Welsh hound history: From loyal to royal

Friday 2 May 2014, 09:41

Phil Carradice Phil Carradice

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The Welsh have always had an affinity with dogs. Welsh mythology, folklore and legends from The Mabinogion are full of tales about hunting hounds and ferocious, dangerous beasts that roamed the hills and always obeyed their masters.

There are very few Welsh children who have not been regaled, either at home or in school, with the legend of the faithful hound Gelert and his noble sacrifice.

It is a tale to both thrill and entrance but it’s not just in legend that the love of dogs comes through.

The Encyclopedia of Wales mentions that even the early Welsh law books “contain numerous stipulations about staghounds, greyhounds, terriers, shepherding dogs and guard dogs.

Freemen were obliged to maintain the king's hunting dogs and horses during his tours, a custom which obliged tenants to keep pack hounds for their landlords.”

Of course there are gentler stories too, stories where the dog was a companion and a friend to anyone in need.

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Every year the farm hosts a sheepdog trial, and this year Sior is planning to compete.

In more recent times the performance of Welsh dogs during the live and televised sheepdog trials has grown into what is almost a national institution.

These days the hunting dogs so beloved by the storytellers and poets have largely disappeared but, there are still several Welsh breeds of dog.

The Welsh sheepdog is perhaps the best known, an animal that originally had a dual role – to drive and move livestock around the countryside and occasionally protect the herdsman and his flock from wild animals and rustlers.

Strangely, for many years what we thought of as a Welsh sheepdog was actually a Scottish animal.

The Welsh sheepdogs of old, including the long-haired greys that were used by the drovers taking cattle into England had almost died out, until the Welsh Sheepdog Society was formed in 1997. Welsh sheepdog Sior from The Hill Farm series with his Welsh sheepdog.

The formation of the society prompted a renewed interest in Welsh sheepdogs and these days they are worked at sheepdog trials alongside the famous collies.

Their way of working might be different but they are still highly efficient animals.

Think Welsh dogs and you invariably think of the famous corgis. There are actually two different breeds of corgi, the sandy-coloured Pembrokeshire corgi and the Cardiganshire corgi that come in a variety of colours.  

Originally bred to drive cattle and other livestock by nipping at their heels and frightening them with their loud, shrill yapping, the name corgi actually means dwarf dog.

These tiny dogs, often imperious and sometimes even a little bad tempered have become popular all over the world, probably due to the influence of the Royal family pets.

The Welsh terrier is a black and tan animal with a coat that is wiry on top and woolly underneath.

The dogs were originally bred to kill rats and were invaluable in the farmyard and around livestock. Pembrokeshire corgi A Pembrokeshire corgi playing on the beach by Sherri Damlo (Getty Images).

However, they have now become popular animals in the showground where they are much coveted and admired.

The Welsh springer spaniel has a similar background and was originally bred to flush out game from deep cover and then retrieve the fallen birds that were shot.

Springers are still used as gun dogs but they are perhaps equally well known as affectionate and caring pets.

The Welsh foxhound is descended from a breed of dogs known as the segussi that lived and roamed the plains and forests of northern Europe in Roman times.

These days the dogs have light-coloured fur but originally they would have been black and tan.

During the medieval period the foxhounds were used to hunt wild boar, particularly in Wales where the dogs were well-suited to the rough and dense terrain.

Welsh foxhound A Welsh Foxhound in Carmarthenshire by John B R Davies (Getty Images).

In later years, as wild stags disappeared from the countryside, the dogs were trained to hunt foxes and otters.

Now the hunting has ended, these strong and rugged animals are increasingly valued as faithful companions and pets.

One breed of Welsh dog which has an origin that can be easily traced is the Sealyham terrier.

Originally a hunting dog, it was developed and bred at the end of the 19th century by Captain Edwardes on his estate at Sealyham in Pembrokeshire and was first shown at Haverfordwest in 1903.

The role of the Welsh dog has changed drastically over the years, originally bred to hunt or herd but nowadays they are loved as pets throughout the world.

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    Comment number 1.

    I know you can't generalize but I should say that I agree, Corgis are bad tempered. I've still got a scar on my leg where the Corgi of my aunt bit me when I was young. I don't think I'd done anything to annoy him. But then, as you say in the blog, nipping at the heels of their charges was the reason they were bred in the first place.

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    Comment number 2.

    My Mum's always had corgis and they are all soft as anything. I don't trust other people's mind!

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    Comment number 3.

    Dogs I like. From things one hears about Pembrokeshire Corgis, maybe Butcher Beynon wasn’t joking – but that wasn’t my experience of them. I used to work on West Pennar Farm in the school holidays and the farmer had a pair of corgis – not trained to work cattle, but they were friendly souls. One day they were out and about when I was getting the cattle in for milking and they thought this was marvellous. They set to with a will and ‘helped,’ out of pure instinct I assume. Snapping at the cows heels – cattle don’t like dogs – I thought they were going to get trampled, but they didn’t, and seemed pleased they’d helped get the cows in. Cows not impressed!
    Sheepdogs have to be the cleverest dogs on the planet. I used to look after my niece’s sheepdog occasionally and I’m sure that dog could read minds. So intelligent, and would learn things in a flash.
    Spaniels – my favourite, but I’m biased because I once owned one. Mind it was one of those liver and white ones from the other side of Offa’s Dyke. Wonderful working dog, great with the kids, my companion and my friend. Clever dogs are spaniels – but not as clever as sheepdogs! I heard once that in shooting circles, Welsh Springers are sometimes known as ‘Union Dogs.’ This was because they’d work so hard in the first part of the day, tire themselves out, and then go on strike!
    Hounds I’ve never had much to do with, but I did come across one once, that had lost the plot and lost the pack! He was a friendly soul, so I put the spaniel in the front of the car (she didn’t like him) and he jumped in the back and I dropped him off at the kennels on my way home. He was a fairly aromatic boy!
    I like the idea that man didn’t domesticate the Wolf and turn it into a dog, but that wolves tagged along with our hunter gatherer ancestors and domesticated themselves.

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    Comment number 4.

    I guess, like you, that your favourite dog depends on your experience of them. For me, that favourite dog has to be the collie or sheepdog that I had for fifteen years. So intelligent - I never trained her but she knew, instinctively, when to sit and stay, when to lie down or just come to offer love and affection. She used to play football with my sons - always in goal. She used to make fantastic saves then toss the ball back to them. Several times I'd wake up in the middle of the night and find her in bed - and I do mean in bed - between my wife and I. Mind you, we did draw the line at that one.

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    Comment number 5.

    For me, it's Terriers, two breeds in particular.

    Firstly the Jack Russell, No not the short legged long backed ankle snappers, that are usually a miss-matched accidental breeding of farm dogs. The original Jack Russell, who used to follow the hounds with the hunt terrier man. I used to work and breed them, each one a character, intelligent too, a loyal friend. I often used to take them ratting along the river banks close to the kennels. I would take 10 or so, out at once, initially I was amazed that they sorted themselves out into seekers, hunters, flushers and sweepers, without any interference from myself, Clever souls.
    The other is a Sealyham terrier, that my grandmother had, another intelligent and kindly animal. Sad that the nearest you can get to them now is a Lucas Terrier.
    Having said that, there is no such thing as a bad dog..................It is the modern owners that are questionable.

 
 

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