Asked whether lure coursing might be a suitable (and hopefully temporary) substitute to keep the English and Irish Greyhound bloodlines going, he [Sir Mark] expressed the view that the jury is still out on that possibility, and that it may take a second, post ban generation of Greyhound owners before that will be known. He was disappointed by how ‘cunning’ some of the dogs were in cutting corners.
“Sir Mark Prescott: an Extraordinary Sportsman”, John Parker. The Performance Sighthound Journal (3) 2. 24-26 2006
The ban that Sir Mark referred to is the 2004 Hunting Act of the UK prohibiting the hunting of (most) mammals with dogs, in particular for us, coursing of hares with dogs.
The ban appears to leave behind a moral paradox by forbidding the hunting and killing of a hare with any dogs and yet still allowing the hunting of a rabbit with up to two dogs. Sadly we have lost the argument that no sighthound leaves a wounded hare hidden on the field - as so often happens with shotgun hunters - and that controlled coursing is indeed more selective and protective of game animals by promoting selection for fitness than traditional largescale seasonal shooting.
John Parker of the USA asked if I would like to write a “review” of the The Greyhound And The Hare, by Charles Blanning (a book which I now find out has its own Facebook page) and as I had just received a copy of Greyhound Nation by Edmund Russell, and was struck by the fact that 2018 saw the publishing of two really unique breed books on the Greyhound, I impulsively agreed – but more importantly, because I was deeply impressed and grateful for John’s generous and persistent fight to defend coursing in the UK. Also, as I found out from the acknowledgement to him by the author, for his constant support during the creation of The Greyhound And The Hare.
Reading these two books back to back has been a consuming and enlightening experience. Charles Blanning is a lifetime Greyhound correspondent for the Irish and British breed and coursing press, for nearly twenty years he has been both Keeper of the Greyhound Stud Book, and Secretary of the NCC. Born to a scholarly, Greyhound breeding and training family, he could be thought of as the ultimate insider.
Edmund Russell is Professor of History at Boston University, researching the interaction of people and nature, and how they shape and change each other. A winner of the Rachel Carson Prize for his PhD thesis, he has promoted the field of environmental history, the history of technology, and most recently
innovated coevolutionary history. As such, he is in the field of hunting and coursing Greyhounds, the outsider, and to a certain extent it shows.
Both books follow the history of the greyhound (in my usage, the dog-type) Greyhound (in my usage, the breed) in the British Isles. Russell’s work covers the period of 1200-1900, which includes much of the hunting as well as coursing history, and Blanning’s covers mainly the period of 18th to 21st centuries which includes almost the entire coursing under rules period and the birth of the racing era, including fascinating chapters on the export of coursing to other countries.
Both works could be considered a form of microhistory, with the Greyhound being the artefact, the unit of scale, which illustrates broader issues, sport, law, agriculture and livestock breeding, social history, industry and commerce, technology, evolution and the environment – except to us as lure coursing enthusiasts their work, specifically that of Charles Blanning, is a lot more than ´micro´ history, it is in many ways ´our´ history.
Greyhound Nation is a small 200 page, dense, black and white volume - a provocative read. It appears to be written very much as an undergraduate reader using biological definitions such as co-evolution, adaptation, habitat, niche, meme, to build a model of evolutionary history which clarifies the reciprocal
effects of greyhounds and their owners on each other. This involved a deep trawl of literature on the breed, its function as hunting and coursing cultural artefact. Some of this ground has been prepared, for example by the historian Harriet Ritvo, and zoologist Juliet Clutton-Brock, but whether it will convince
biologists of the same calibre that it is a valuable contribution to their science, is I believe doubtful. It will however reward historians, and challenge your idea of breed, function, and how we continue to change each other.
The Greyhound and the Hare is a massive, 550 page work full of art, photography and light - which will propel the reader through the most informative Greyhound history ever, from the advent of coursing under rules through the rise and fall of private and public coursing, the changing history of England, the
financial and entertainment industries of enclosed coursing (which has much to inform us as lure coursers) and then racing. Charles Blanning credits his academic historian brother for proving that history “may be written vividly and amusingly”; he has himself, I suspect, outstripped his sibling. Sir Mark Prescott’s foreword to this work, recalling that it has taken almost four decades of political and civil hostility in the UK to end the sport in 2005, remarks that if in a century’s time a student were to pose the question “What on earth was coursing anyway?” they would find the answer here, in “what must surely be the best book ever written on the greyhound.”
