Thursday, April 23, 2015

Terrier Work, Part 4: Jack Russell and the First Working Dogs

It might seem that I have strayed rather far afield in the previous section. What, in God’s name, does the Enclosure Movement, Malthus and Darwin have to do with the rise of working terriers?

Actually, quite a lot.

Mounted fox hunting requires relatively large amounts of open land in the hands of a relatively few number of people.

Squatters and inholders made hunting on common land difficult prior to the Enclosure Movement. Once people had been moved off the land and replaced with sheep and cattle, however, the only real obstacle to the mounted hunts were the stone fences and hedgerows keeping the sheep and cattle in — obstacles that provided excellent sport for competent riders.

Britain’s sheep economy proved less stable than hoped, however. Several busts in the wool business (brought on by cheap imports of wool and cotton from the continent, Australia, and the U.S.) forced marginal sheep ventures to look for other sources of income.

Rapid improvements in shotguns, combined with relatively easy escape from the city by train, created a new form of leisure sport — the driven bird shoot in which partridge and pheasants were raised in large mesh pens and released "into the wild" a few days prior to the arrival of "the guns".

After the birds acclimated themselves for a few days or weeks, beaters and dogs joined the guns in a long line, flushing birds out of cover. Hundreds of birds — at a set price per bird — were shot over the course of a few hours time.

Both the mounted fox hunts and the organized bird shoots required a certain number of working terriers, but for slightly different reasons.

The mounted hunts employed terriermen to find and "earthstop" fox and badger dens so that fox were forced to run long distances when raised by the hounds. If a fox did manage to go to ground, a terrierman was called to bolt the fox from the earth for another chase, or to dig down for dispatch. In some cases, an animal was bagged in order to replenish fox extirpated from other hunt lands.

Terriers were also used to protect pheasants and partridges being raised in netted enclosures for the shoots.

For game keepers, the primary tools for fox eradication were poison and leghold traps (gins), which were fast, efficient and cheap. Secondary tools were low-cost snares, long dogs (lurchers) and long guns used over bait at night. These last methods are still used today in the U.K.

Fox eradication with terrier and spade, while far and away the most humane form of fox control, is slow and inefficient. In addition, because fox rarely lay up in warm weather unless driven to ground by pursuing hounds, terrier work offers a frustratingly short season for a gamekeeper to eradicate fox over a large shooting estate. Gun, snare, traps and poison, however, can be used all year long.

In the early 1800s, the era of bird shoots had not yet begun. Though mounted fox hunting had been spreading across Great Britain for nearly 200 years, the practice was not yet ubiquitous in the British countryside. Terriers used by farmers and mounted hunts alike remained a catch-as-catch can affair.

That was about to change.

At about the time Walter Scott was writing Guy Mannering, a young man by the name of John Russell was attending Exeter College, Oxford.

Looking out the window one day he spied a bitch terrier tied to a passing milkman’s cart. Something about the dog struck Russell’s fancy and he bought the dog based on looks alone. The year is variously given as 1815 or 1819.

When Russell bought the dog he could not have known whether the dog would work but, lucky for him, it did. Russell later claimed this bitch, named Trump, was the model for all the terriers that were to follow.

Russell’s story, and the story of Trump, are subject to more myth than fact. For the moment, it is enough to say that Russell was one of the very first, and certainly one of the most dedicated and longest-riding, fox hunters of the 19th Century.

Though Russell seems to have bought and sold a great number of dogs, he apparently kept a vision of Trump in his mind’s eye — a small, white, wiry-coated terrier with a fierce voice and a strong desire to pursue fox to ground.

It should be remembered that this was an era of free-range poultry. Fox were seen as a threat to sustenance and treated accordingly by farmers. It did not take much effort — or expense — to bait rabbit entrails and chicken heads with strychnine, or set a few foothold traps around a chicken coop, rabbit hutch, or pheasant pen.

In the early 19th Century and through the Victorian Era, traps and poison were so brutally efficient and common that the Reverend Russell spent much of his early years trying to get people to stop killing fox so their populations would increase and he could find a little sport.

Russell was not alone in this endeavor.

In fact, fox protection was so deeply entrenched in the culture of the mounted hunts of the 19th Century that the concept made its way into the English language. The Oxford English Dictionary defines "vulpicide" as "One that kills a fox other than by hunting it with hounds."

The crime of vulpicide was seen as a crime against the aristocracy. God forbid that individual farmers, for the sole purpose of putting food on the table, threaten the weekend pastime of hundreds of wealthy aristocrats!

To order
 >> American Working Terriers 

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