By Bob Jeffares
WELL-INFORMED dog people, more especially those with an English or British background, will be familiar with the dog term or title 'Lurcher'. Perhaps no more than a handfull will be conversant with the term 'longdog'. Few indeed will be able to accurately differentiate between the two types of dog.
Recently I was approached by a young woman who enquired about lurchers. She had dogs, in fact was a dog enthusiast, she participated in obedience and agility work and I was familiar with both her dogs. She had watched a lurcher run at obedience and was most impressed. Her question was, who in New Zealand bred lurchers. She was under the misconception that lurchers were a separate breed as such, whereas they are actually a crossbreed or, in most cases, a series of crossbreeds.
The initial concept of a lurcher, a long way back in English antiquity, was the result of crossbreeding one of a group of sight hound breeds with a stock or herding dog. As lurcher history has evolved this has become a far more refined and complex process than the early efforts where a lurcher was basically the product of any form of herding or droving dog with greyhound blood predominating on the sight hound side of the cross.
The question needs to be asked 'Why breed a lurcher?'
Conditions at the time demanded a dog with speed, agility and exceptional mobility. This dog had to have a strong hunting instinct, but it also needed intelligence and fitness, scenting ability and, above all else, the ability to work silently. From the sight hound, predominantly in the early days greyhounds and whippets, came the speed and agility and also obviously the very strong hunting instinct that all sight hounds possess.
From the stock dog or herding dog came the intelligence, the craftiness and the scenting ability, and the majority of today's lurchers are also shaggy coated, an advantage not only in adverse weather but also when hunting in rough cover.
The lurchers of the early-to-mid-20th Century were largely warreners' dogs, although they were also used by the working classes to supplement their diet by the taking of rabbits.
They were obviously also a poachers' dog where legal permission to hunt was not available or denied. A warrener in Britain was what we here in New Zealand would term a professional rabbiter. However, unlike our early rabbiters they were not pest destruction officers. The English warrener was harvesting a valuable food source, not eradicating a pest. The warrener, equipped with a goodly number of small purse nets, ferrets, gun and a lurcher or two, would set to work on one of the large rabbit warrens, sometimes comprising 50 or more inter-connecting burrows.
Some of these warrens were hundreds of years old and had been inhabited by countless generations of rabbits. The warrener would first set to work painstakingly setting his nets over, hopefully, all the bolt hides in the warren. With this task completed he would then enter a ferret or ferrets at some of the more obvious entrances. The ferrets needed little encouragement. With these tasks complete the warrener would step back expectantly, accompanied by his lurchers.
The lurchers in these cases were usually smaller dogs with a lot of whippet blood in them. They had to have instant take-off, speed, and the ability to sense when a rabbit was going to slip net. The rabbit, in sheer terror induced by the questing ferret, would bolt at quite unbelievable speed for the nearest escape hole. They literally exploded in to the nets to find themselves entangled in a net-type purse or bag. Slipping a net meant that the rabbit either bypassed the net or escaped from it.
Sometimes the rabbit would bolt or escape from a hole that the warrener had overlooked when setting his nets. This was where the lurcher came into the action. The warrener would hesitate to use his gun because the sound of doing so made the rabbits left underground loathe to bolt for the open. As much as its sheer speed the lurcher used its cunning and craftiness to read the way the rabbit would twist and turn in its attempts to escape. Very seldom was the rabbit successful when a good lurcher was employed. The lurcher was required to carry out its task silently because undue noise would again make those rabbits underground more wary of danger.
Lurchers employed in this way were pot-filling dogs and, in fact, the true lurcher remains true to that label through to the present day. The year 1953 was a turning point in lurcher development. That was the year when the rabbit disease, myxomatosis, was deliberately introduced to Europe and obviously Britain. By 1956 it was estimated in some quarters that up to 95percent of Europe's rabbit population had been wiped out. Parallel to this decline in rabbit population there was a boom in the breeding numbers of the brown hare. Hares were not affected or did not seem to be affected by myxomatosis. They lived a different lifestyle.