A singular realisation that Russell had during his research is the fallacy of the notion the modern Fancy encourages of unchanging breeds, something I have long thought of as the illusion of permanence. Here he terms it statue theory. This false idea of permanence is driven by the advent of modern kennel clubs
and the dictates of 19th and 20th century breed standards. Breeds, or more accurately types, have through time changed and will change. We cannot see a given sighthound without seeing the environment in which it has been fashioned, and which it may have helped to fashion – particularly in the environment of enclosed coursing or cultivated areas that supply its game. Greyhounds and other sighthounds change thanks to the selection pressures applied to them by their environment, their prey, their owners, their lure coursing - and then of course their conformation shows. Russell’s intent is to demonstrate how those (reciprocal) pressures adapt people’s behaviour too. Blanning’s work is a historically more accurate narrative of that, both in word and art, which is not intended to build a scientific model.
We credit Arrian, from his Cynegeticus, for being the first European to report the novelty of a sighthound, the vertragus, (until then unknown to the Ancient Greeks and Romans) and the sport of
coursing, which even then was not considered as hunting, being introduced into Europe by the Celts. Blanning illustrates Arrian’s description with two Roman era Nene Valley ware urns found near Hadrian’s wall. We now have recent proof from archaeology (the Vindolanda tablets) of the same period, that Roman troops in that vicinity actually mention the vertragus in writing. So we may infer the presence in the North of England of an early sighthound, possibly the greyhound predecessor, from that time on. Systematic zooarcheology by Harcourt (1974) confirmed by Clark (2000) confirms that in the early Iron Age nothing resembling a sighthound skeleton has been found in the British Isles (Irish Wolfhound and Deerhound mythologists please note). That allows a period of roughly one millennium from the Roman occupation on, for the greyhound and its use to spread across Britain unchecked by any law, until the opening period of Russell’s work in 1200 when Norman ecclesiasticals, with a fine piece of forgery, predate the introduction of Royal Forest Law back to King Cnut in order to prohibit in their own time the use of deer-hunting dogs in the vicinity of the newly created Royal Forest - including “Those dogs that the English call Greyhounds”. With the introduction of English Game Law in 1389 that becomes a prohibition for all people anywhere, to own or use any hunting dog, including greyhounds and lurchers, unless qualified by property and income – hence Russell’s use of the term for their owners as the One percent or the Patricians.
Briefly, Russell partitions the historic periods of hunting with hounds, which he skews to greyhounds, from the extreme prohibition era (Patrician) to the private coursing under rules era (Transitional) to the period of public coursing after the repeal of the prohibition in 1831 (Modern). He painstakingly builds his model of English coevolution, which continues on into the show and lure coursing world, in which he poses that historical change is evolution, and the selection processes provide opportunities which can change the evolution of both dogs and humans. It is challenging and provocative material, marred by the
fact that the examples of early hunting with hounds he uses are neither specific for the English, nor specific for greyhounds. The characteristic hunting traits of dogs and the housing kennels which he attributes to the early translator/author Turbervile are neither English, nor designed for greyhounds; they originate from Turbervile’s predecessor the Frenchman du Fouilloux and concern scent hounds only. There are other blemishes, mostly minor: the early hunting rituals described were primarily for scent hounds, greyhounds are not used to drive or track game, the Continental “wind” in windhond/windhund is etymologically derived from the Illyrian Slavic people, the Wenden, not from “the wind”; less minor are his exaggeration of the influence of the infamous bulldog cross, and particularly the old canard that early enclosed coursing had no escapes for the hares, a major fault which would haunt coursing and which is particularly well corrected by Charles Blanning in describing Thomas Case’s invention of enclosed coursing and his mastery in the care of hares. However,
With enclosed coursing we see the beginning of criticism which would finally lead to the abolition of coursing in England in 2005. It provided opponents of the sport with the central
myth of cruelty, that hares were let out of boxes for greyhounds to kill while spectators bet on which dog would kill the hare. Blanning, 226
Predating Dansey by some fifty years, an excerpt from Arrian was published by Blane in his Cynegetica, accompanied by the Somervile poem The Chase, which contained a striking curse on coursing (bottom of p223) which has cast a very long shadow. Some of us will recognise an echo of that verse in “(Different) horses for (different) courses - different hounds for different grounds.” That curse was first published in 1735, earlier than the recorded private coursing clubs, and suggests the gentry’s extreme displeasure with poaching, which was in any case by definition illegal. Somervile almost definitely did not know Arrian and the purpose of a contest which was not intended to kill the hare, but as a well-read country squire he should have been acquainted with Turbervile’s explanation of the sport and its rules. Both Blanning and Russell find common ground in suggesting that a classic work from antiquity, Dansey’s translation of Arrian, would be used to provide status or an apology for the sport, but for others of the time coursing was a noble pastime on the level of falconry – fur on fur, feather on feather. See for instance Osbaldiston’s opening on Coursing, “a recreation in great esteem with many gentlemen.”
