Author Archive for David Harcombe

Alpha Male and the Dogs Home Crowd!

Our season usually starts very slowly for us diggers and this year is no exception. I should be used to it but I never fail to panic and imagine all sorts of reasons to be pessimistic. Few foxes – nothing like the old days – too much shooting by day and by night – hardly worth keeping terriers – little chance of them having enough work to show their ability. It all goes through my mind but then I look back to recent years and the proof is there, this season is no different to others, it’s the way of things, normal state of affairs in our country. It will all come right in a week or two, it will improve. And although these days I’m just happy to be out with the hounds it still doesn’t cheer me up. And then the first fox goes to ground, the first dig to a young bitch and the world is a much better place. And to make it even better, another dig on the same day to the brother of the young bitch and both did what they were expected to do. Both entered well and completed their first, not very testing work in a manner which pleased us and gave hope that they would prove themselves. And to make it even more unusual for me, the terriers were Borders aged 17 months and for both, this was their first time to ground. Cant be bad.

Katie digs to her first fox

Katie digs to her first fox

Regular readers will know that in May last year Chipper, following up on something he mentioned some years earlier, offered me a bitch pup, free of charge, from a litter he had bred up in County Durham. I didn’t really want another terrier for I had told myself that at my age I must start to reduce my stock by not replacing the old timers as they left the scene but I took Chipper up on his kind offer and decided that a little Border bitch pup would be ideal to take with me during the summer months when I do a fair bit of walking. From my experience with the breed some forty years ago I remembered that I could take eight or ten of them out over the mountains and through the forests and at the end of the day they would usually still be with me or not too far away. Especially the bitches for I remember Sally, one of my best workers, and one or two others would hardly ever leave my side unless we crossed some good scent and they would often be right under my feet, almost tripping me up. I like to walk with the dogs running loose, no need for leads, free to run on and run about without having to worry about them chasing sheep, causing trouble with other dogs or simply disappearing. I can’t do that with most of my black terriers, they just deaf me out and off they go. Steve, who puts this mag’ together for us decided that he wouldn’t mind having one and so in July he drove me up to Durham and we came home with two nice little pups, healthy and strong. I had chosen a lively little bitch which I called Katie, all she had to do was walk with me sensibly and if she also came to do a bit of work that would be a bonus. Steve selected a dog which he named Guto after a famous old time Welsh road and fell runner. Steve does a lot of running himself and the plan was for Guto to run with him and also to be a ferreting dog with some occasional ground work if it happened to chance along. As the months passed by our plans would start falling apart!

Katie. Job done!

Katie. Job done!

Katie turned into a keen ratter and Guto showed that he wanted more than ferreting, in fact, he would probably have just killed a ferret and as time passed he proved not quite suitable as a house pet; he needed work. And Katie would just run off into the forest and return when it suited her. It didn’t suit me! But both seemed to be willing to work and Guto, in particular had developed into some animal. He was all dog, a superb specimen of a Border and the only dog I can recall with the same Alpha Male attitude was Jason’s great worker and producer, Samson. There was also an “Alpha Female” type from long ago called Tess but that’s not quite in the same class as an Alpha Male!

Alpha Male – a young Samson

Alpha Male – a young Samson

Guto and Katie both started work this same day, Katie in the morning, Guto an hour or so later. I would love to have kept Guto but he’s far too much of a dog for me to handle at my age. I’m too weak for him! I just wish I had him in my kennel forty odd years ago when I had some decent Border bitches but spent my time mating them to working pretenders in the breed. Both of them impressed on their first outings and were full of promise and it will be interesting to see how they go in the months ahead. Both are blue and tan and on the big side according to the Kennel Club breed standard but I’m not concerned about that. All I would like is to see them progressing to acceptable standards as workers. If Guto was smaller he would be a hell of a dog in a show ring for he seems to have everything going for him from his great powerful head to the tip of his carrot tail. I would expect him to produce quality pups. He needs a working owner who knows dogs and knows how to handle such a determined, fiery character and he now has one. His new owner couldn’t quite get used to the name Guto, a Welsh name, pronounced Gee as in geese, toe, or Gut as in — gut— o. He said a more appropriate name would be Conan, as in Barbarian! I told him that he could call him whatever he liked – he would take no bloody notice! Alpha Male – but he will learn that his new owner is the boss!

Tess – Alpha Female!

Tess – Alpha Female!

