Project and Politics
Written August 2004
I first fell in love with Beardies nearly fifty years ago, when, as a
little girl, I met some of the early Bothkennar dogs bred by Mrs.
Willison who lived near my home. I learned more about the breed while training my family's Border Collie at the local training club where Mrs. Willison also trained her Beardies, but had to wait until 1962 for a
Beardie of my own.
My first Beardie won obedience competitions, gained the BCC Senior Working Test Award and became a show champion as well as becoming, together with the two wives who soon joined him, the foundation of the Brambledale line. For twenty years the Brambledales were prominent in the show ring in Britain and abroad but my first interest was always in the special character of the breed and I dropped out of showing when I felt that the show Beardie had moved too far from its roots as a working dog.
In 2001 I started a project to preserve the type of Beardie I had
always loved by bringing fresh working blood into the Brambledale line. Today my husband and I share our home and our lives with nine
Brambledales - four elderly bitches and five younger girls who combine the best of the old Brambledale line with the best working stock.
Fifty years ago, when Mrs. Willison and a few others were bringing
together the dogs that were to form the nucleus from which all present-
day Kennel Club registered Beardies are descended, they were not, as is sometimes imagined, saving the last survivors of a dying breed. The individual dogs collected can only have been a tiny proportion of the Beardies existing at the time. Their pedigrees and even their breeders may have been unknown to their new owners but for every Bailie, Jeannie and Shaggy there must have been parents, brothers and sisters, many of whom no doubt continued to live, work and breed without the rather dubious privilege of K.C. registration.
So while the new enthusiasts were busy turning a motley collection of shaggy dogs into a standardised show breed, farmers and shepherds in many parts of Britain continued to produce Beardies of varied type;
small, fast and agile for gathering sheep on the mountains, bigger and heavier for driving cattle and moving stock in the market place and
Beardies had appeared at shows since the late nineteenth century and continued to be registered with the KC up until 1939 after which there was a nine-year gap until Mrs. Willison registered Jeannie of Bothkennar in 1948. During the 50s and 60s more Beardies were registered by inspection - that is, although their parentage was often unknown and certainly unregistered they were accepted by the KC if examined by a judge and passed as Beardies.
The KC then decided that the register should be closed and that, in
future, only dogs with two registered parents would be eligible for
entry. It is hard to understand why it should ever have been thought
necessary to close the register. It is not as though the registered dogs
had been rigorously screened to ensure that they were of a quality
superior to that of their unregistered cousins. They were not required
to undergo any tests for health, soundness or working ability and in
many cases nothing was known of their origins. Yet once they were on the register their progeny had an automatic right to registration too,
regardless of any defects they might have, and it was not unusual for
registered parents to produce puppies that were clearly not Beardies at all, so it was obvious that the foundation of the K.C. register was not
'pure'. It is even harder to understand why the K.C. today still insists
that the register must remain closed. The number of Beardies registered during the last 50 years is around 40,000 ( update 2010 - now over 100,000) - all of them descended from the same handful of 'originals'. This cannot be a healthy situation for any breed, especially since this tiny gene pool, has, over the years, been reduced still further by the over-use of some popular champion stud dogs and the ignoring of the less glamorous ( but often more typical) animals.
In a closed population with so small a gene pool, health problems
and physical or psychological defects are difficult - if not impossible
- to eradicate because they are likely to occur in all lines, Hip
dysplasia, for example, has not been significantly reduced, despite
breeders' efforts over many years, and some psychological defects, such as over-sensitivity to noise, are so widespread that many people regard them as characteristic of the breed. Auto immune diseases are one of the biggest worries today and again it is likely that the limited gene pool contributes to the problem.
.......and a solution
The obvious answer is to widen the gene pool by using some of the
many working Beardies still doing the tasks the breed evolved to do, and which, having always been bred for working ability, may well be sounder in both mind and body than dogs bred for the show ring.
The working Beardies here in Wales are small, tough, hill dogs, much lighter in build than most of the show dogs, for a heavy dog would never be able to race up and down steep hills all day. They have the coarse coat of medium length that is required by the KC standard (but usually ignored by show judges!) and, even more importantly, the correct coat on the head, allowing the face to be seen, with the 'bright, enquiring expression' which is supposed to be a 'distinctive feature' of the Beardie, but which has disappeared from the showring. (Not all working dogs have the correct coat, of course. Some are clipped because their coats are too heavy. I would not consider using one of these.)
As for character, these dogs obviously have to be intelligent,
obedient and highly responsive to the handler without being afraid also to work independently of him. They must be steady enough to concentrate on their work whatever disturbance there may be and cannot allow themselves to be upset by thunderstorms, gunfire or the screaming military jet planes that practise low flying over our otherwise peaceful hills. I have also been very impressed by the adaptability and self-confidence they show when, never having been off the farm before, they are suddenly taken to a strange place to demonstrate their shepherding skills in front of a crowd of spectators. I have seen many working Beardies do this without showing any sign of anxiety.