I have not done sufficient justice to Russell’s work perhaps because I have been hindered by its pedantic tone, the repetition, and it’s cluttering up of single endnotes with a farm of reference titles - this piece is after all a personal reaction not a formal review, and it is directed to the lure coursing enthusiast not the
Similarly I find it difficult to do justice to Blanning’s work - but in his case for fear of being effusive.
Everything you wanted to know about coursing is contained in The Greyhound And The Hare. It is an encyclopaedia of the sport, so well put together in its layout, art content and design, that it is an untiring pleasure to read. That is no mean feat for a work that covers so much history in such depth and detail. From the earliest beginning of the sport in England, Scotland and Ireland, through the periods of private coursing clubs, public coursing, and of course enclosed coursing - about which he is kinder than most authors (see bottom of p166).
In Blanning’s work we have a commentary too, but much better informed and better written, on the changing face of coursing and the changing type of its dogs dictated by the variation in regional coursing grounds, so that by the time we get to Altcar of the famed Waterloo Cup and the flat open agricultural
fields with coverts or escapes to help reduce running time, the varied regional greyhound types of England have almost come together in the modern, smooth coated Greyhound breed.
He introduces the great, the good and the eccentric coursing Greyhounds, how each ran, up to and including the racing days, their owners, breeders and trainers, in the most informative way many of them with one or more graphic portraits. The journalists and writers that have informed us from that time creating the image of the breed and the sport are all there too Walsh, Cox, Hall, Dalziel and more. The celebrity judges are there, some exemplary characters, with great integrity, and physiques to match – as a rule they were on horseback, often for several days in harsh weather. If the ground was too soft or rough to allow that, they would be on a stand - as lure coursing judges should be too.
Courtesy of Charles Blanning
They might have been amused by lure coursing, but certainly would be able to impart words of wisdom on creating lure course layout, judging courses objectively (although some apparently did it subjectively, by impression), selecting coursing puppies and even judging show Greyhounds – we will not know their like again.
Here too in all the mention of judging, how it is done and done well, the subjective inattentiveness of the crowd that challenges the judge’s decision against their favoured individual, their distance from and the oblique angles that distort their sight in comparison to the objective judge close by on horseback,
we are reminded of the age-old question: what allowance should be given to a dog that “falls while striking.” The sensible answer is - one should allow him to get up. (N.B. FCI lure coursing judges who reward muzzled dogs for flinging themselves at a stationary lure!)
The great founders and benefactors of the sport of coursing are all present too, including some of the most striking characters in the period when racing was developed with the help of coursing Greyhounds, which so quickly and so successfully became a popular industry at home and abroad. The chapters on
the export and development of open field and enclosed coursing to the USA, as well as Australia, Russia and even France, will I suspect be new and rich material for many readers.
