100 Years of Coursing
Greyhound Nation: A Coevolutionary History of England, 1200-1900
By Edmund Russell
Cambridge University Press
ISBN 978-521-76209-0 Hardback
ISBN 978-521-74505-5 Paperback, 202 pages
The Greyhound and the Hare: A History of the Breed and the Sport.
The National Coursing Club
YPD Books York, U.K.
Hardback, 552 pages
It is surely unique that a single breed can occasion two major, authoritative books in the same year; the Greyhound has that distinction. Both books follow the history of the Greyhound in the British Isles. Russell’s work covers the period of 1200-1900, which includes much of the rural hunting as well as coursing history, and extends into the early days of dog shows. Blanning’s work covers mainly the period of the 18th to 21st Centuries, which include almost the entire coursing under rules period and extends into the early racing era, including chapters on the export of competitive coursing to countries outside the U.K.
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 those whose breed this is, and for the Sighthound (lure) coursing enthusiast, these two works, specifically that of Charles Blanning, is a lot more than ‘micro’ history; it is in many ways ‘our’ history.
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 the outsider in the field of hunting and coursing Greyhounds, and to a certain extent it shows.
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 National Coursing Council. Born to a scholarly, Greyhound-breeding and training family, he could be thought of as the ultimate insider.
Russell's Greyhound Nation is a slim 200-page, dense, black-and-white volume — a provocative read. It has the appearance of being written as an undergraduate student, 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 consulting primary and secondary sources of literature from the medieval period onward, through historic commentary, club documents and breed biographies, on its function as hunting and coursing cultural artefact.
This work will reward historians in general; more importantly it will challenge breed specialists’ idea of the Greyhound breed and its function. It will also question how we Sighthound enthusiasts and our breeds continue to mould and change each other. Some of what's written here on dog-type and breed has been touched on by the historian Harriet Ritvo, zoologist Juliet Clutton-Brock, and more recently by Worboys, Strange & Pemberton in The Invention of the Modern Dog, but whether Russell’s argument will ultimately convince biologists of the same calibre that it is a valuable contribution to the science of evolution, is, I believe, doubtful.
THE MOST INFORMATIVE GREYHOUND HISTORY EVER
Blanning'sThe Greyhound and the Hare is a massive, 550-page work full of fine art and photography that 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, to the background of the changing history of England, the financial and entertainment industries of enclosed coursing (which has much to inform modern lure-coursers) into the opening history of 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 to finally end the sport of coursing in the U.K. by 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 revelation that Russell had researching his work is the error of the notion that the modern fancy encourages unchanging breeds, something I have long thought of as the illusion of permanence. Here he terms it statue theory. This false notion of permanence is driven by the advent of modern kennel clubs, the dictates of 19th and 20th Century breed standards and closed stud books. Breeds, or more accurately types, have through time changed and will continue to change. We cannot see a given Sighthound without seeing the environment in which it has been fashioned, an environment which it may have helped to fashion — particularly, for instance, in enclosed coursing, or the cultivated areas that house its coursing game.
Greyhounds and other Sighthounds change due to the selection pressures applied to them by their environment, their prey, their breeders, even their lure coursing — and then, of course, more markedly their conformation shows. (See, for instance, the recent proposal to include for the first time size instead of weight in the AKC Greyhound breed standard, uniform with that of the FCI, which appears to be an attempt at accommodating exaggeration of the breed to 30 inches. Raise high the barn doorframe; everybody knows the horse has bolted!)*
* The FCI standard specifies that the Greyhound male should have an ideal height of 71-76 cm (27.9-29.9"), a Greyhound female of 68-71 cm (26.7-27.9") but does not list a weight. The AKC standard lists a weight of 65-70 pounds (29.4-31.7 kilograms) for a dog, 60-65 pounds (27.2-29.4 kg) for a female but includes no size measurements. - Ed.
Russell’s intent with his model of co-evolution is to demonstrate how these reciprocal pressures adapt people’s behavior too. Sighthound Review’s very existence is an example of that. Blanning’s work is a more historically accurate and certainly more entertaining narrative of this, both in word and sumptuous art, but then unlike Russell’s book it is of course not intended to build a scientific model.
We credit the Roman Greek, Arrian, with his Cynegeticus (first English translation: “On Coursing,” by Dansey, 1831) for being the first European to report the novelty of the sighthound (vertragus, a dog-type which until then was unknown to the ancient Greeks and Romans) and the sport of coursing, introduced into Europe by the Celts, shortly before or around the beginning of the Christian era. Blanning illustrates Arrian’s work with coursing scenes on Roman-era urns found near Hadrian’s wall. Now we have recent archaeological proof (the Vindolanda wooden tablets) from that time and place that colonizing Roman troops actually mention the vertragusin writing. Therefore we may infer the presence in the North of England of an early Sighthound, possibly the Greyhound predecessor, from then 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 anywhere in the British Isles (Irish Wolfhound and Scottish Deerhound mythologists, please note!). So, for roughly a thousand years, from the Roman occupation on, the Greyhound-type and its use spread across Britain unchecked by any law until the opening period of Russell’s work in 1200. Norman ecclesiastics then predated, by forgery, the introduction of Royal Forest Law back to King Cnut in order to legislate a “traditional” prohibition of the use of deer-hunting dogs in the vicinity of the newly created Royal Forests — including “Those dogs that the English call Greyhounds” — the earliest known use of the word Greyhound.
PROHIBITION FROM OWNING ANY HUNTING DOG
Introduction of the English Game Law (1389) then prohibited all people from owning or using 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 Englishcoevolution — which continues into the show world — in which he poses that historical change is evolution, and the selection processes provide opportunities which can change the evolutionof 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’s classic hunting manual which concerns scenthounds only.