Whereas rabbits lived in large numbers underground in close proximity to each other, thus easily transmitting the disease, hares lived above ground in the open, either singly or in very small family groups. Likewise with the decline in rabbit numbers, hares did not have to compete for the same food source. Additionally the demise of large rabbit numbers saw also a decline in their natural predators, stoats, foxes and feral cats. These predators were also the natural foes of the brown hare. With the advent of large numbers of hares it was natural that lurchers, which had previously been run at mainly rabbits, would now change to concentrate on coursing or chasing hares.
The hare, larger and faster than the rabbit and also residing in more open country, required a faster, larger dog. Lurchers changed accordingly. The amount of sight dog blood in lurcher crosses increased considerably. Perhaps it may be an opportune time to pause and more clearly define what a sight hound is. There is a group of breeds which hunts by sight alone. That is, they have to see their quarry to pursue it. They seldom possess any great scenting ability although exceptions have been noted in many of the breeds. They are also a group of breeds which are not known or rated highly for intelligence, although no doubt there are breeders of specific breeds within this group which will argue that point.
The major group of sight hounds comprises the Afghan hound, greyhound, whippet, Scottish deerhound, Irish wolfhound, saluki and the borzoi. The rarer breeds which also belong to this group are the pharoh hound, Ibizan hound, and the sloughi. With the increase in numbers of brown hares and the change in type of lurcher, coursing with both greyhound and lurcher became a popular sport in Britain. To a lesser degree coursing meets were held with other groups of sight hound. Coursing as a term means to run or chase any quarry with a dog.
Coursing meets were very formal, highly organised and most competitive occasions. The only acceptable quarry in England for lurchers to be run on at a coursing meet was the brown hare. Hares used were wild, neither caged nor restrained in any way. These coursing meets were also held in the hare's home territory allowing the hare the advantage of its intimate knowledge of its own terrain. Lurchers were run in pairs, one dog against the other in a knockout-type competition. One dog would traditionally wear a red collar and the other a white collar.
The dogs would be slipped simultaneously by an official known as the 'slipper'. He employed a double slip lead to ensure both dogs were released at the same time. His task not only required strength to be able to hold two dogs within sight of their quarry, but he also had to be able to estimate distances accurately. The hare, once put up, was given a head start. This was termed to be 'fair law' and could vary from 40 metres to up to 100 metres. The judge was usually mounted on a horse, not only allowing him to keep up with the contest but also from his elevated position he was afforded a superior view of the event. The dogs were judged on the amount each contributed to the capture of the hare, although the hare was seldom actually captured. Judgement was made on speed, turning ability, agility and coursing sense. A dog actually killing a hare was given fewer points, if any, than the dog which caused the hare to turn. At the end of the course, seldom lasting more than a minute, the judge held up a red or a white flag to indicate the winning dog.
Perhaps this has over simplified coursing but the basic explanation is there of a most complex business.
Sometimes a single dog is coursed on a hare. These are invariably longdogs. This is where longdogs differ from true lurchers. A longdog is a dog or a crossbreed arrived at by blending two different breeds of sight hound.
For example when coursing with a single dog greater turning ability is required. A longdog may therefore be a cross between a greyhound and a whippet. Such a cross gets superior speed from the greyhound and greater agility to turn from the whippet. They remain a sight hound intended to simply run their quarry down.
Let's return to the young lady who asked for a source of supply of lurchers here in New Zealand. Yes, there is a small band of lurcher fanciers here in New Zealand, mainly people of British backgound but we do have a New Zealand type lurcher quite separate from this source. For years, pig hunters throughout New Zealand have bred dogs for speed, agility, intelligence and scenting ability. A very large number of these would fit into the wider definition of a lurcher. The quarry varies considerably from those the English lurchers pursue but in New Zealand we have seen a quite separate development of our own strains of lurcher, although seldom is the label attached to it.