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Rocked by sprockergate

A royal connection has reignited the sprocker debate, with judges calling for DNA testing for the Queen’s puppy. Why all the fuss, asks David Tomlinson

Sprocker debate

The sprocker, a cross between a cocker and a springer, has become increasingly popular, with many retaining the best characteristics of both breeds

Earlier this month, I did something I’d never done before: I bought a copy of The Sun. I’d had a tip-off that the paper included a gundog news story, and sure enough, on the cover was the headline Royal exclusive: Queen’s dog in cheat storm — see page 7. I turned to the page to find a picture of HM the Queen with a black cocker puppy under her arm. The puppy had a speech bubble saying “At least I’m not a King Charles”; a reminder that The Sun likes to make its readers smile.

The gist was that four-year-old Mallowdale Diamond, given to the Queen in 2013 to celebrate her Diamond Jubilee the previous year, isn’t a pure cocker but a sprocker, giving her handler, Ian Openshaw, an advantage in spaniel trials. The accusation that Diamond’s pedigree might be misleading came from “a group of 20 top judges [who] are demanding an inquiry. They have written to the Kennel Club [KC], calling for DNA tests.”

A half bread?

Clearly it was the royal connection that catapulted this story into our most-read national newspaper, but it was sufficiently interesting to be picked up by the Daily Mail and eventually The Times. The world of gundogs is an obscure one to most outsiders, so perhaps we can forgive the Mail for suggesting that Diamond was a “half-bread” (crossed with a Hovis loaf?), or that she was the Queen’s pet (we all know that Her Majesty prefers corgis).

I’ve no idea whether Diamond has mixed blood, but the simple solution does seem to be to give her a DNA test, which in theory should either prove that she is a 100 per cent cocker or that she does have a touch of springer blood. However, having to prove purity of blood does smack of canine apartheid. Most working cockers received a dose of springer blood 50 years ago, reviving a breed that was then in terminal decline. Go even further back, to the end of the 19th century, and cockers and springers were the same thing.

English spaniels

The English spaniel has long been the most popular all-round gundog in the UK

 “The press suggested that the cocker puppy was a pet, but we all know Her Majesty prefers corgis”

I’m not an expert on DNA, so don’t know exactly what the results of a test might show but I’m sure that they would be interesting to those involved in this dispute, so why doesn’t the KC ask for a test? The DNA test would no doubt prove that Diamond is a spaniel, but whether it is clever enough to be able to say that her grandsire was a springer and not a cocker I’m unsure. If you know the answer please leave a comment below.

Stories in the national press about working gundogs are rare, so it is not surprising that according to my friends who follow social media, the report soon went viral in the gundog world. There are many who blame the KC for allowing this story to become a so-called scandal. If it had acted swiftly and positively when the accusations were first made it could have killed it off at once.

Cocker spaniels

Cocker spaniels are said to be at a disadvantage against sprockers because the latter are faster

Cocker trialling tarnished

A friend who is a keen cocker trialler told me that he regarded the worst impact of this story was that the reputation of cocker trialling “is now completely trashed. What estate is going to want to offer ground for the Championship? The Cocker Championship was supposed to be at Sandringham again next year; that seems very unlikely now.” Sadly, that seems a distinct possibility, as the royal family doesn’t like to be involved with events that might tarnish its image.

Though springers and cockers may have distinctly different actions, they both do the same job — hunting cover within range of the Gun and retrieving to hand the game that has been shot. Cockers can compete in all-variety spaniel trials, but springers can’t take part in cocker trials. The fact that sprockers cannot compete in any tests or trials under KC regulations has long been a bone of contention with sprocker enthusiasts. Two years ago a petition was sent to the Club, signed by 591 supporters, requesting that sprockers be allowed to take part in competitions.

Sprocker supporters speak

The sprocker’s supporters argued as follows: “The KC recognises nine distinct spaniel breeds: the sprocker isn’t one of them. Sprockers can work as well as some of the pedigree recognised spaniels but they are not allowed to compete due to KC rules. The sprocker has a right to be recognised as a spaniel, not a cross-breed, mixed breed, designer breed or mongrel.” The chances of the KC ever recognising the sprocker are nil, as it can’t be registered. Don’t forget that it is registrations that pay the bills at the KC. Allowing unregistered dogs into competitions would be close to financial suicide.

Perhaps the last word should go to a friend with a professional interest in gundog health. She commented that “outcrossing/refining creates the best possible small working spaniel. And shouldn’t that be the goal? I am sure that outcrossing has improved the performance of the working cocker and brought with it some useful genetic diversity. You only need to note all the possible colours in this breed to realise that it is the ultimate purposeful crossbreed, which is a good thing.” I agree.