They will be struck by so much fascinating information: for instance the extremely high monetary value of some of these dogs at sale or for auction even as puppies and saplings, the effect of different grounds creating different greyhounds, the varying regional hares - even the odd three-legged one, the origin of
the slipper and judge’s scarlet jackets and the modern slips, the huge crowds at the turn of the century and later with very large sums of money changing hands, the invention of the Tin Rabbit or artificial hare which ultimately gives us lure coursing dating from as early as 1876, to the later patenting of the real
track hare in the USA, for instance the famous artificial track hare in the UK, Gracie – the first squawker, on the early track dogs reverting to the coursing field then returning to the track, the advent of doping, the suggestion that hurdles on the track were placed to focus the dogs on running cleanly - to the use of
three judges for each course in Dodge City at the hugely popular enclosed coursing field, signalling their winner with flashing red or white light signals!
Enclosed coursing has much to inform lure coursing. As a more controlled environment it protected dogs from long protracted and potentially dangerous runs in the open country, encouraged the initiation of young dogs, ultimately rewarding sprint type dogs of larger size, and also unfortunately the lurcher behaviour of running cunning. Almost any behaviour that you have seen in the lure field, anticipation, stopping, running off field, the at times sheer wackiness of individuals, has all happened on the coursing field. The much misused term “cheating” is essentially the anticipation to run cunning which we train our dogs to develop, thanks to a lack of space, too short runs in cramped and circular lure course layouts, a lure that never disappears. All of which is aggravated by allowing three dogs to run together - don’t do it if you don’t have to.
With reference to training and conditioning, one particular comment by Charles Blanning struck a deep chord with me - the remarks illustrated by a photo of the hill farm where Fullerton was reared as a pup,
It is arguable that the greyhound has declined seriously in quality since the traditional method of rearing disappeared. … “Reared with full liberty”wasn’t just an empty phrase in those days. The puppies were let loose to run the whole day on the fells, chasing everything that came their way up and down the hills. … The hard weather made hard dogs. … The puppies would have the run of the moors all day and would sleep in the outbuildings at night. Blanning 99-100, 103
Another down-to-earth piece of advice from a modern track veterinarian,
During the period from six weeks to 12 months, the puppies should be galloped in a large area; 2-20 acres at least every second day or daily. The critical period is from 6 weeks to 6 months for subsequent performance on the race track. The galloping must be on flat to undulating country and not up and down hills. During this period it is advantageous to allow the pups to course rabbits. Half a dozen rabbiting trips is all that is required. You will lose the odd pup with a broken leg or neck, but the pups need to acquire the ability to swerve, avoid obstacles, and change pace. This ability will be of immense help later in their racing career. Unless you are prepared to take this risk with the puppies and also the time involved then don’t bother rearing greyhound pups as they will have no chance of making the grade when it comes to racing. The successful breeders are going back to this technique of rearing greyhound pups, which was used by their grandfathers when coursing was the only form of the sport, long before track racing was introduced.“Greyhound Management” PE Davis , from Refresher Course for Veterinarian. Proceedings, No. 64. University of Sydney. 34:237-252 1983
In this day of the helicopter-parenting of children and dogs, all breeders and owners need to be reminded that daily voluntary exercise, from a young age, is an absolute necessity for normal physical and mental development and growth. Too much caution leads to physical neglect - culturaldeconditioning - which is really harmful for a natural athlete such as a sighthound.
The Greyhound And The Hare, a remarkable history told in a single entertaining voice, finishes with a Timeline of UK greyhound history from the Roman age to the date of coursing prohibition, a Glossary with explanation of coursing and judging terms, a listing of all the recorded coursing clubs with their dates, and all the Winners of the Waterloo Cup (with coat colour and breeding) and a very thorough Index. I missed a bibliography, but knowing that there has been very much “hard reading” behind this work including all the historic books, studbooks, periodicals, sporting, regional and even local press, I suspect it would have added another half-pound to the existing seven pounder – as the man said, “Don’t read it in the bath!”
(Here at Fern Hill, we read it on a music stand.)
Please don’t be distracted by the flash (or fizzle) of all the internet links. If you have got this far you are a serious coursing or Greyhound enthusiast – and you need this book!
I hope it will educate your eye to recognise, and remember, what a working Greyhound is, as opposed to the exaggerated Show one. Richard Hawkins
Photo, Fall. Vesey-Fitzgerald “The book of the dog” 1948