Of course the working Beardies are very varied and great care must be taken in selecting those suitable for inclusion in a breeding programme.
I spent several years getting to know as many as I could before deciding to use working dogs on my bitches. I found their owners very friendly and helpful and some of them were able to show me several generations of working Beardies, so I had none of the problems that faced Mrs. Willison and her contemporaries who knew nothing about their original dogs.
The first outcross dog I used was Butler's Don who, although barred
from KC registration by his working ancestry, does have many KC
registered dogs in his pedigree, most of them bred by Mrs. Betty Foster of the Bredon prefix, who has always been a keen advocate of the working Beardie. Don was already 12 years old, but still working with sheep and cattle in the mountains of Snowdonia, when he sired a lovely litter of eight puppies to my Brambledale Brighde. He reminds me very much of my first Beardies of more than forty years ago and has the same wise character - a real 'Owd Bob'.
From that litter I kept two bitches, Brambledale Brianna (Nan) and
Brambledale Briony (Nancy) who are now nearly three years old and seem to have turned the clock back for me, having all the qualities which made me fall in love with Beardies as a little girl almost fifty years ago. They are a joy to own and to train; they love to do agility and
obedience and together we have learned to work sheep. Nan gained the B.C.C. Senior Working Test Award at only two years and Nancy is not far behind.
I was so pleased with this venture that I decided to be bolder next
time and to choose a dog who would be a complete outcross, with no KC registered stock in his pedigree at all. After much searching I chose Elan Jim, a beautiful dark blue merle tricolour of excellent
temperament, working on a farm in the Elan Valley of Mid Wales. Jim
works sheep almost every day and is a real professional. On his days off
he works as a beater on a neighbouring pheasant shoot. ( This involves
flushing the birds out of the undergrowth for the guns.) How many show
Beardies would enjoy facing a barrage of gun fire, I wonder?
Jim's grandmother, Pam, had long been a favourite of mine (she
featured in my article on working Beardies in the SCBC's Millennium
Book) and after visiting his mother, father and sister, I decided that
he was the dog I wanted to use. When Nan was ready to be mated, Jim's
owner very kindly let him come to stay with us for a few days and I was
amazed at how beautifully he behaved. Like most working dogs, he
normally lives in a kennel in a farmyard, whereas our Beardies all live
in the house with my husband and I - no kennels, no cages - yet Jim was
a perfect gentleman, sharing the house with our six bitches as if he had
always been a member of the family.
Nan had a litter of six, three black like herself and three blue
merle, though without Jim's tan markings. I decided that I would keep
all three of the girls and allow only the boys to go to new homes.
These girls are now six months old and I could not think of parting
with any of them. I am already having great fun training them and they
are working their way through the B.C.C Working Tests. They all passed the Primary at four months and two passed the Junior at six. They are now practising for the Intermediate and Senior Tests. As they grow up I will have to decide what the next move in the project will be. My original plan had been to outcross for two generations to bring in some new blood and then go back to KC registered dogs, but I am so pleased with these young Brambledales that I am reluctant to risk losing the benefits that I have gained. I am already searching again for another working dog who is not too closely related to the lines I already have but who shares their virtues.
So how would I sum up the results of my outcross project? Well, it
will obviously be some years before they can be fully assessed but so
far the project has succeeded far beyond my hopes. I have certainly
achieved my main aim, which was to produce dogs of the type and
character that I had in my first Beardies more than forty years ago.
Those first Brambledales of the early 1960s all feature in the pedigrees of my youngsters today, with ten generations of Brambledales in an unbroken chain between them. In addition the youngsters carry some of the best working Beardie blood which has not only strengthened my type and widened the gene pool but has brought some bonuses I had not even hoped for. One unexpected bonus is that these youngsters have better hips than I have produced in many years of carefully selecting for low scores. Nancy and Nan have scores of 0.0 and 0.1 and Nan's three daughters, although they will have to wait until their first birthday for official scoring, have been X-rayed and look to be just as good.
Eyes are regularly tested for defects - none found so far. And -
wonderfully - none of my outcross youngsters show any sign of the
oversensitivity to noise that is such a problem to so many of the show-
bred Beardies. It is a problem that should be taken very seriously
indeed because anxiety - especially noise-related anxiety - is not only
inconvenient for the owner but also extremely distressing for the dog.
In severe cases it can make the dog's life a misery and in my experience
far more Beardies endure serious suffering as a result of noise anxiety than suffer as a result of hip dysplasia.
