Jeremy Hunt finds out why the flatcoat, at one time Britain's most popular gundog, is now a very rare sight in shooting field
Every once in a while, often at a country house owned by people who don’t much like throwing things away, one comes across old copies of Shooting Times. It is always reassuring to note the extent to which our sport is still the same but, of course, things do change with time.
One very striking difference is that in copies from the 1930s and 1940s, almost every picture of a day’s shooting has a flatcoat in it. Nowadays, however, seeing one on a peg or in a picking-up team would certainly make you look twice.
The flatcoated retriever emerged in the mid-19th century from crosses between Labradors and setters — probably English and Gordon — with the aim of combining the best of these breeds. The breed is now overseen by the Flatcoated Retriever Society which has an active working section, as do the other regional breed clubs that encourage members to maintain an interest in working abilities.
As I type, I can see a book on my shelves that I bought almost 40 years ago. It includes a photograph of Lady Amelia Jessel with FTCh Werrion Redwing of Collyers, a dog that is one of only seven flatcoated retrievers to have achieved field trial champion status. Since Jessel’s day, the breed has slipped into obscurity and is now very much second fiddle to the Labrador.
Last year the Kennel Club registered roughly 1,100 flatcoats compared with more than 35,000 Labradors.
Talking to those who have trained flatcoats is most revealing when it comes to working out why so few are seen. The breed is not a quick fix when it comes to training and in a world where ticking boxes in record time is the norm, no matter what you are trying to achieve, the flatcoat does need more time and its trainer needs plenty of patience.
A great advocate of the breed is Caroline Hewison who, with husband Chris, owns the Casblaidd kennel in West Yorkshire. Caroline is the working secretary of the Northern England Flatcoated Retriever Association (NEFRA). The couple currently has five flatcoats which, as well as picking-up on shoots throughout the season, are no strangers to winning top awards in flatcoat working tests.
“Flatcoats have big personalities and a good sense of humour. They are slower to mature than Labradors, and anyone new to the breed has to appreciate that. But there’s no doubt that the end result is well worth waiting for,” she says. “I think a lot of people today want instant results from training a gundog, but the flatcoat can take a little longer.”
A team of three Casblaidd flatcoats will be regulars on shoots of up to 400-bird days this season — and it’s the breed’s thoroughness in its work that wins the dogs a deal of praise from the Guns.
“Once a flatcoat has mastered his skills as a working gundog he has a phenomenal ability to mark the fall of a bird,” says Caroline. “They are very stylish workers and they always deliver. Watching a flatcoat on a strong runner is quite something.”
A few years ago I was asked to judge a working test for a flatcoated retriever club. It came home to me forcibly that, given the right approach to training, this was a breed with bucketloads of ability, bags of drive and good hunting skills, too. All these were combined with a flowing style of work that you could watch all day and never tire of.
At the prizegiving at the end of the working test I was asked to give my impressions of how the dogs had performed. I commented that I had witnessed a great day of dog work. But, more importantly, I had seen a style of work and handling that reminded me of how Labradors got the job done 40 years ago.
It was a heartfelt compliment. This had not been a day of the frenetic hunting and robotic handling that we have all become so used to witnessing in the world of competitive Labradors. These were dogs with all the commitment you could want and all the biddability and responsiveness you would ever need.
In essence it was a display of work by dogs that knew their job and produced a display of thorough and no-nonsense hunting and retrieving without the need to be propped-up with excessive handling. That was because — despite there not being many of the breed used for work — those who do keep them are hugely committed to nurturing their ability.
The flatcoat has a staunch and enthusiastic band of vibrant supporters across the UK who cherish the breed as being a truly dual-purpose gundog.
The words ‘dual purpose’ can mean different things to different people. Taken literally, the flatcoat is just that — it denotes a breed that is supremely versatile as a working gundog. But for the many devotees who continue to champion the virtues of the flatcoat they define it as referring to a breed that has not been distinctly split into separate gene pools for show and working types.
Yes, there are undoubtedly some pure working lines maintained by a few breeders, but most flatcoat enthusiasts are determined to retain their breed as one that will work and yet still retain the true stamp of the breed and fit the Kennel Club’s breed standard. In other words, they are dogs that can work their socks off on a shooting day and still look exactly as a flatcoat should and even pick up prize cards in the show ring.
Admittedly, however, cynics may see that as the very reason why the breed’s popularity has taken a dip among many pure shooting folk who now opt automatically for a Labrador.
No matter who you speak to in your quest to find out why more shooting folk don’t choose a flatcoat, the breed’s diligence as a game finder is repeated time and time again. Given that getting every bird in the bag — rather than just the easy marked retrieves — is the real measure of good dog work, why are more flatcoats not seen on shoots?
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Simon Fitzherbert-Brockholes, who has had flatcoats for almost 25 years and now keeps seven at his home near Garstang, Lancashire, provides more of an answer: “Flatcoats are good at thinking they know better than you do — and in all honesty they very often do. That’s when they really do earn your admiration.
“All too often flatcoats are left with their handler after a drive to find birds that others have failed on. The trouble is that everyone trundles off to the next drive and no-one really sees them at their best.”
So my advice is don’t overlook the flatcoat. Your question probably shouldn’t be is a flatcoat good enough for you but are you really good enough to own and work a flatcoat? Your training journey together may take a little longer, but your efforts will produce a dependable and resourceful gundog and it will certainly get you noticed.