There are other minor blemishes: the early hunting rituals described were primarily for scenthounds; Greyhounds were not used to drive or track game; and the Continental “wind” in windhond/windhundis etymologically derived from the name of the Wenden, the Illyrian Slavic people, not from “the wind.”
Less minor are his exaggeration of the influence of the infamous bulldog cross to the Greyhound, and particularly that old canard that early enclosed coursing had no escapes for the hares, a major fault which has haunted coursing. It is particularly well corrected by Charles Blanning in describing Thomas Case’s invention in the late 1870s of enclosed coursing and his mastery in the care of hares.
However, with enclosed coursing we see the beginning of criticism that would finally lead to the abolition of open field 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.
Predating Dansey’s first complete translation of the Cynegeticus by some fifty years, an English excerpt was published by Blane in his own Cynegetica, accompanied by the Somervile poem The Chase, which contained a striking curse by the foxhound huntsman on coursing, casting the longest shadow:“A different hound for every different chase/Select with judgement, nor the timorous hare/Over-matched destroy, but leave that vile offense/To the mean, murderous coursing crew, intent/On blood and spoil. …”
Published in 1735, this curse also predated the first private Greyhound coursing clubs of the late 1700s. It illustrates in actual fact the gentry’s extreme displeasure with poaching, which was by any definition illegal. Somervile could at the time not have known Arrian and his stated purpose of coursing as a Greyhound contest which was not intended to kill the hare. However, as a well-read country squire he should have been acquainted with Turbervile’s detailed commentary and explanation of the sport and its rules dating from 1576. 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 other “gentlemen” of the time, coursing with Greyhounds was a noble pastime on the level of falconry — fur on fur, feather on feather.
EVERYTHING YOU WANTED TO KNOW ABOUT WORKING GREYHOUNDS
Everything you wanted to know about working Greyhounds and coursing is contained in The Greyhound and the Hare. It is an encyclopaedia of the breed and 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 then of course enclosed coursing.
In Blanning’s work we have commentary, too, but better informed, and better written, on the changing face of coursing and the changing type of its dogs. That change in conformation was dictated by geography, the variation in regional coursing grounds. By the time we get to Altcar in the 1830s, 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 English Greyhound.
Blanning 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 illustrated color portraits — some of the finest Greyhound art. The journalists and authors who have informed us from that time, recording and creating the changing image of the breed and the sport are all there, too: Walsh, Cox, Hall, Dalziel, and more.
The celebrity coursing judges are introduced, 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. Those judges might have been amused by modern lure coursing, but they certainly would be able to impart words of wisdom on creating lure-course layout, judging courses objectively (although some apparently still did it subjectively, by impression), selecting coursing puppies, and some of them even going on to judging show Greyhounds. We will not know their like again.
Here, too, there is the discussion of judging, how it is done, and done well, the subjective inattentiveness of the crowd, which challenges the judge’s decision against their favored individual, their distance from the runners and the oblique angles that distort their sight in comparison to the “objective” judge close by on horseback. I was reminded of the age-old question: What allowance should be given to a dog that “falls while striking”? The sensible answer is, of course, “Allow him to get up.” (Please note, FCI lure-coursing judges, who reward muzzled dogs for flinging themselves at a stationary lure!)
Present, too, are the great founders and benefactors of the sport of coursing, including some of the most striking characters in the period when racing was developed with the help of coursing Greyhounds. Racing so quickly and so successfully became a popular industry at home and abroad, also contributing to another type of Greyhound. The chapters on the export and development of open-field and enclosed coursing to the U.S., as well as Australia, Russia and even France, will, I suspect, be new and rich material for many readers.
These readers will be struck by much fascinating detailed information in this book. Some examples:
- the extremely high monetary value of some of the Greyhounds 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 the 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 (see the famous Wimbledon white track-hare, Gracie — the first bouncing squawker);
- the early track dogs alternatively being used on the track and coursing field;
- the advent of doping;
- the suggestion that hurdles on the track were placed to focus the dogs on running cleanly;
- even to the use of three judges for each course in Dodge City at the hugely popular American 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 Greyhounds from long, protracted and potentially lethal runs (by overheating) in the open country. It encouraged the initiation of young dogs, ultimately rewarding sprint-type dogs of larger size, and also unfortunately the lurcher behavior of running cunning. Almost any behavior 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, due to a lack of space, too short runs in cramped and circular lure-course layouts, and a lure that never disappears. All of this is aggravated by allowing three dogs to run together; one too many — don’t do it if you don’t have to.
With reference to training and conditioning, one particular comment by Charles Blanning strikes a deep chord with me: the remarks illustrated with a photo of the hill farm where the great 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, pp. 99-100, 103.)
In this day of the helicopter-parenting of children and pets, 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 — cultural-deconditioning— which is harmful for the natural athlete, the Sighthound.
The Greyhound and the Hare, a remarkable history told in a single entertaining voice, finishes with a timelineof U.K. 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, all the winners of the Waterloo Cup (with coat color and breeding) and a very thorough index. I missed a bibliography, but knowing that there has been much “hard reading” behind this work, including all the historic books, stud books, periodicals, sporting, regional and even local press, I suspect it would have added another half-pound to the existing seven pounder. As the author remarks on the Facebook page dedicated to this book, “Don’t read it in the bath!” It will educate your eye to recognize, and hopefully never forget, what a classic working Greyhound is, as opposed to the show variety.
At the time of writing there are 100 books left of the original edition, with no second edition in sight, but as this book has such major and permanent value to the breed, I wouldn’t rule that out.