Early attempts at reform
A solo effort to reform the breed club, the Clumber Spaniel Club, began soon after James Darley became a member in the late 1970s. As the solitary member devoted to the Clumber as a working gundog, he quickly perceived how the club, dedicated as it was to the show ring, was wedded to the prevailing show type – oversized, exaggerated, bolshie and unsound, particularly in hips and eyes – all characteristics at odds with the requirements for the field. While breeding for the show ring, leading members were selling stock to owners wanting to work them, with claims that “Of course they work”. To the extent that working owners had no alternative source, this was true, but their needs were not represented at all in the type perpetrated.
James Darley made himself an unpopular figure, writing articles and addressing annual general meetings on the subject of health and the enduring qualities of the breed that were
being ignored in a blinkered quest for glory in dog shows. Showing, of course, disregards any characteristics beyond the superficial other than movement. In Clumbers, this was defined in the KC breed standard as “a rolling gait”, and given the size of most specimens that were favoured by judges (many of them exhibitors themselves of course), this might just as well have been “roly-poly gait”.
In the end, it proved impossible to persuade the club to do more than pay lip service to practical gundog work and its demands of the breed. Soon after Shaun Freke and James Darley set up a working section, interference by the club’s establishment amounting to sabotage forced them to determine that the breed’s revival, its true needs and those of working owners could only be served by a new organisation, and in 1984 the Working Clumber Spaniel Society (WCSS) was set up.
It has not looked back. In the period since, the breed club has become more dual purpose, and should be credited for that. There are also encouraging signs at last that the show type animal is beginning to be less extreme: while mature specimens, to judge from Crufts 2014, display the damage done to the breed by a focus on the show ring, and remain largely unchanged in terms of size, exaggeration and impracticality, many of the younger examples give hope that soundness, function and fitness are getting the priority they deserve. The influence of the demands of the field is welcome, adding to the improvement in the breed's mean hip status which has come almost entirely from working lines.
As early as 1993 the WCSS had already achieved so much, and had proved so influential in every measure of improvement, that James Darley was able to give a presentation that year on the society's role to an international symposium in Sweden on the future and health of the Clumber spaniel.
Hip scoring in Clumber spaniels
In the early 1980s, James Darley, concerned about the evident problems of over-large dogs and hip dysplasia (erosion of the ball and socket joint) in Clumber spaniels, attempted to persuade the breed club, the Clumber Spaniel Club, to take a position in reducing weights and combating a condition which caused pain and disability in individual dogs, and led to euthanasia in extreme cases. Breeders were neither taking active steps to tackle hip dysplasia (HD), nor warning buyers of puppies about its prevalence. The show ring was the primary interest of the club’s members, and that arena placed minimal strain on a dog although good movement is one of the criteria judged. In the field, freedom from arthritic damage is obviously vital if a working dog is to lead a long and active life and repay the investment in its training, while extra weight saps energy and stamina.
Prior to the club’s AGM in the spring of 1982, where he proposed to speak, James Darley asked the leading canine geneticist, Dr
Malcolm Willis of Newcastle University, to write a paper responding to the proposals the Kennel Club had at that time, influenced by breeders of over-sized show Clumbers, to revise the breed standard to encourage higher weights. The Kennel Club had already raised the weights in three previous revisions of the standard during the 20th century. What it proposed effectively doubled the breed’s size from what it was in the early 1900s, when Clumber spaniels were highly regarded as working gundogs and pre-eminent in field trials.
The paper Dr Willis wrote was presented at the AGM and, perhaps inevitably, rejected. “What does he know about Clumbers?” was one comment. So the breed club did not want to know. Nor did the Kennel Club, which in due course, defying the expert advice of Dr Willis and the robust recommendations of the newly-formed Working Clumber Spaniel Society, introduced its new breed standard, with greatly increased weight definitions.