Ethics, Common Sense.....and the Kennel Club.....
Morally the breeder's first duty is to the puppies that he produces
and this requires that he must maximise their chances of a healthy and happy life by doing all he can to ensure that they have sound bodies
and sound minds. Breeding for show points is a trivial matter by
comparison and must never be allowed to take priority. The KC pays lip service to this principle but its position is rendered absurd by its
insistence that the first requirement for breeding 'healthy, well-
adjusted puppies' is to limit the choice of breeding stock to dogs on
the KC Breed Register. Since, as I have already mentioned, KC
registration is automatically granted to any dog with registered
parents, regardless of health, temperament or anything else, the
implication that registered dogs are more likely than unregistered to
produce 'healthy, well-adjusted puppies' is totally unjustified. Add to
this the obvious fact that working dogs must be healthy and well-
adjusted to cope with the demands of their tough lives - and the KC's
refusal to accept them seems not only wrong-headed but unethical.
Whatever characteristics are involved, the most important part of the
breeder's task is the selection of the most suitable stock. The novice
will, understandably, probably want to use lines which have already
proved successful and he may be wise to keep to the well-worn path. Many years of experience and knowledge are needed to develop the skill required to take a different route but when a life time has been spent in acquiring it, the true breeder must have the courage to trust his own judgement. In my case, I feel that I have earned the right to decide for myself which dogs will best enable me to preserve the true character of the breed I love and if this is not acceptable to the Kennel Club then the fault is in their system, not in mine. For more than thirty years, the KC has allowed me the privilege of awarding C.Cs in the breed. Twenty years ago I had the honour of judging the breed at the KC's own show, Crufts. Does it not seem very odd that today, with twice as much experience as I had then, I should not be considered capable of selecting my own breeding stock?
I believe that, by obliging experienced breeders like myself to
choose between the right to register their stock and the right to use
their own judgement to choose the best breeding stock, the KC is acting against the interests of dogs and the people who love them.
A note on Blue Merles.
There have always been merle working Beardies and it is only amongst the KC registered dogs that the colour has disappeared. ( Yet more evidence of how limited the K.C. gene pool is.) In the older breed
standards merle was listed as an accepted colour and was only dropped in recent years because no merles had been registered for so long.
Many farmers and shepherds especially like the merles, whether
Beardies or the other working Collies and some even mate two merles together, apparently without problems, although I know that geneticists warn that this can result in defects. I certainly would not put merle to
merle myself and I intend to use a black dog on my merle bitches.
A Note on KC registration
The Kennel Club will not allow any dog onto the Bearded Collie
Register unless both parents are already on that register. Outcross
Beardies, however, can be registered on the KC Obedience and Working Trials Register, which is open to all breeds and cross breeds, regardless of origin. This entitles them to compete at obedience shows, agility, working trials etc., although it does not allow them to compete in the show ring or in the 'Beardies Only' obedience classes at Beardie Club Shows. The Bearded Collie Club Working tests ( which I helped to set up in 1969) are not under KC rules and are specifically open to all Beardies, registered or not. My own outcross Brambledales are registered on the KC O and WT Register so that they can be screened under the various KC/BVA schemes for hips, eyes etc.
Dr. Lynne Sharpe August 2004
Copyright of the author.
The above article, "Changing Times," was written in August 2004 for the German magazine Beardie Revue and I also sent a copy to Dr Jeff Sampson at the Kennel Club with whom I had corresponded in similar vein for several years,not only pressing my case for the re-opening of the Register but also keeping him informed of the progress of my breeding project.
In January 2005 the Kennel Club introduced its "Consultation on the possibility of opening [the] Breed Register to certain previously unregistered dogs,"and when my article was reprinted in the Spring 2005 issue of the SCBCC's Beardie Times , I prefaced it with the following: "The Kennel Club is to be congratulated on its change of heart and the proposals seem to me to be sensible and sound. An open consultation is an excellent way of discussing the complex details which need to be settled before firm decisions can be made."
The following article, "Where We Are Now," which I wrote in July 2008, tells what happened following the KC's Consultation. It is followed by some of the correspondence on the subject of the KC's proposal to open the Breed Register to dogs such as mine.
Where We Are Now
Written July 2008
2008 has brought some interesting developments in my project of using carefully-selected stock-working Beardie dogs on bitches of my long-established ( 1962 ) Brambledale line. The new year started with the birth of a litter which is not only eleventh-generation Brambledale but also the third generation of our working-bred stock, being out of Brambledale Breeze and sired by Lester, a young working Beardie from Llangollen.
Puppies from Breeze’s litter by Lester
Pedigree of Brambledale Blodyn, Breezanna, Bubbles etc born 28/1/2008.
Pedigree of Brambledale Blodyn, Breezanna, Bubbles etc born 28/1/2008.
