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Posts Tagged ‘Greyhound Nation’

andsdell deerhound

The dogs we call “greyhounds” today are smooth-coated. Some, like Drake, grow pretty thick winter coats, but they are all smooth-coated dogs.

This breed feature, one would think, would have been well-established in the breed, but it did not become a feature until the rise of “club coursing” in England. English patricians were part of clubs that had vast holdings where hares were managed to abundance, and each club member would come and run dogs on these hares in what were greyhound field trials.

In his book Greyhound Nation: A Coevolutionary History of England, 1200-1900, Edmund Russell writes about how memes affected greyhound evolution in England. One of these memes that arose in the 1820s was that no rough-coated greyhound could be entered. Russell even quotes the rule-book from the Swaffham that “No rough-haired dog to be deemed a greyhound.”

The reason for this dismissal of rough-coated greyhounds is that rough-coated greyhounds were better suited to the North of England and to Scotland and Ireland. The wire coats protected against thorns, rocky terrain, and the cold weather. Smooth-coated dogs were better for the open land, which was more easily found in the South of England.

And it also fit within the general prejudicial views of the elite society of the South of England, which saw itself as being “better-bred” than the North.  This division is one that sort of posits the Anglo-Norman parts of the country against the areas where Celtic people held on the longest. This same view was even more exaggerated when these elites looked at the traditionally even more Celtic lands of Scotland and Ireland, where rough-coated greyhounds were the rule, not the exception.

Further, Russell points out that was about this time that lurchers began to be stigmatized among elite coursing circles. The lurcher was seen as the poacher’s dog, and the poacher’s dog very often was a rough-coated creature. Never mind that the intellectual ancestors of these elite coursing men were very much into the business of crossing greyhounds with lurchers, Italian greyhounds, and bulldogs. The lurcher and the wire-coated greyhound began to be seen as debased and low-class and Celtic.

One should also take into account the coursing men were never running hares for food. This was sport. The lurchermen was always running dogs on what could feed him and his family the next day. The wealthy coursing men were interested in the dogs as sport, not survival, and for this difference, they castigated the rough greyhound as a lurcher too.

So these ideas permeated what became the modern greyhound breed. Wire coats are dominant, and it is quite easily to expel them from a breeding program.

Thus, what became the greyhound resulted from the prejudices of the elites in the South of England and Yorkshire, rather than any practical reason.

In the Scottish Highlands, the “deer greyhounds” of that region remained wire-coated, and they eventually became the basis of the modern Scottish deerhound breed. By the time these dogs became part of the modern kennel club registry system, no one really thought of them as being related, and no one really considered the bizarre class and regional reasons why the two breeds wound up with different coats.

The deerhound retained the wire coat because it was practical for running deer in the Highlands. The greyhound lost its wire variety because the elite who coursed them saw them as a sign of debasement and excluded them from the breed.

Human whims and prejudices affect so much of how our breeds evolve. In this case, it is the deep division of the South of England vs. the rest of the British Isles.

 

 

 

 

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erika on the run

Many techniques of the study of history exist. One of the most innovative is what is called “environmental history” in which human castes, classes, and professions are given ecological/economic niches that allow their behavior to operate as if species in an ecosystem.

It is this history that Edmund Russell lays out in his Greyhound Nation: A Coevolutionary History of England, 1200-1900.  This is a book that anyone interested in dog history should read, for it is an odd comprehensive history of the redefinition of a particular type of dog through the social, economic, and political changes of a nation shifting from feudalism to capitalism and democracy.

Russell’s book is not the history of “the greyhound,’ the breed we know today. That breed is included in this work, but it is also the history of the proto-whippets that worked the rabbit warrens and larger forms of greyhound that were used to hunt deer and wolves. It is also the story of eventual breed standardization within the context of the rise of the kennel club and the closed racing greyhound registries.

Russll begins with the earliest mentions of greyhounds in England, which is around the year 1200. The dogs belonged solely to the patrician class in the feudal system, and different forms of greyhound were used to on different quarry.  Large greyhounds coursed the deer and the wolf.  Mid-sized ones worked hares and foxes. Smaller ones were used to catch rabbits in enclosed warrens. And commoners were never allowed to own a any of these dogs, except under very explicit circumstances.

For over five centuries, various forms of greyhound were used in this way, but then in the late eighteenth century, the forces of democracy and early capitalism began to change the way the English related to their land. The Enclosure of the commons meant that vast tracts of territory could be set aside of the protection and promotion of hares for what was called “club coursing.”

In this coursing clubs, patricians ran their dogs on these hare estates. They were clubs that were quite exclusive, and the commoners could not own these dogs. Russell includes the account of a commoner convicted for owning greyhound, which the commoner tries to pass off as an Italian greyhound.  But he is still convicted of the crime.

At this time, greyhounds are bred to lurchers and bulldogs to improve their runs on hares, and we learn about the various eccentricities of Lord Orford, a founder of the Swaffham Coursing Society.  He was an extreme spendthrift, infamously selling countless priceless family paintings to Catherine the Great of Russia to pay off debts that he had accrued. He also died while running one of his hounds, Czarina, at a Swaffham meet. He had been ill but left his bed to run the hound. He is said to have either died in the saddle or fell from the saddle then died.

As the eighteenth century progresses into the nineteenth, big coursing events, called public coursing, became a popular rural activity. The famous Waterloo Cup began in 1836, and as the sport became popular for spectators, a National Coursing Club was founded to standardize coursing rules. Commoners were eventually allowed to own these dogs, and coursing became more democratic and meritocratic endeavor. The working classes begin to have leisure time and money, which they put toward gambling on coursing events and speculation on various hounds.

This democratic shift in coursing coincided with the rise of the Kennel Club and the purebred dog fancy. Here, Russell introduces us to Sewallis Shirley, the same founder of the Kennel Club and retriever fancier who has been mentioned on this blog many times. Russell portrays Shirley as purely patrician. He is anti-democratic and opposed to tenant rights on his estate in Ireland, and his anti-democratic leanings lead to his promotion of the show greyhound over the coursing one.

As the nineteenth century draws to a close, we see the closing of the greyhound registry with both the Kennel Club and the National Coursing Society. No longer would anyone consider crossing to lurchers or bulldogs to make a better greyhound. The goal was to produce a superior greyhound within the population already ascribed as greyhounds.

Russell leaves us at this juncture but alludes to the rise of greyhound racing in the twentieth century in which the dogs are reborn as objects on which to wager in a new event.

This type of history could, in theory, be written about any type of dog in virtually any European country. However, this particular breed in this particular country is documented well back in the Medieval period, and because it was owned solely by the wealthy originally, the documentation can be followed fairly easily into the modern era.

If one is interested in an academic history of dogs, this book is a great read.  Russell uses the primary sources in his work so clearly, and the prose is posited so logically that one can easily follow the winding history of running dogs in England.

These dogs were made to run, but we now live in a world where they are slowly losing their purpose. Nation after nation, state after state, coursing is losing its legality.  Professional greyhound racing is likely on the way out in much of the world, but we will keep them alive. We will run them, even if it is just after plastic bags raced along on pulleys.

 

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