Meantime, James Darley arranged with Dr Willis to extend his recording and analysis of the hip scoring scheme, pioneered in German shepherd dogs, to Clumbers. Early results showed that the breed had the worst average score (44) of any breed of dog. The Kennel Club showed no interest in the scheme until, many years later, with health issues in pedigree dogs starting to become a risk to reputation, it adopted the identical model as the KC/BVA scheme. Since then, while more than 750 Clumbers have had their hips scored, the breed average, which had obstinately remained over 40 for two decades, reached 35 by the end of 2010. In the same period, the typical hip scores of Clumbers of working bloodlines have dropped to single figures or low doubles, and there have even been two specimens with zero scores. This demonstrates that it is working Clumbers that have brought the breed average down, while show-bred Clumbers have probably improved little if at all.
The creation of the Working Clumber Spaniel Society
The movement to restore the largest breed of native spaniel was transformed from the passion of a handful of individuals by the creation of the society. Since 1984 it has been bringing a brave new world to this old working breed. Its aims – and soon its achievements – were to offer sportsmen the kind of Clumber our great grandfathers respected, the dog that dominated early field trials a century and more ago.
A dog radically different from today’s typical show animal. Maybe half its weight. Bred to be free from worthless exaggerations: from eye troubles you can see; from hip and other problems you can’t. A sharper dog, spirited, responsive, kind and keen to please.
An unlikely-looking working spaniel, that’s true, even when solidly purpose-bred for many generations. But one with drive, its own style, and a nose on which reputations are made. A healthy, efficient, valued game finder – for those not afraid to be noticed. Fired-up and fulfilling its traditional role as a beating or all round hunting-retrieving spaniel, a dog as indispensable to its master as it is unforgettable for his companions.
Once more a gundog in more than name alone, the Clumber is benefiting from the safe hands and sure voice of shooting people working to enrich their days with a rare breed that is physically and functionally sound, and can prove it.
The society (more...) is the forum for the expression and exchange of views of working Clumber owners, world-wide. It is the focus for interest in the breed and has attracted much attention from sporting and general news media in the UK and around the world. And, through its programme and influence, it is the force behind the breed’s revival as a genuine gundog bred to be fit for the field.
James Darley was responsible for the society’s original objects, positioning, financial strength and communications, and served as its secretary for the first 12 years.
He reported on its role, and the successes and influence achieved in its first ten years, to an international symposium in Sweden in 1993.
The Kennel Club as hindrance
For the organisation that loudly claims its primary objective is “to promote in every way, the general improvement of dogs”, the Kennel Club has some funny ways of showing it.
• The KC originally declined to register the WCSS until bowing to the inevitable after a long delay when it was made apparent that legal action was being considered.
• The KC declined to accept the WCSS’s constitutional objects until modified to remove its overt distancing from the breed standard.
• The KC brought in a new breed standard in 1986, greatly increasing weight, in spite of the WCSS’s stated opposition and the evidence of the UK’s leading canine geneticist that it would cause damage. This was the fourth increase in weight in the breed standard in less than a century, each change made at the behest of the show fraternity, and each disadvantaging the breed in terms of health and function.
• The KC originally opposed the introduction of the hip scoring scheme, which was developed by the German Shepherd Dog League, then adopted by the WCSS with the support of the British Veterinary Association, and only later co-sponsored with the BVA by the KC.
• The KC broke its own rules by an arbitrary decision, without consultation, to omit awards, gained at the kind of field trials primarily featuring Clumber spaniels, from the Stud Book, the annual official record, which motivates owners to compete for recognition and provides an independent source of data for would-be breeders.
• The KC again took an arbitrary decision, albeit with considerable opposition from the working spaniel community alerted to the implications by the WCSS, to alter the rules of field trials open to all spaniel breeds, restricting them to English springers, thereby removing the opportunity of higher levels of competition from the owners of Clumber and other minority breed spaniels and
disincentivising them in their aspirations.
Although the KC allows dog clubs no other body to represent them, imposes rules on them to agree to this, and restricts the abilities of clubs and individuals to participate in activities it has not sanctioned (and charged fees for), the Office of Fair Trading and parliamentarians seem unable to see beyond its status as a member organisation. It has been pointed out to them that the only members of the KC are a few hundred people who have served their time and kept their noses clean long enough to be allowed to put their muzzles in the communal feed bowl. They enjoy fine dining and other London club privileges which effectively make the organisation resistant to change and keen to preserve an unregulated flow of revenue that allows the few to be subsidised by the many (the owners of seven million dogs in the UK). Until someone wakes up to the abuse of the monopoly permitted to the KC, the situation is unlikely to improve.
