Fieldsports Guide to Gundogs

Super Sealyham terriers

seelyham terriersOver the past couple of years, countryside author and journalist Jeremy Hobson has fallen in love with working Sealyham terriers.

(Photograph: Nick Ridley)

Where better to be than a Dorset chalkstream on a glorious Sunday morning in August? For most, those words would immediately conjure up an image of a softly meandering waterway, a few native brown trout made temporarily stationary by the hypnotic fanning of their tails, and an abundance of insect life busily going about their business.

And so it was when I meandered my way along the banks of the River Allen, a perfect glistening, gentle stretch of England’s best as it headed towards its confluence with the River Stour at Wimborne Minster.

I was not, however, alone – nor, as might be expected after such a build-up, had I a trout rod in my hand and a landing net at my back. Instead, I was in the company of several couple of arguably Britain’s best working Sealyham terriers; their owners Harry Parsons and his partner Gail Westcott; our hostess Sophie Alexander and her family – and a couple of dozen ardent followers... together with several locals who wanted to know more.

As a writer and journalist, I know the basics of reporting. ‘Who, why, what, and where’ are the first and very essential components. ‘Where’ has already been partially covered, but it perhaps needs more explanation as to why we were there as guests of Sophie at her organic Hemsworth Farm – 1,000 acres or so of prime Dorset farmland and wonderfully managed conservation area.

Actively involved in the Innovative Farmer’s group (tea as compost being a current initiative), she and her estate manager are equally active when it comes to the welfare of wildlife in the fields and along the banks of the river that passes through the farm.

Innovative though some of their methods may be when it comes to farming, the estate is also home to a more traditional way of rural life: the Alexanders and friends fish the river for brown trout (on a catch and release basis), there’s a (very) small and occasional family shoot, plus – as evidenced by the various hunt jumps about the place – the local hound pack (the Portman) are made welcome during the season. 

It was, then, possibly a mixture of inquisitiveness about working Sealyhams, a wish to control unwanted rodents likely to upset the natural equilibrium, together with an interest in hound work and hunting in all its guises that caused this glorious eclectic gathering on this particular August morning.

Originally from north London, Harry and his partner Gail have, together with their terriers, been based in Devon for two decades. Always an enthusiastic fan of terriers of all types, Harry is extremely knowledgeable (there’s possibly none more so) on the matter of working Sealyhams and, apart from being the founder of the Working Sealyham Terrier Club, has collected more than enough books, written records, pedigrees and photos from the past to be able to set up a national collection and archive.

With around two dozen Sealyhams and Sealyham/Jack Russell cross terriers in kennel, he and Gail can quite frequently be found either out and about ratting or rabbiting, or – perhaps more importantly, given the relatively parlous status of the breed (just less than 100 Sealyham puppies were registered with the Kennel Club in 2015) – acting as extremely successful ambassadors for Sealyhams of the working type at many summer game fairs and agricultural shows.

The ‘cuteness’ factor very definitely helps their cause; hence the reason that, at a show, their distinctive red/pink gazebo canopy – under which are usually several sprawling ‘pick-me-up-and-tickle-my-tummy’ canine attractions – gains such attention from the general public. With such an image in mind, it’s easy to forget that these dogs are, at the drop of a hat, working animals.

Although the fact that not all of the pack are actually pure-bred Sealyham terriers, some of those that are, are registered with the Kennel Club, a situation which can only be good news  when it comes to expanding an otherwise diminishing gene pool.

Despite the restrictions of the 2004 Hunting Act, certain aspects of it permit the hunting of rats and rabbits with a pack of dogs – be they a scratch pack of family pets, hounds or terriers. Harry and his pack are, therefore, on ‘call-out’ whenever and (within geographical reason) wherever, their services might be required. Ridiculously, that bane of all river wildlife, the non-native and extremely invasive mink, can only be controlled by certain methods when it comes to hunting with dogs.

ratting with terriersSo it was that Harry, Gail and their terriers, plus an ardent fan base of working Sealyham supporters (some of whom had travelled over two hours to be there), all met on this particular August morning – and were greeted by Sophie and members of her family. Despite a late night as a result of a party the evening before, they could not have been more bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, nor their words more welcoming.

In the manner of many lawn meets, port, sherry, sausages and fruit cake were handed out and appreciated by all in almost the same way that others, at the same time on a Sunday, may well have been receiving church communion!

After mentioning that we would be hunting within the law as far as the Hunting Act dictated, Harry explained that the main plan was to explore the river for rats (but, during the day, we did, en route, take in the odd barn and other likely holding places) and we all loaded up into vehicles from the meet in order to drive down to the first draw.

Following the Sealyhams on foot is, it must be admitted, nowhere near as arduous as trying to keep in touch with either a mounted pack or, as I love, being out with hounds on the Cumbrian fells. Nor was it like being with the beagles that surrounded me as a toddler and to whom I whipped-in as a teenager. It did, though, very much remind me of my days with the otterhounds along the banks of the rivers of Wales and North Yorkshire in my youth – and, to use modern jargon; “what’s not to like” about spending sunny, late-summer days on the riverbank with like-minded people and delightful dogs?

working terriersSo, how did we get on (and I don’t mean relationships between the terrier pack and other casual canine companions – neither do I mean the camaraderie amongst enthusiastic and like-minded followers)?

Although few of us had ever met before that morning, such is the community of working dogs, hounds, terriers and hunting, it wasn’t very long before there was the inevitable ‘coffee-housing’ as Harry and his ‘whip’ for the day, Mark Warnett, encouraged the Sealyhams into the water and under the cover of the riverbanks.

Leading by example when it came to getting into the water, Harry worked his pack beautifully. They diligently explored all likely cover and paid particular attention to woodpiles – on occasion, getting their audience very excited indeed. As to the oft-held belief that some terriers don’t like getting their feet wet unless there’s a very good reason for doing so, this predominantly wire-haired, broken-coated band of riparian canine hunters had no such qualms!

Unlike traditional hunting with hounds – where followers with dogs are requested to keep back – some were brought to the fore and actively encouraged by Harry to join the pack: “Let her off... she’ll be fine” is not normally something one would hear a huntsman say! Mind you, it must be admitted that some of the followers’ terriers had been bred by Harry and Gail and so he knew they would mix in an appropriate manner.

Not wanting to disturb areas where protected water voles might frequent, or disturb pairs of swans with part-grown cygnets, it was sometimes necessary to lift the terriers and move them on to a more appropriate place and, all too quickly, after several hours of mooching and pottering, we were back at the cars where, much to our general appreciation, Sophie brought out beers and cake!

Some did, however, almost miss her generosity. A few followers (and their terriers) decided to hold an impromptu hunt of their own in the hedgerow and, as we supped our beer, we could see bouts of frenzied activity in the distance. When they did eventually join us, it was to report a singular lack of success.

But, no matter what the outcome as far as our success or otherwise in reducing the local rodent population was concerned, no-one present could admit to anything other than having had a thoroughly enjoyable day in a beautiful part of Dorset and, as we thanked our hosts and headed towards our cars and home, there was much talk about when we might all meet again. The general consensus was that it should be soon! 

A busy evening

One evening, Harry and his team of 17 Sealyhams had a particularly memorable experience, when they killed 480 rats at a local chicken farm in under an hour. By the end of the night, they had accounted for over 1,000 rats!

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