And as if that wasn’t enough I now have a little Jack Russell bitch in the kennel? What’s going on? My friends couldn’t believe it! Thought they were seeing things! I couldn’t believe it myself! My dog box in the van has three compartments and at one meet I had a Border, a black dog and the Russell; and Pipey said I only needed a Lakeland for the full set! Rhodri said it looked like a van from Battersea Dogs Home! The young men of today – no respect for us old buggers! Here’s how it came about.
Eddie Chapman rang me one day recently and asked me if I knew anyone who would take a young Russell dog, aged thirteen months and, in his own words, “busting for work”. It would be free of charge, the only condition that it had to go to a reliable, knowledgeable working owner who knew Russells. I thought I knew just the man and after contacting TC, he said he would take him. He had immediately come to mind because I knew his old Russell dog Spot had been a special dog by any standards and he had never replaced him and I knew that any dog with TC would have a great chance to work and develop his full potential. He would live on a hill farm in great country and he would spend much of his time with TC and his Lurcher and Collie around sheep, cattle and all sorts of wildlife. A sort of paradise for a young terrier. TC can handle animals, he’s a hunting man, a dog man, he knows what he’s doing, I rate him a top countryman. Look on the internet and you will see a short video of a fox he once reared from a cub which used to round up the sheep with his Collie; and his current Collie at just a year old is already hunting and finding foxy.

Guto – powerful head

Guto – powerful head

We arranged to make the long trip to collect the dog but now there was another condition, we had to take a bitch, a month younger and if possible keep them together. TC didn’t want the bitch but maybe his mate Harry would try her. When we arrived the pair were not immediately impressive, the dog had a long hairy coat and the bitch seemed a bit shy and on the frail side and when we got back to Wales she ended up with me temporarily for Harry didn’t want her. TC sheared the dog the next day and, as we had suspected, underneath all the hair was a decent looking Russell type and within a day or two he was catching rats. This left me with the little bitch and fortunately she immediately settled in with Katie so she would be no trouble until I found her a good home with someone who would treat her well and give her a chance to work. For she was now my responsibility and I had promised Eddie just that. Easier said than done.

Guto – Alpha Male

Guto – Alpha Male

Two weeks later she was still with me, a lively little thing, very active and with that intelligent expression which many Russells have; she was quite happy and got along with all the other dogs and I thought that if I had to keep her she could be the one to walk with me in the summer, obedient and sensible and also have a chance to show what she was made of. So I took her to a meet and no sooner was she out of the van than I had an order for a pup and I could have passed her on immediately! And people were taking notice of her. And all the years I have had my black dogs, many great workers, only those who know a digging dog ever took any notice of them! I had been told she was inclined to be a bit shy but she walked among us, took no notice of the hounds, pricked up her ears when she heard the horn and the music of a full cry, and just seemed to be at home with it all. She was a little bit reluctant to come to hand but that will improve. Of course my digging friends have all laughed at her, “snipey faced so and so” etc., but I’ve just told them to wait till later in the season when vixens are killing lambs to feed their cubs in tight little mouse holes! Perhaps they think I have finally lost it, old age has taken its toll but I just look on it as a bit of an experiment. After so many years of watching and owning some great Patterdales I know the score!

Spot

Spot

I have all the working dogs I want at the moment, terriers that suit my stage of life just now, easy for me to handle, my foxing bitches Rags, Bones and Dixie; together with the other lads’ dogs they will do all we ask of them. Nothing will be lost by carefully running on the Borders and the Russells alongside them if that’s how it turns out and if, by next April, I can report favourably back to Chipper and Eddie then I will be well pleased. And if a season of work manages to calm Katie then I may be able walk through the woods and over the hills in the summer with a sensible Border, sensible Russell and sensible black dog trusted and running loose. Just as if I had collected abandoned strays from Battersea Dogs Home! The Border would be Katie, not Conan. He could still well be the Alpha Male who pleases himself.

Tired of Living

No, not me, I’ve not quite reached that stage yet!
But it’s a condition that many an old working terrier arrives at. They seem to suddenly grow weary as if life has at last become a burden to heavy to bear. Sometimes it’s just a temporary, fleeting condition and they come through it in a day or two but when the old bones really can no longer carry the load comfortably then you can usually tell by their attitude and behaviour that they are not going to be with you for much longer. Dogs can’t speak to us but they certainly communicate through their body language. We listen to them through our hands and our eyes.
Dido has been ailing for months now but she just seemed to plod along without too much bother. On the cold winter mornings when the younger dogs just bounced out of their sleeping boxes, full of energy, she would lie on a while “waiting for the streets to air” before she would decide to have a look about the dog run to see what the new day would bring. If she didn’t think much of it then she would go back into her box and curl up. And so she saw out the winter.

She started the warmer months well and would stretch out full length in the sunshine and if it became too hot she would move to a shady spot. She was enjoying life. But there had been ominous signs for many months in the shape of the lumps along her belly and teats. The vet said she could have the complete udder removed but that would not guarantee that the cancer had not, or would not spread through the rest of her body. Anyway, I would not have put her through that ordeal at her age so it was just a matter of keeping an eye out for her, keeping a look out for any sudden enlargement of the lumps and seeing that she was not in pain or suffering. I don’t let them suffer when there is going to be no improvement.
Like Peggy just a month or two ago, her throat started to swell and she was forever retching as if a bone or something had lodged there and she would take much longer to eat her food. A course of tablets from the vet didn’t improve things. I thought her throat was closing up for she sometimes seemed to be choking. But still she didn’t seem in any real bother and would walk about the yard, tail up and reasonably happy with her lot. And then it all changed.