The Stud Book issue
Early in 2000 James Darley discovered during a visit to the Kennel Club’s library that “minor breeds” trials and the awards gained in them had ceased to be recorded in the Stud Book after the 1998 edition (covering the 1997-98 season). A KC official confirmed that the recipients of such awards were no longer receiving a Stud Book number.
This unprecedented discrimination, motivated it seems largely out of resentment in the KC’s corridors and committee rooms at the media attention gained by those undeserving upstarts with Clumber and other minority breed spaniels, posed a significant handicap to the movement to improve these breeds in the field by impoverishing the journal of record to publish only show awards and by denying field trial award winners any recognition of hard-won achievements vital to an objective demonstration of working quality.
As a campaign mounted to object to the move, led by James Darley on behalf of all four minority breeds, a “concession” was made by the KC in 2001 whereby winners of a first place would qualify for inclusion. It did not seem to occur to the KC to work out how to record a first place for a field trial that itself was not recorded! Neither of these steps had been taken with any prior consultation.
The issues raised and their implications were described by James Darley in a letter published by Country Illustrated, November 2001.
As the campaign continued, James Darley was able to show the KC that its intentions were flawed, the changes made were disallowed by its own rules and (using research of the Stud Book itself) that its arguments were baseless. A letter went to 60 members of the KC Field Trial Liaison Council (representing 115 field trial societies) to brief them and ask for their support in restoring the pre-1998 status quo. At its meeting in May 2002, with just two objections, the council overwhelmingly did just that.
A meeting of invited delegates followed at the Kennel Club in August. Sensing that it was looking for a face-saving formula short of the Liaison Council’s resolution, James Darley firstly put on record his intention to make a formal complaint about the KC, its committees and members, to its own disciplinary process; he secondly rejected, on pain of leaving immediately, the request from the chairman for the meeting to be subject to rules of confidentiality.
The happy outcome was a notification from the KC in November 2002 that all its changes were to be reversed, all missing Stud Book content would be published as an erratum together with an explanation. After three years and a huge distraction in terms of time and effort, all aims had been achieved.
The “any variety” issue
It was not long before the Kennel Club, while attempting to justify itself as acting from “a genuine wish to assist”, had its retaliation. Again, without a word of the consultation it had previously promised would accompany future proposed changes, and timed to bypass the meeting of the Field Trial Liaison Council which the year before had rejected the KC’s alteration to Stud Book entry and insisted all spaniel breeds be treated equally, it decided to restrict any variety Open stake field trials to English springers only.
In its genuine wish to assist the minority breeds, it closed the door for these breeds to compete at the highest level, creating a disincentive for able and experienced handlers to adopt them.
James Darley wrote numerous letters and briefings, for the WCSS and on his own behalf. As a summary of the main arguments, the letter published in The Field, July 2003, serves as a record.
Breed standards + welfare issue
When BBC television aired a documentary on the breeding and health of pedigree dogs in August 2008, implicating the Kennel Club as colluding in the serious deficiencies it highlighted, the whole issue rapidly escalated into a national scandal. Given the consistent record of the Working Clumber Spaniel Society in challenging the Kennel Club over the breed standard, and the improvements in health achieved in the working lines, the society had a great opportunity to reinforce its positioning as the guardian and champion of the breed.
James Darley was no longer on the committee, but prepared a strategy with fully elaborated tactics and texts for the society to use. Unfortunately, the committee failed to appreciate the advantage to be gained, and failed to adopt any of the recommendations. In that vacuum, James himself picked up the baton, briefing journalists, the BASC and the Secretary of State’s special adviser at DEFRA, writing articles and letters for publication, and providing written and later verbal evidence to the Associate Parliamentary Group for Animal Welfare.
Examples of texts and media coverage can be seen here.
Shooting Times, November 13, 2008
The Times, December 17, 2008
Spaniels in the Field, Winter 2009
Shooting & Conservation, Jan/Feb 2009
APGAW evidence, Jan 2009