BESS, my ?Beautiful English Springer Spaniel? campaign, revealed that I?m far from alone in believing that the modern working springer doesn?t have to be a cocker-sized white dog with brown ears and a manic desire to hunt (Spaniel sights to behold, 17 August). It drew responses from as far away as Denmark, with everyone supporting the sentiments of my campaign. I would have relished a few people disagreeing with me, but clearly those who thought I was daft also decided that I wasn?t worth writing to.
However, thanks to Howard Tinkler from Shrewsbury, BESS did manage to find its way on to the NOBs forum ? for those who have access to the Internet, the NOBs website www.nobs.org.uk is well worth visiting. Here it gained praise but also suffered attack. Nicola, from Drummuir Spaniels, was one of the first to savage me, Have to laugh at the BESS campaign for beautiful springers: the guy hasn?t got a clue, after all looks have nothing to do with working ability, and isn?t that 100 per cent what a gundog is about? I looked at the Drummuir Spaniels website and found that Nicola?s dogs are bred for ?style, conformation and drive?, so not that far different from what I?m looking for in a spaniel.
I emailed Nicola, who was a little surprised to hear from me. Nicola?s spaniels are predominately white, and I guess that I had offended her by suggesting that a springer should be well marked. She replied to say that she always goes with the theory that a good dog is never a bad colour, adding that she believes, too many people get too hung up on looks, and while trying to breed for type they forget about working ability, style, drive and so on.
She added that her dog Finn is a most handsome example of a traditional-style springer dog: strong, solid, the way they used to be bred.
Alan Mattison wrote to me from Denmark, where he works full-time with English springers. He is a Geordie, but has lived in Denmark since 1970. He reported that a working dog of his, Sunnybrae Sigmund, sired a show champion. Sigmund was of pure working stock (FTCh sire, FTW dam) but he was quite long in the leg, had plenty of feathering on the legs and a bit long on his ears. Alan sent one of his puppies to the US where he did very well, especially as conformation means a lot to some of the American shooting community. The Americans do like their springers very leggy.
Alan went on to tell me that he recently bought a dog puppy from David Lisset (winner of the Spaniel Championship in 2004 and 2005). The dog is out of championship winner FTCh Annickview Anna and sired by FTCh Craghaar Borris. This dog is exceptionally well marked, so not all fashionable trialling breeding produces the nearly all-white springer.
Glyn, from Derbyshire, a keen spaniel trialler, wrote to say that your article mirrors the views that I have held since the early 1990s. I believe that a half-white face, one white ear, snipey nose like a collie, ribcage like a whippet and an all-white body is not a true English springer spaniel. To prove his point, Glyn tries to breed springers that not only look good, but perform as well. I?m planning to visit them soon.
Stephen Etchell told me that when, two years ago, he was trying to find a traditional type of springer puppy to train, he couldn?t find anything suitable. He wanted a dog capable of retrieving a hare or a goose, but didn?t think that any of the dogs he saw would be capable of doing so, unlike his previous springers. I used to enjoy watching the spaniels work on our shoot but now they send me dizzy; it?s like watching an old silent movie. You used the word manic to describe them and it sums them up perfectly. Stephen ended up buying a Labrador instead of a springer. I don?t think you stand any chance of getting any help from the Kennel Club with your campaign. You only have to look at the sorry examples of gundogs at Crufts each year.
Virtually none conforms to its own breed standards yet they continue to win awards. The only way forward would seem to be for noted breeders/triallers to start breeding from the least contaminated working strain and the best and healthiest of the show strain until field trials can be won by real dogs.
Beverley Fieldsend wrote from Northumberland to say that 15 years ago I had exactly the same idea as you so I bought a show-bred spaniel from a well-known breeder with the idea of crossing her with a good type of working dog. For various reasons I did not continue with that idea. I wish I had. Beverley went on to say that, In my view, the trialling world has worked its magic on Labradors and springers and is now beginning to be felt in the world of cockers. It is time that the Kennel Club acted to address the situation.
The dog that wins a trial should have to conform to breed standards and the dog that wins a show should equally be able to do the job on a shoot day. One title of all-round champion should be created and the terms FTCh and ShCh gone for ever before yet another breed degenerates.
Some years ago I interviewed Anne Jardine, for she has strong views on springers. She wrote to me to say that she was very encouraged to read about BESS, Ironically, I was reading only yesterday an article by Hans Odental on the making of FTChs on the Continent, where a conformation test is required. Anne explained that while she dislikes the exaggerated breed points in show springers, she is concerned about the state of the working springer.
I fear we are reaching, overall, a genetic bottleneck, with a general deterioration of the stock. Selecting for small, fast dogs with poor conformation and other breeding faults is only making matters worse. I have knowledge of two examples of this: one FTCh stud dog is regularly throwing puppies with undershot jaws, but as owners of stud dogs seldom follow up progeny unless they are puppies of a trialling mate, this goes undetected.
A litter of seven puppies was run on by one of our top handlers. The puppies were FTCh x FTCh. At eight months they were offered to a friend of mine who trains sniffer dogs. He was told that they were ?too leggy? for field trials and that the handler didn?t want them to go into the shooting field. The reason soon became apparent. They were all nervous wrecks and had to be returned as they were no use for detection work, where bold dogs are essential.
These types of problems are typical of in-breeding and stem from the overuse of a few fashionable sires. I believe that to breed good stock you have to be ruthless in your assessment of what you produce and, crucially, all stock must be followed to maturity.
I will continue this subject on 9 November, but in the meantime, contact STgundog@aol.com
if you have somthing to add to the debate.