The weight started to drop from her, her tail drooped and rarely wagged though she would do her best to greet me in the mornings. I noticed that it took a real effort for her to get into her sleeping box and she started to fail on her food, eating less than half her usual measure. When she walked slowly to meet me her front legs were held wide apart as if the shoulders had expanded, as if she couldn’t stand their movement against the lumps, which had now definitely enlarged. She was a favourite of Irene’s for her super friendly, sensible temperament but the time had come. The drawn features and general demeanour told its own tale. I had been hoping she would slip quietly away in her sleep but that didn’t happen. Really I suppose I should have done it sooner but I wanted to give the old girl every chance; now it couldn’t be put off any longer. Irene had gone down the town.

As I carried Dido, wrapped in one of my old hunting sweat shirts, to her last resting place, where most of the other heroes lie, a neighbour pulled up and must have had a bit of a shock when he saw me for these things hit me hard. I couldn’t speak to him, just walked past him but after I had seen her laid close alongside Peggy I told him what I had been doing. He probably then understood or he may not have but that’s the way it is with me.

So that’s the last of my old sloggers gone. I doubt if any of my current crop will see the amount of work which my old timers got through in a lifetime. I never really realised just how much Dido had done. She just got on with it and the digs mounted up over the years and always she worked in the same steady way, always seeming to have another gear ready to go into but rarely actually needing it and always getting the result. Certainly she deserves to rank alongside some of the dogs I have considered to be great, well above average. She came to me from Jason “on loan” to help me out for a while but he never asked for her back and I knew that he wouldn’t; like many of my others, she was with me to stay.
Just a couple of memories from her last few years; a fox had been marked to ground in a decent place and I entered Dido at the strongest mark. She went in a few feet and started to dig on and we opened to her at three feet. To a rabbit! A few followers laughed. Who could blame them? But I just took her out and let her wander about and soon she was in to ground and baying well and it looked like a decent dig would be needed. I was on my own. I knew the bury, it had proved difficult over the years. And as I made a start Murphy turned up and took over and saved me. He dug the old bitch to a good lamb killer.

And at another killing call out we ended at a hell of a place where you can practically bank on a hard hour or so. It’s a place where foxy will very often bolt and this day, pouring with rain, that’s what I hoped would happen. There were pieces of lamb and feathers scattered about the entrance so the chances are that we had found the killing culprit and it would not be good if it bolted and got clean away. The guns would have to be on their toes for at this place foxy would be out of the bury and away into trash in a blink. Fortunately there was a good crowd of diggers there and Dido was found at about five feet, baying well.

The youngsters got stuck in. I shouldn’t call them that, they are grown men now but compared to me they are youngsters and as the rain continued to pour down they just got on with the job, marked out a big enough area and dug down giving themselves plenty of elbow room to work in. “Keeping the sides straight” as JP never fails to instruct though he wasn’t there that day. They opened to Dido at a junction with tubes going in all directions and found Dido with the vixen and after sorting that out the old bitch then went up various tubes finding the well grown cubs until at last she was satisfied that she had accounted for all of them. It’s called pest control. It keeps farmers happy at lambing time for a vixen with hungry cubs to feed can soon run up a good number of dead lambs.
I was very pleased with the old bitch that day. She was so steady and thorough, she showed what years of experience can bring to the job; she just got on with it knowing what was needed and not stopping until she knew there was nothing left to do. But I was also very pleased with the diggers for I knew that the future of the pack was in good hands. I have been living here for more than thirty years now and in that time have rarely had any local young followers with a real interest in terrier and hound work and I often wondered if the young generation would keep the legacy of their fathers alive. Kids would come and go and rarely stick at it. There are so many other things on offer these days. I don’t have to worry now for I saw that day that the future of the pack was in safe hands and that these young men would make their own memories with their own terriers, lurchers and hounds.

Perched on the back of a quad bike, Dido was no trouble inside my coat. March 2011

Perched on the back of a quad bike, Dido was no trouble inside my coat. March 2011

The picture shows Dido under my coat on the mountain five years ago in March 2011 and as the day wore on I got steadily weaker clinging on to a quad bike until at last I asked Rhodri to take me back to my van which was parked at the farm where we had met, a few miles away. By the time I made it home that day I would not have bet on outlasting Dido though she was even then a veteran for I was in the middle of a bad patch, hard years for my health but we never know what is in front of us and gradually I improved. Pleasure and pain: Another good old bitch has gone leaving behind good memories. It’s all there in the world of working terriers just as it is in life itself.

And there she is on the cover of the latest volume of A Terrierman’s Life, Volume 6. Typical Dido. Her usual no bother attitude, “Job Done. What’s all the fuss about?” The fuss is about you old girl.