Meanwhile, Breeze’s litter brother in France, Brambledale Black Bob, owned by Pierre and Martine Gsell (and known to everyone by the pet name ‘Wolfie’ that I gave him as a puppy ) also became a parent for the first time with the birth,in Germany, of a lovely litter to a German-bred bitch owned by the Grosser family.
Puppies from Skye’s litter by Wolfie
This litter was planned back in 2005 when the Gsells and the Grossers happened to meet when they were all visiting me to collect their puppies from Brambledale Brianna’s second litter by Elan Jim. The Grossers came by camper van, bringing with them their two charming Beardie girls, Lesley and Skye, to take home a bitch puppy, promptly named Enya by their daughter Laura. The Gsells were to collect Breeze, chosen on an earlier visit. But everyone fell for little Wolfie and Christiane Grosser suggested that he would be an ideal future mate for Skye, so after a lengthy discussion between the two families, it was Wolfie who went to France with the Gsells while Breeze stayed at home with me.
As Wolfie and Enya grew up their owners embarked on the lengthy process of tests, assessments, hip X-rays and documentation required for registration with their respective Kennel Clubs and in December 2007 Wolfie was granted registration with the French K. C. in good time to welcome Skye when she visited him in March.
‘Wolfie’ – Brambledale Black Bob Photo Gsell
Then came news that the German K.C. had accepted Enya. The Grossers hope to have a litter from her eventually but at present she is much too busy enjoying agility with Laura.
Brambledale Black Enya
Another training enthusiast from Germany, Carolin Kupper, who visited us in 2006, had to wait two years before I could offer her a puppy. It was with great excitement that she collected Brambledale Bubbles, one of Breeze’s daughters, at Easter this year.
Brambledale Bubbles at 5months.
So the working-bred Brambledales have a bright future in Europe. But what of the situation in Britain, the breed’s native home?
Those who read my 2004 article, 'Changing Times' will remember that the Kennel Club was willing to accept dogs such as mine under a scheme similar to that in Germany, requiring rigorous examination of each dog for type, health, temperament and so on. Readers may also remember the reaction of the Bearded Collie Club committee (correspondence reprinted below) when the proposal was put forward for consultation. So furious was the onslaught that a shocked Kennel Club decided to put the proposal on hold.
So we are left with a bizarre situation in which working Beardies --- surely the truest representatives of this native British breed--- are recognized by European Kennel Clubs but not by the British K.C.. Even more bizarre is the fact that, because the British K.C. has reciprocal agreements with other countries, the working-bred Brambledales now registered in Europe—or their progeny-- would be automatically accepted by the British K.C. , were they to return to this country! If I wanted my Beardies to be recognized by the British K.C. the simplest plan might be to spend a few months with them on the other side of the channel and put them through the European registration system before returning to Britain to automatic K.C. acceptance.
But I have no such plans. I have already achieved my aim of re-establishing the type of Beardie that I first fell in love with more than fifty years ago and the nine working-bred Brambledales who share my life today are the happiest and healthiest of dogs with a character that is a constant delight and wins them friends and admirers wherever we go. They are so intelligent, eager to please and quick to learn that what we do together can hardly be described as`training’--- I simply give them the opportunity to learn. They love to entertain visitors and to demonstrate their many and varied working abilities. But perhaps our most important achievement is the elimination of the over-sensitivity to noise that causes so much misery to many Beardies and their owners.
With the temperament of the "steady, intelligent working dog" required by our breed standard, my Beardies (and I!) are able to enjoy a happy and relaxed life of freedom without kennels,cages, or even leads, whether at home or away. We seem to be managing very well without official approval!!
Footnote: Although I am no longer interested in having my dogs accepted on the K.C. Breed Register, I continue to register them on the Activity Register so as to qualify for the K.C. /B.V.A. hip- scoring and eye- testing schemes. Our hip scores range from 0:0 and 0:1 to a ‘worst’ of 3:4. Rigorous eye screening includes the examination of every puppy at seven weeks old, followed by regular re-examination of all adults. No defects have been found so far.
All the sires that I have used are registered with the Working Bearded Collie Society, as are all the Brambledales.
Copyright Dr Lynne Sharpe
Previously published in Beardie Times Autumn 2008
For those interested in the details of the BCC's opposition to the opening of the KC Breed Register to dogs such as mine, there follows some of the correspondence published in the BCC magazine, 'The Bearded News'.
In January 2005, the Kennel Club published its " proposal on the possibility of opening the breed register to certain previously unregistered dogs" and asked that "interested parties" submit their views by March 31st 2005. The full text of the proposal is available on the KC's website, and was also published in "The Bearded News" in May 2005, followed by the BCC committee's reply, reproduced below.