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Devon is the home of two famous dog breeds

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    From the gentle south to the rugged north coast, the dog has always been at the heart of Devon life. Canine expert Lee Connor explores our county’s connection to two of the world’s most iconic breeds

    Throughout history, dogs have played an important role in the shaping of our beautiful county. From the farmer’s collie tirelessly working vast flocks of sheep, the huntsman’s packs of hounds hunting across the moors, the feisty terriers controlling vermin around the farmyard, right through to the Newfoundland-like dogs that were once commonly employed in fishing villages such as Hallsands, to swim out to boats, grabbing the rope to help pull them safely to shore.

    And with Devon’s varied topography, sometimes it feels that the whole county was handcrafted especially for the explorative dog lover and his four-footed pal!

    So, it seems particularly strange, given the county’s long history of ‘canine appreciation’ that there is no breed proudly bearing the name ‘Devon’ in its title. There’s a Sussex spaniel but no Devonshire equivalent, and there are, of course, numerous regional terrier breeds such the Norwich, Manchester and Sealyham but there is no Devon terrier.

    However, this isn’t strictly true; Devon is in fact the birthplace of two iconic breeds - one spaniel and one terrier - that are celebrated all around the world.

    Great British Life: The cocker is one of the oldest varieties of spaniel. Photo: Chris BriggsThe cocker is one of the oldest varieties of spaniel. Photo: Chris Briggs

    The Devonshire cocker spaniel

    The merry little cocker spaniel can claim to be one of the oldest and most popular varieties of the spaniel family; its lineage can be traced all the way back to the 14th century.

    Initially, these early spaniels were used in the sport of falconry, to flush game for the hawks. This then progressed to the practise of netting, where the dogs would drive game into nets.

    In the early 19th century, the term ‘cocking spaniel’ or ‘cocker’ came into common use and was said to have originated from its aptitude of flushing the very secretive woodcock. The breed was particularly popular (and became associated with Devon) on account of its small size which was thoroughly adapted to the low and dense cover which prevailed in the county.

    Early dog books often make reference to the Devon or ‘Devonshire Cocker’ spaniel and in the fifth edition of The Dogs of the British Islands (1888) ‘Stonehenge’ wrote about the Devon cocker of the time, which he described as being ‘usually liver-coloured, not of the Sussex golden hue, but of a dead true liver colour. Their ears are not too large for work, and on the show bench would by many judges be considered too small, but they are always lobular, without the slightest tendency to a vine shape.’

    Strangely enough, a proportion of modern working cockers (and a large number of pet cockers) here in Devon are still of this eye-catching liver colouration.

    Great British Life: Kaffir the black spaniel that belonged to Mr Jacobs. Photo: Lee ConnorKaffir the black spaniel that belonged to Mr Jacobs. Photo: Lee Connor

    An early, influential breeder was a Mr T Jacobs, who had a large kennel of black spaniels (his favourite colour) at Wolborough House, Newton Abbot. Victorian dog show folk travelled from across the country just to view his magnificent spaniel, Kaffir.

    Veronica Lucas-Lucas, an extremely knowledgeable and successful breeder of cocker spaniels in the 1950s and 60s also wrote about her experience of the Devon cocker.

    ‘In the early days, a strain of working cockers was bred in Devonshire, which were hardy and good with the gun, and all along the Devon coast you would find many of these little dogs, eager to accompany any sportsman on a day’s shooting, although they were not good retrievers on the whole. Their breeding was not studied, except by a few, and yet they seemed to follow a certain type, the principal colours were blue and liver roans, liver and white, the solid colours were chiefly liver.’

    It was not until 1892 that this little spaniel was officially recognised by the Kennel Club. Before that time the cocker had often competed under the classification of ‘Field Spaniel of 25lbs and under’ – the term field spaniel didn’t then refer to a particular breed but simply to any spaniel used in the field.

    A rather farcical situation prevailed at that time where a cocker could literally change its breed by eating a hearty meal to become a ‘field’ or an even heavier, ‘springer spaniel’.

    In 1901, the ridiculous weight limits, which had so hampered the progress of the breed, were abolished and the name ‘Devon/Devonshire’ (which had indicated this fantastic dog’s origins) also become obsolete and was sadly dropped.

    However, uniformity of type was very quickly established and the quality of the dog made a vast improvement. The modern cocker spaniel was born and this little dog (with its ever-wagging tail) has subsequently gone on to capture the hearts of so many, not only in this country, but all around the world.

    Great British Life: Jack Russell terriers hail from Devon. Photo: Andi HorwoodJack Russell terriers hail from Devon. Photo: Andi Horwood

    The parson’s terrier

    There was once a Devonshire cleric who achieved almost legendary status as the ‘Sporting Parson’. Born in Dartmouth in 1795, John ‘Jack’ Russell grew up in Cornwall but returned to Devon to study at the old Plympton Grammar School. At 14 he left Plympton to further his studies at Blundell’s School in Tiverton and it was here that he developed his love of hunting – a passion that was pretty much universal in the West Country at that time.

    He spent his boyhood out on the moors in the company of his ponies and beloved dogs.

    John never allowed his studies to prevent him from his country pursuits and, aged just 16, he somehow managed to assemble and keep a small pack of hounds in a shed behind the town’s smithy!

    In 1814, John was admitted to Exeter College, Oxford, and once again he seemed to have made little effort with learning, being far more interested in boxing, wrestling and of course, hunting. In fact, he spent so much time on hunting that he placed his degree in serious jeopardy.

    However, it was whilst at Oxford that a chance encounter would guarantee the Parson a place in the history books and the nation’s heart.

    One morning, when strolling around Magdalen Meadow he encountered a milkman with a terrier. John Russell made the impetuous decision to buy the dog and so he became the owner of the small white terrier, called Trump, who would go on to found a dynasty (and a breed) that’s still celebrated today.

    Russell did eventually gain his degree and after his ordination went as curate, first to South Molton and eventually to the parishes of Swimbridge and Landkey, where he was to remain for the next 45 years. It was here that the parson built up his celebrated strain of Jack Russell terriers and through his love (and knowledge) of dogs he subsequently became good friends with the rich and famous of the day including nobility.

    He achieved his goal of creating a terrier that would work the fox, one that could be relied upon to make its way across the rough country without causing a riot, and one that could get along with the hounds and always be at hand when needed. He also created a tough little dog that bore a harsh wiry coat that could withstand the very worst the wild Devon winter weather could possibly throw at it.

    Today, the Jack is one of the most popular dogs in the country and is now appreciated all around the world.


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