By Paul Quagliana
Friday, 05 October 2012
Tapping the potential of Irish water spaniels
I don’t know whether it’s the Kate Bush hairstyle, the frizzy body or the ratty tail, but there is no other dog that looks quite like the Irish water spaniel. They are fairly large, ebullient creatures, but in 18 years of working for Shooting Times, during which time I’ve travelled to all four corners of the British Isles and beyond, I can’t recall ever seeing one on the shooting field or the marsh. In fact, the only time I have ever encountered them is when they’ve been led around panting on a hot day at various game and country fairs. It is a shame, because their exponents say they have a great deal to offer, and I have always thought of them as attractive and unusual dogs.
So, I attended a working test with the Sporting Irish Water Spaniel Club, (SIWSC) at the invitation of the club’s secretary, Louise Bailey, and chairman, John Rolfe, to get a closer look at some of these distinctive dogs in action. The day was held by kind permission of Mr and Mrs J. Giffard of Chillington Hall, in Staffordshire, and had attracted handlers from as far away as the Isle of Wight, south-west Scotland and the Netherlands.
The day was an enjoyable and fairly leisurely one, and I won’t give you a blow-by-blow account of the intricacies of dog work, as I do not believe I am qualified, but suffice it to say that those who had travelled far went home with some silverware.
The club was originally founded in 1908 under its president Lady Dunleath, but disappeared before the First World War. In 1989, the club was reformed and now has a membership of 180, with the aim of promoting and maintaining the breed as a working dog.
Among the handlers present was Pepi Barrington, whose family were key figures in the development of the breed in Ireland, and she has bred water spaniels for 40 years.
Pepi filled me in on some of the breed’s history: “There are those in Ireland who claim that the breed goes back into the mists of time, with its origins being obscure, to say the least. Others say that it was consolidated from various strains of water spaniels in the 1830s. One of the key figures was Justin McCarthy and his famous dog Boatswain of 1834. However, there are references to a dog of a similar description as early as 1570. Dr Johannes Caius, in his book De Canibus Britannicis, mentions that the dogs used for hawking or fowling are spaniel, setter, water spaniel or fynder. Of the latter, fynder is somewhat bigger, having long, rough and curled heare.”
Pepi continued, “My family bred Irish water spaniels in the stable yard at Glenstal Castle in County Limerick from 1834. From the 1920s, other members of the Barrington family carried on the original line and tradition in Ireland with both the Annagh and Brittas kennels, and I began my own Fynder kennels in 1975.
“From looking at family records and journals, I would suggest that the breed evolved from different strains of water spaniels, with some input from curlycoated dogs that originated in Persia and arrived off the west coast of Ireland with wrecked ships from the Spanish Armada.
“The dog was popular for estuarine and boggy snipe areas, with its dark coat blending with the mud and making it harder to spot by moonlight. They also made excellent rat catchers. In the case of the Barrington family, they were used exclusively for woodcock shooting on the Glenstal estate during the Victorian and Edwardian eras.”
An assumption made about the Irish water spaniel by the uninitiated is that it must have a close association with poodles. This misconception is a source of annoyance to many devotees of the breed.
I asked Pepi if there was any truth in the notion. She replied, “In North America in the 1960s and 70s, a black standard poodle with an astrakhan coat was ‘slipped’ into the gene pool to create a dog with a heavier coat for coping with more extreme weather than we have in the British Isles. Dogs bred here in the late 1970s were bred more for the family pet market than for working, and this has had a negative impact on the working Irish water spaniel. However, working dog owners are trying to rectify this using new blood from genuine working stock.”
Watching the dogs launching themselves into Chillington’s lake and emerging with their coats muddy and dripping made me wish that they were a more regular feature of the British shooting scene. However, there is perhaps one insurmountable problem that minor breeds face: in a world where instant results are desired, the standard trio of Labradors, springers and cockers mature quicker and seem easier to train. Not many people have the time, patience or dedication to spend on some of the other breeds that may mature more slowly or require more attention.
I hope that, in keeping with other minor breeds, the dedicated band of Irish water spaniel followers keeps them going and does not allow them to fade away. The sight of one of these dogs running at full pelt is not easily forgotten, and one day I will hopefully snap one splattering across the mud of an estuary with a duck in its mouth rather than simply a dummy.
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