the conformation and ability to hunt all day across rugged terrain and catch their fox at the end. It was to be some time before the new stamp of foxhound with sloping shoulders, well-sprung ribs and athletic looks came to the fore at Peterborough, but an improvement in the hunting field was dramatic and instantaneous. Despite the clear benefits, some of the old guard were apoplectic in their condemnation of what they regarded as foreign blood polluting their cherished breed of English foxhound.

The VWH (Cirencester) Master, Earl Bathurst, was perhaps the most vociferous, describing the use of Welsh blood as “a confession of weakness” and comparing the marriage of Welsh and English hounds to the mating of a thoroughbred mare to half-bred hackney or carthorse – the irony being that his Lordship confuses cobby hounds of the Shorthorn Era with a thoroughbred racehorse. When Bell finally relinquished his mastership of the South & West Wilts in 1932, Earl Bathurst could not conceal his joy. ‘He has done no end of harm,’ he wrote of one of the most gifted and influential hound breeders of all time. ‘Now he has gone I hope this propaganda will cease and in time they will breed out the Welsh.’ However, by 1935 the revolution was all but complete; 117 out of 175 registered packs in the FKSB contained Welsh blood, much of it via Sir Edward Curre’s acclaimed pack of fox catchers.

A hound judge pulling a Welsh hound's ears, as they should be long enough to meet in front of the nose

Welsh hounds’ ears should be long enough to meet in front of the nose

A hound so revered it graced magazine covers

The torch for the Welsh outcross has been kept alive ever since, most prominently by Sir Newton Rycroft at the New Forest and Sir Peter Farquhar’s son, Captain Ian, at the Bicester and Duke of Beaufort. Sir Newton went to the Plas Machynlleth in Merionethshire for a Welsh outcross, where Ralph Beaumont had built a formidable pack using stallion hounds from the Irfon & Towy and David Davies. Rycroft selected their Miller ’63 as a mate for New Forest Traffic ’65, whose sire Harry Roberts, the Plas Machynlleth huntsman of 50 years standing, rated as the best he had ever hunted. The result of this union was the handsome New Forest Medyg ’69, a hound so revered that he once graced the front cover of Horse & Hound magazine.

In the early 1970s Captain Ian Farquhar introduced Welsh blood via Vale of Clettwr Fairy – “she was brilliant from day one” – to the Bicester & Warden Hill pack. “If you go back in history, my father, Ikey Bell, Lord Coventry and others were responsible for changing the conformation and ability of the English foxhound in the early 20th century,” he says, “so it was instilled in me to take the Welsh outcross seriously.” Two decades later Farquhar returned to Wales as the Duke of Beaufort’s Joint Master and, with the help of the David Davies’ long-standing and much-admired huntsman David Jones, selected Bouncer ’94 for another successful Welsh outcross. At Badminton and kennels up and down the land, the descendants of those black and tan hounds kennelled at Margam Abbey 600 years ago are ubiquitous today, whether cutting out the work in the hunting field or winning trophies at Peterborough.

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